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Greenpeace co-founder Jim Bohlen, seen in 1990, first called the group the Don't Make a Wave Committee. (Dennis Bueckert/Dennis Bueckert/The Canadian Press)
Greenpeace co-founder Jim Bohlen, seen in 1990, first called the group the Don't Make a Wave Committee. (Dennis Bueckert/Dennis Bueckert/The Canadian Press)

Obituary

Jim Bohlen was a co-founder of Greenpeace Add to ...

Although Jim Bohlen's voyage to Amchitka Island, Alaska, in 1971 was the result of a snap decision, it sparked the creation of the one of the world's most influential environmental organizations, Greenpeace.

The idea for the impromptu trip came from Bohlen's wife, Marie, in 1970 while the couple's friends Irving and Dorothy Stowe were over brainstorming.

Bohlen, Stowe and a university student named Paul Cote had formed the Don't Make a Wave Committee in Vancouver in October, 1969, to protest against American nuclear testing in a wildlife refuge in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. In the wake of the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, they were fearful the testing would trigger other earthquakes and possibly a tsunami. The question was, how to make the most impact?

 "I just very casually said, why don't we take a boat up to Amchitka and sail a ship," Marie Bohlen remembered. "Not long after that, we were sitting there and the telephone rang. It was the [Vancouver]Sun and they wanted to know what we were going to do."

 Bohlen told the reporter, "We are going to sail a ship to Amchitka."

 "Of course we had no ship of any kind, but then we had to make do on what he had said," Marie recalled.

 The committee held a benefit concert in Vancouver featuring artists including Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs to raise the money to charter a boat.

 In September of 1971, Bohlen set sail from Vancouver with 12 men headed for Alaska aboard the fishing boat Phyllis Cormack, later renamed Greenpeace. The ship was detained by U.S. authorities before it could get to Amchitka. A bureaucratic delay by the American government created a further impediment to reaching Amchitka and the crew made the hard decision to turn back. Another boat, the Greenpeace II also attempted a run to Amchitka, but it was 700 nautical miles away from the island when the bomb was detonated in November, 1971. The publicity around the Greenpeace, however, incited a public outcry about the nuclear testing program in Amchitka and it was abandoned in 1972.

The expedition was a groundbreaking success, said Rod Marining, who sailed with Bohlen on what would become Greenpeace's maiden voyage.

"There was just so much awareness brought to this situation and it definitely ended the nuclear testing in the Amchitka. There was just no way politically possible for Canada and the United States to get along with each other on that issue. It had reached its pinnacle," he said.

 Several of the younger members of the Amchitka voyage renamed the committee Greenpeace in 1972.

 "I don't think at that time we were thinking this was going to be a giant international organization, but we did believe that we could actually impact global policy," said Greenpeace pioneer Rex Weyler. "We were aware that if we had the right idea and if we did it well and executed it properly that we could effect international policy."

 Jim Bohlen died on July 5 on Vancouver Island, at the age of 84, after a battle with Parkinson's disease.

 He was born on July 4, 1926, in New York and moved to Pennsylvania as a teenager. After high school, he flirted with a year of university before joining the U.S. Navy's radio technician program in 1944, in the final year of the Second World War. Naval service eventually took him to the Pacific Rim and then to Japan on a vessel clearing sunken warships from Tokyo harbour after the Japanese surrendered.

After being demobilized in 1946, he completed his engineering degree at New York University and became interested in fiberglass reinforced plastics and the pioneering work of R. Buckminster Fuller on geodesic domes. About this time he married his first wife, with whom he had two children. After they divorced in 1964, he married Marie Kaufmann.

He worked as an engineer for the Hercules Powder Company, which produced parts for the military, but as the Vietnam War escalated, Bohlen rejected any involvement in the weapons industry and eventually quit his job.

Vietnam also forced the family to make other changes. When his stepson Paul became eligible for the draft, in the very same war that the family was protesting against, the Bohlens decided to move to Canada in 1967. They settled in Vancouver where they continued their environmental and peace activism, which ultimately led to Bohlen boarding a ship headed to Alaska in 1971.

Weyler, a young draft-resister, met Bohlen in Vancouver the following year. He said Bohlen helped bridge a generational divide among social activists and demonstrated how to take issues seriously.

 "Greenpeace had this very radical image. Jim was the antithesis of this. Jim was someone who was logical, reasonable, smart, careful, even conservative in his approach to social action," Weyler said. "This quality of a mix in generations and this quality of this older, wiser, conservative element within Greenpeace actually was an important counterpoint to the more radical ideas of social action and social change."

Marining was a young radical and a veteran of direct action in Vancouver in the 1970s. He said Bohlen's presence on the trip demonstrated there was a role for an older generation in environmental activism.

"When we got on the ship and were heading up to Amchitka, having somebody in their forties on the ship, with a background like Jim had, legitimized another generation into direct action. That was a new dimension for us back then," he said.

After buying 60 acres of land on Denman Island off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, Bohlen and his wife founded a self-sufficient organic farming community complete with innovative geodesic-dome homes in 1974.

 A decade later Bohlen married his passion for the environment and politics by running as a federal candidate for the Green Party in both 1984 and 1988.

 "His strength of conviction around the causes he believed in was completely transparent and visible to everyone," said Adriane Carr, the current deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada. Carr first met Bohlen in 1983 at one of the first meetings of the Green Party.

Campaigning in Vancouver's affluent Point Grey neighbourhood in the summer months forced Bohlen to be innovative. With everyone outside in their backyards enjoying the summer weather, Bohlen traded door-knocking on foot for laneway trolling on bicycle.

The move allowed him to talk to citizens while they gardened or played with their children, said Carr.

 Bohlen also put the notion of partying in the Green Party.

"He made campaigning so much fun," Carr said. "His campaign was about parties. He had these picnics at the beaches and he had a troop of young breakdancers. We are talking the eighties! Ghetto blasters and breakdancers."

 Bohlen also laid the foundation for the Green Party to adopt a traditional party structure. In an effort to retain an egalitarian character, early Greens were reticent to have leaders in the 1980s, said Carr. Bohlen spearheaded a resolution to allow elected leadership in order to make the party a stronger contender in Canada's political system.

"He set the stage for the kind of accomplishments that have happened in this decade, where I was the first leader of a Green Party in a televised debate in North America and Elizabeth [May]was the first national leader in a televised debate," Carr said.

 The Bohlens left their farm seven years ago and moved in to Courtenay, B.C., when he began suffering from the effects of Parkinson's disease.

 A Bahai community bought the beloved farm and has preserved the 40 acres of forests. The geodesic domes are now regularly used for meditation retreats. His memoir, Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace, was published by Black Rose Books in 2000.

 Bohlen leaves his second wife, Marie, his daughter Margot and his son Lance. His stepson, Paul, who designed the first Greenpeace button, died of cancer several years ago. Several of the other men who sailed on the Greenpeace with Bohlen have also passed away, including Irving Stowe, Ben Metcalfe and Bob Hunter.

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