Fifty years ago this Sept. 15, I set sail with 11 other men for Amchitka Island in Alaska to stop a nuclear weapons test. We didn’t stop the test but we did give birth to Greenpeace.
Like most Canadians in the ’50s and ’60s, I had grown up terrified there would be a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In a blinding flash, we would all be vaporized. What was the point of a job? Why worry about a career? After school, I moved west to Vancouver looking for a life that had more hope and purpose. I wanted to be part of work to build a better world.
I wasn’t the only one. As Bob Hunter says in the book, Greenpeace to Amchitka, that he wrote with Robert Keziere, Vancouver “had the biggest concentration of tree-huggers, radicalized students, garbage dump stoppers, s—t-disturbing unionists, freeway fighters, back-to-the-landers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, and anti-spraying, anti-pollution marchers and picketers in the country, per capita, in the world.”
And then there was the United States, testing nuclear warheads in Alaska on Amchitka Island, on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. For 25 years, many people around the world had worked to end the use of nuclear weapons. Inspired by the Quakers, some of us in Vancouver decided to sail a boat to the test site to ‘bear witness’ to this destructive behaviour.
Many helped to make it happen. People sold buttons, signed petitions, donated money. And 10,000 high school students from greater Vancouver walked out and gathered at the American Consulate to demand the test stop. Women on shore, kept off the boat by the sexism of the time, organized vigils and media contact for the four journalists on board.
Help also came from unexpected places. The crew members of the US Coast Guard vessel, The Confidence, whose commander was telling our captain we had entered the USA illegally, gave us a letter stating: “We the crew of The Confidence feel what you are doing is for the good of mankind and if our hands were not bound by these military bonds, we would be with you 100 per cent. Good luck.” They signed their names. Even the U.S. military men and women were against the bomb.
Tens of thousands supported us. People in the U.S. took the government to court to stop the test. Canadians closed the Canada USA-U.S. border across the country. Although the bomb test went off on Nov. 4, 1971, the people had spoken and in February 1972, the U.S. government quietly cancelled the remaining five tests. We had made progress, although much still remains to be done.
Today I am a father and a grandfather. In the North Okanagan and the Shuswap, it has been a summer of record-setting heat, drought and fires and smoke. People died from the heat. Fire destroyed life in large parts of the forest. The houses of many, often those most vulnerable, burned. All of us were ready to flee. We are emerging from this together. We have fought fires and given generous support to those who have had to flee.
We show time and time again that we care deeply for each other. There is much to be hopeful about. The City of Vernon has a Climate Action Plan. The vision of the plan is, “By 2050 Vernon is a leader in climate action, with no net greenhouse gas emissions, and resilient to the changing climate.” We have begun reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and preparing our community for the impacts of the already changing climate.
We need the senior levels of government to join us with a similar vision.
The next five to 10 years are critical. There is no longer any ‘soon’ for climate action. There is only ‘now.’ One important, hopeful thing we can do is in this federal election is to vote on Sept. 20 for climate champions who will join us on the road to net-zero and resilience.