[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on Greenpeace founder, writer, and Very Merry Man, Robert Hunter.]
That sounds like Bob, all right, with only the infectious little hehheh- heh chuckle missing at the end. But that’s only a tiny part of this guy’s life. Let’s try to do better, raising awareness of a man who would have been an icon in many other countries, but who was much too Canadian to take himself seriously, even when Time magazine in 2000 named him as one of the century’s Top Ten Eco-Heroes. Others on the world list — like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau — are probably better known all over Canada than he ever was.
His life began normally enough in Winnipeg, although he and the education system did not always play well together. After a spell of this and that, this man who would gain fame for jousting gallantly with the law fell afoul of it. He was jailed in Flin Flon for — brace yourself — selling encyclopedias without a license. Soon he was working as a nineteen-year-old journalist at the Winnipeg Tribune. According to Martin O’Malley, a colleague there who watched him with admiring amazement, “he regarded journalism as a respectable way to run off with the circus.” He devoured books, serious books, by serious thinkers. “Hunter read the way most of us breathed,” said O’Malley. And he wrote, too. In 1968 he brought out his first novel, Erebus, with M&S in Canada and Grove Press in the U.S., and a promising career as a novelist beckoned.
But by this time Bob had moved to Vancouver, where — besides introducing blue jeans to the Vancouver Sun newsroom — he was astounding solid citizens as the first counterculture newspaper columnist in the country. Three times a week Sun readers were exposed to his column, headed by his outrageously long-haired photo. But in addition to peace and love and other hippie staples, he was able to introduce really subversive new ideas, including the belief that the air and the water and the land around us are important and deserve to be protected. “Bob Hunter Writes as If Your Life Depended on It” ran one full-page Sun ad.
Given that approach, Bob took a dim view of the U.S. government’s 1971 plan to explode a nuclear bomb at Amchitka Island in Alaska, which is — as the tsunami rolls — only a short distance from the British Columbia coast. In the wake of the 1964 Alaska earthquake, many B.C. citizens were alarmed by the planned explosion, and some even formed a “Don’t Make a Wave Committee.” As things developed, the group, including citizens like Jim and Marie Bohlen, Irving and Dorothy Stowe, and Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, decided that it would be a good idea to head off the nuclear explosion by sailing a ship into the test zone.
With money raised by a concert featuring James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs (hey, this was big stuff), the fishing boat Phyllis Cormack was leased, and set sail from Vancouver in September. That ship would later get a more familiar name: the Greenpeace.
And among the twelve men on board was the Vancouver Sun’s Bob Hunter, writing up a storm.
The U.S. authorities made sure that the boat never got near the test, but the publicity generated by the grand gesture created such a storm of protest that the nuclear testing program at Amchitka was abandoned.
Now Bob had the bit between his teeth. He could see how wit and daring — and publicity — could allow protestors to confront and beat the authorities, and in due course Greenpeace was formed, with Bob as the founding member and first president. Nobody in the organization was taking notes about who thought of this idea first, or invented that policy, and since success has many fathers, there are differing accounts of the early years at Greenpeace. I like the simple tribute paid by Paul Watson on Bob’s death in 2005: “Without Bob there would have been no Greenpeace.”
That would be the Paul Watson, skipper of the Sea Shepherd who in the famous photograph is standing on an ice floe with Bob Hunter, shoulder to shoulder, hand in gloved hand, their backs turned to the sealing ship charging straight at them, confident, like the lone Chinese protester facing down the tank, that they can will it to stop. They did.
Nowadays, of course, Greenpeace is a huge international organization. Its German arm, for example, is housed in a $35 million building. As Bobbi Hunter, Bob’s widow (who, he boasted, was descended from Vikings) recalls, this is a little different from the $50 rent that they paid in the early days in Vancouver, long before there were even salaries. But any time Greenpeace does something brave or clever or media-attracting (and deciding to put their nimble zodiacs between the whales and the harpoons of the whaling ships is all three), I hope that they remember that the policy was established by a laughing guy from Canada with a great sense of mischief.
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Greenpeace.