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Justine Hunter throws the ashes of her father Bob Hunter during a memorial service on Hanson island off of Vancouver Island March 8, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
As Greenpeace makes amends, a daughter makes peace
A decade after the death of her father, Justine Hunter visited the indigenous community that inspired him to co-found Greenpeace

This spring, I said farewell to my father, 10 years after he died. I was standing in one of those magical pockets of the West Coast, a bay framed by ancient cedars on Hanson Island. The water was still and clear; the volcanic rocks on the beach radiated the sun’s warmth. For the godless child of hippy parents, it was a cathedral.

I had always expected that scattering his ashes would be a private moment. Instead, I surprised myself and invited a disparate group of two dozen people to join me. Some were familiar, some were strangers. A photographer and a video crew recorded the scene.

It was in this moment that I made peace with the fact that to be in Bob Hunter’s orbit, you have to share a crowded path.

My father, a founder of Greenpeace, died on May 2, 2005, at the age of 63. He had taken countless risks in his lifetime – honestly, there has to be a better way to establish that whales are sentient than to allow an Orca to wrap her teeth around your neck – but it was prostate cancer that killed him. Gathered together in his Toronto hospital room were his four children (my brother Conan, and I; and Will and Emily from his second marriage) his wife, Bobbi, and his brother, Don.

I still talk to him in my head, and regret that my children, now 9 and 12, didn’t get to know him.

His funeral was a grand affair in Toronto. Friends sent me obituaries from newspapers around the world – glowing tributes to his efforts on behalf of the planet.

But those public accolades offered little to salve my grief. In my heart, my dad inhabited an entirely different landscape, and I returned to the West Coast with a sense of disquiet, like a tiny pebble embedded in the sole of my shoe.

Then, an invitation, extended by the Kwakwak’wakw people earlier this year, to a traditional potlatch ceremony in the remote Vancouver Island community of Alert Bay opened the door for my own reconciliation.

Bob (even as a child, I was always on a first-name basis with my parents and their friends) had been invited into this community 44 years ago, and was granted a symbol of protection: a flag bearing the image of a two-headed serpent, known as the Sisiutl. It was a moment that profoundly shaped both him and the future of the environmental organization he went on to lead.

Over the years, that image was reworked and adapted by various agents of Greenpeace. Then, at the ceremony this spring, Greenpeace was worked into the agenda of the potlatch, so that a group of activists in attendance could properly acknowledge the original gift and restore the image to its proper form. The invitation to stand in my father’s place, to walk for a moment in his shoes, thus provided me with an unexpected gift.

Here on the shore, I connected once more with my dad.

This photo was taken on Sept. 17, 1971 at the village of Kemptu. From left to right: Robert Hunter, Bob Cummings, Dr. Lyle Thurston, Patrick Moore. (photo courtesy Robert Keziere)

A public figure’s private moments

The path to this beach began in 1971, when activists, organized under the banner of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, chartered a boat to sail from Vancouver harbour to Amchitka, an Aleutian island off Alaska, more than 2,000 nautical miles away. Their goal: to drop anchor in a nuclear-blast zone, in a bid to stop a test.

My memory of that departure has long disappeared into a blur of similar departures that followed. I was 5 then, and my mother, Zoe, had brought me down to the dock with Conan to wave goodbye as Bob sailed off on an aged halibut seiner called the Phyllis Cormack. Conan, then 7, had been allowed to tag along on the dock, as Bob hunted for a skipper willing to take on this risky charter. Those trips – along with the pungent scents of creosote and fuel – remain imprinted on my brother’s mind.

Zoe was the one who had introduced Bob to the nuclear-disarmament movement, but was nervous about this mission. If I was anxious, I don’t remember. But my brother was older, and he had not been spared Bob’s doomsday prophecies. Conan had a poster hanging over his bed of a mushroom cloud from a French nuclear test over the Mururoa Atoll of Polynesia. Bob had shown him black-and-white photographs of the victims of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and told my brother they were somehow going to stop this from occurring in Alaska.

My father’s day job at the time was as The Vancouver Sun’s counterculture columnist. I remember seeing his face on billboards around town, and I still have a yellowed page from the Sun with a full-page house ad featuring his picture: A serious, penetrating gaze was framed by his long hair and shaggy beard. The headline read, “Bob Hunter writes as if our lives depended on it.”

He convinced his editors to allow him to report on the voyage with a strong activist voice – he would report the news and make the news. He would use this platform to plant “mind bombs” in the media aimed at the Nixon administration’s nuclear-testing program.

On the day of departure, he wrote in The Sun: “Those of us on board the Greenpeace will be deliberately ignoring the warning [to stay out of the blast zone] … it remains to be seen whether the Americans will try to tow us away or decide to leave us there, perched on the edge of an underground explosion equivalent to five million tons of TNT.”

He wrapped the piece up with a warning about the risks to British Columbians of earthquakes, tsunamis and the “radioactive hell which the U.S. will be deliberately creating in the unstable ground of Amchitka … We won’t be the only ones in danger. You will be, too.”

The strident tone he channelled in his writing was balanced by a life-of-the-party personality. I can still hear in my head his explosive, raspy laughter – imagine Popeye after a night of drinking whisky and smoking. His constant quest to tame his ego came out in self-deprecating humour.

The 1971 trip set the wheels in motion for the formation of Greenpeace, and over the years, I saw the toll that the organization and the campaigns took on my father and on others in what would become our extended family. Intense battles over leadership and the growth and direction of Greenpeace eventually strained friendships; and Bob, a deeply emotional person, was battered by those rifts. Years later, he would retreat from the organization, writing in a tiny cabin he built on a hobby farm near Vancouver. But he was eventually pulled back into a series of campaigns.

The treasures in my memory, however, are the private moments. Camping on Long Beach in our old Volkswagen van, where we would explore the secret lives of barnacles at low tide or scan the horizon for the spouts of grey whales. Puttering up Burrard Inlet aboard Bob’s 1930s former police boat, The Astral. Talking together in his writing cabin about whatever topic had currently captured his interest. If there is a theme here, it is that those moments when I had his attention, I soaked it up greedily.

Justine Hunter’s father, Bob, on the bridge above the crew sailing on the first Greenpeace protest voyage in 1971. (photo courtesy Robert Keziere)

An ill-fated, propitious voyage

The crew on that 1971 voyage included Captain John Cormack, Bill Darnell, Patrick Moore, Ben Metcalfe, Jim Bohlen, Terry Simmons, Bob Cummings, Dave Birmingham, Dr. Lyle Thurston, Robert Keziere and Richard Fineberg, whose place was later taken by Rod Marining, and Bob.

Capt. Cormack was a familiar face to the people of Alert Bay, and on this journey the crew was invited to dock there to receive a gesture of support for their campaign. First Nations communities on B.C.’s west coast, who are currently battling the expansion of oil-tanker traffic, were at that time alive to the risks of nuclear tests. The crew were given gifts of salmon and a blessing for their journey, and were invited to come back on their return voyage.

The Phyllis Cormack sailed as far as the Aleutian island of Akutan before the crew learned that the test was to be delayed. Winter weather was closing in and supplies on board were running low; they had been outmaneuvered. Divided and bitter, the crew turned back for home, putting in once more at Alert Bay.

Rob Hunter on the Phyllis Cormack. (photo courtesy Robert Keziere)

“We came back feeling like we failed,” recalled Mr. Darnell as we sat together on a bench in the Big House for the potlatch this spring. Mr. Darnell was the ecologist who coined the term Green Peace. We hadn’t spoken in many years, but his gentle demeanour made up for any loss of familiarity. When we talked about my father, he didn’t trot out the usual tales of bravery. He spoke instead about how well Bob related to people, and about his almost clairvoyant ability to see through them. (I can appreciate that talent now, although there was a time, as a mischief-seeking teenager, when it was less welcome.)

When the defeated crew landed back in Alert Bay, “the ground was still swaying beneath our feet,” recalled Rod Marining, also there for the potlatch. They had fallen into vicious infighting, but in the Big House, they were counselled to abandon their egos in a traditional dance.

The Phyllis Cormack crew was, as well, bestowed a rare honour: They were sprinkled with eagle-down feathers, dressed in button blankets, and named honorary brothers of the Kwakiutl, one part of the Kwakwaka’wakw. From what those present can remember, it was here that they were given the serpent flag, known as the Sisiutl.

It was as if they had returned from their ill-fated voyage victorious. And, in fact, they had achieved victory – they just didn’t know it yet. It was on the floor of the Big House, in that moment, that the seed of Greenpeace as a broad environmental organization was planted.

“These people who have fought colonialization for more than a hundred years, they took the long-term view,” is how Bill Darnell put it this spring. “They had a much better perspective of the significance of what we had done.”

Added Mr. Marining, “We had tears coming down, we were humbled. The women put their cloaks around us and asked us to dance. Now, we were dancing together. The animosity that came from our failure was dissipating.”

It was more than a healing experience. As he performed a shuffling dance around the fire, Bob later wrote, his thoughts were floating – perhaps he was as mesmerized as I would be, at this spring’s potlatch, by the ashes rising from the heat of the massive fire in the centre of the room. What’s more, five months after the Phyllis Cormack returned to Vancouver, the international attention generated by the protest led to the cancellation of the Amchitka test program, and the voyage was recognized as the first Greenpeace campaign.

“Bob,” noted Mr. Marining, as we sat side by side on a long bench, surrounded by more than a thousand members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community “said this was the spiritual home of Greenpeace.”

As Mr. Marining spoke, I noticed he was wearing one of the original green-and-yellow Greenpeace buttons that were sold to raise campaign funds. That, in turn, prompted a memory for me of standing on a street corner with a family friend, tin can in hand, attempting to raise funds for Greenpeace, and being scolded by a passerby who felt this was not an appropriate activity for children. I was humiliated but also confused – I was surrounded by people who felt so much passion for the planet; how could someone be angry about that?

Another well of memories was tapped by Robert Keziere, who also returned to the Big House for the event this spring. Sitting in a back row, he slipped me a precious gift – a computer memory stick containing his images of Bob from their voyage to Amchitka. When I looked at those photos later, I could see moments of joy, and of despair, and one shot of Bob in the Big House, his hands clasped and head bowed – a long-haired hippie in gumboots looking not unlike an altar boy.

My father believed in karma, and was always searching for signs to guide him. When a book recounting a Cree prophecy tipped off his bookshelf while he packed for the Amchitka voyage, he naturally took it as a sign that he should tuck it into his duffle bag. That book, The Warriors of the Rainbow, tells of a time when the planet would be poisoned by man’s greed, until people from all nations would unite to defend the Earth and its animals. And in this moment, on the dirt floor of the Big House, he decided that that story had come to pass: This was not the end of the journey but the beginning of something bigger.

The Willie Family Potlatch who are members of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, B.C. March 7, 2015 where a Ceremony was held for the new Sisuitl Symbol which Greenpeace has used since 1971. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Acknowledging an indigenous gift

The main order of business at the potlatch this spring was to mourn the death of Charles Eaton Willie, or Ol Siwidi. The hereditary chiefs of the Kwakwaka’wakw and their families gathered to see the name and chieftainship passed to his grandson, Mike Willie: Ol Siwidi is a name that has been handed down for generations; it is a tradition carried on through the potlatch, a ceremony that the Canadian government outlawed in the late 1800s. The ban lasted for more than 60 years.

Witnessing the Willie potlatch, I confronted the scant extent of my own cultural roots. Asked to sing a song of my culture in elementary school, I had stood up and sung a part of Legend of a Mind, the Moody Blues’ tribute to Timothy Leary and LSD. I’m not sure I could find anything more meaningful now. Little wonder Bob was so touched by his moment in the Big House.

The gathering in March, however, was very different from the one the crew had experienced. “The 1971 ceremony involved just a few folks, several dancers, singers, drummers, a dozen or so in the audience,” Robert Keziere recalled following the potlatch. The masks, the regalia, the carved house poles that anchor each corner of the Big House – they were recognizable. But what he experienced in 2015 was a vibrant and renewed culture. “I kept thinking,” he told me, “that this treasured art is, without question, worth a fortune, in every sense.”

Mr. Marining, Mr. Darnell, Mr. Simmons and Mr. Keziere were the four members of the original crew present. They were joined by Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, and other Greenpeace officials, including First Nations women – this was more of a rainbow assembly than the all-male crew of the past, and it is no accident. Just like resource companies and governments, Greenpeace today is seeking to develop a new relationship with indigenous people, one that offers partnership, not token recognition.

Head of Greenpeace discusses shared history with First Nations at potlatch in Alert Bay
Executive director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, addresses a potlatch in the Kwakwak’wakw First Nations community in Alert Bay. He attended the ceremony to renew relations more than 40 years after the first Greenpeace voyage was welcomed here.
Brightcove player

Mr. Naidoo, a human-rights activist from South Africa, had come from Greenpeace headquarters in Amsterdam to lead this reconciliation bid known as the Greenpeace Sisiutl Project. The blessing that was bestowed on the crew in 1971 “is what inspired Greenpeace to become what it is,” he told the gathering. “What we learned from you helped us to understand that, in fact, the struggles of indigenous peoples all over the world, and the struggles that Greenpeace is fighting for – to protect our forests, to protect our oceans, to then find change, to make sure our food is not contaminated – all of these struggles, we share together.”

Justine and Zoe Hunter including members of Greenpeace hold a memorial service for Bob Hunter on Hanson island off of Vancouver Island March 8, 2015.(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Sharing memories, and a goodbye

Amchitka would be the first of many campaigns, for Bob and for Greenpeace. He would become the first president of the organization, and would continue to put himself in harm’s way – standing in front of moving icebreakers or placing himself between a harpoon and a whale.

I recall once charging into the surf at Jericho Beach when one of the Greenpeace voyages returned to Vancouver. I got only a brief hug before Bob disappeared into the crowd to give a speech. Saying farewell to him was something I should have been good at – I had lots of practice.

I eventually followed my father into journalism, with his encouragement, but our professional paths diverged. Over the years, I have kept myself out of the stories I write as much as he wrote himself into his. I suspect I have avoided trying to compete with his extraordinary life. It is easier to be ordinary.

Bob’s ashes have, over this past decade, been scattered from pole to pole by members of his family. As I packed for the trip to Alert Bay, I tucked the little wooden box with my share of those ashes in my bag, with the idea that the right moment was near. Once again, the hospitality of the Kwakwaka’wakw people would shape my family’s story.

On the morning following the potlatch, those of us in the Greenpeace contingent prepared to board a boat bound for nearby Hanson Island, one of the gateways to the Great Bear Rainforest. One of our group, Mark Worthing, spotted a pod of Orca speeding across the sparkling waters, bringing us all to our feet to watch. If it was a sign, I didn’t have the gift to interpret it. But it was encouraging.

Since 1970, Hanson Island has been the home of Paul Spong’s OrcaLab. It was Dr. Spong, a neurologist who was studying a captive Orca named Skana at the Vancouver Aquarium, who convinced Bob and others in the Greenpeace movement that whales should be saved from slaughter. It was he who persuaded Bob to sit calmly at the edge of Skana’s little tank while she “tested” my dad by gently closing her jaws around his head. With that, clever Skana had planted a mind bomb of her own.

Hanson Island is also the home of David (Walrus) Garrick, whose worship of nature helped inject the protection of forests into the DNA of Greenpeace.

He was there to greet us on the island, and I placed a handful of Bob’s ashes in his wizened palm. He patted them into the soil around a 1,300-year-old “grandmother” tree where his children had each held their wedding ceremonies. As he circled the cedar, its towering crown hidden from view in the surrounding canopy, Walrus spoke directly to Bob, as if he were in conversation. I felt a twinge of envy.

As we shared stories about my father, it occurred to me that I needed to share portions of his ashes as well. I invited anyone who wanted to to accompany me down to the beach to scatter Bob’s ashes on the beach below OrcaLab.

Mr. Naidoo had never met Bob, but he spoke of his courage. “I think that some of the early spirit that Bob and the founders had, I have to quite bluntly say, got lost along the way. Part of what I’ve been trying to do is reinfuse that spirit of courage. As we move forward, the planet needs at least a billion acts of contagious courage if we are going to stand a chance to reverse the trajectory we are on.”

Greenpeace campaigner Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, then offered to sing. The prophecy of the Warriors of the Rainbow came from her nation, and her send-off for my warrior father, spontaneous and beautiful, would have brought Bob to his knees.

“In Cree, we don’t say goodbye, we say farewell,” she explained. “It’s more like they are going down the path and their spirit is still with us.”

Then she sang, her clear voice echoing across the bay. It gave me the courage I needed to accept that it was time to say farewell, to be content with my share of Bob’s life. I took a handful of ashes and swung my open hand over the waters of Blackfish Sound, and let go.

Justine Hunter is the Globe’s political reporter in the B.C. legislature.

The road to the Willie Potlatch:
Sisiutl symbol which represents strength and protection was given to the Greenpeace crew aboard the Phyllis Cormack by the First Nations of the Kwakwaka'wakw. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Greenpeace’s journey back to Alert Bay was sparked three years ago, when activist Mark Worthing was sailing from Seattle to Kodiak, Alaska, aboard the Greenpeace vessel, Esperanza. As he helped with some mind-numbing maintenance of the steel hull, his attention drifted to the artwork painted on the ship.

“I was pounding rust on the Esperanza, and was looking up at the paintings, and I thought ‘That looks Mayan – that’s not right.’” He’d spent enough time with First Nations on B.C.’s west coast to recognize the origins of the design. With the blessing of the province’s senior Greenpeace official, Eduardo Sousa, he began to investigate.

What he learned was that the Kwakwaka’wakw design of a two-headed serpent, called the Sisiutl, was painted on a flag and given to my father during the first Greenpeace voyage. It was copied on successive Greenpeace ships, but the design morphed over time. In the 1970s, when meetings of First Nations were routinely referred to in the press as “powwows,” this was an innocent act. But today, it is recognized as a cultural offence.

That is what brought the Greenpeace founders and others to the Willie potlatch in March – to make amends for changing the original design and to renew the organization’s relationship with the people of Alert Bay. Greenpeace commissioned Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick to paint a version of the Sisiutl design that will be honoured from now on. The restoration is beautiful, with more subtle hues of green than the seventies version. With it, Greenpeace has acknowledged the cultural ownership and has committed to keep the design intact.

However, for the Kwakwaka’wakw community, the business with Greenpeace was just one item on the agenda of the Willie potlatch. It was a political declaration – the Kwakwak’wakw are seeking to reclaim their traditional system of governance, which comes from a broader base than a single Indian Act band. Starting at 9 a.m. and continuing until the early light of the next day, the business of the community was conducted. Children were given their traditional names. Status was transferred in the form of silver earrings or copper plates. Every dance represented a part of Kwakwak’wakw oral history – links to specific territories or hereditary lines. Masks were used to tell stories. All the potlatch’s events were tied to their aboriginal rights and title.

As a reporter, I have written so many words on this topic, but in my surrogate role at this event I landed a priceless opportunity to witness the masks come to life. One of the sweetest dances was performed by the youngest dancers in the hall, wearing elaborate bumblebee masks and buzzing around cedar branches that represented a tree. But this, too, was a statement of claim, a marking of territory by one clan within the Kwakwak’wakw.

“T’sekame was our first Kwikwasut’inuxw ancestor who originated in Bond Sound,” Chief Willie, now Ol Siwidi, explained to me. “When he came out of the big cedar tree, after the flood waters receded, the bumblebees took care and guided him to ‘Mit’ap [also known as Viner Sound]. This was the ancestral home of T’sekame and the beginning of our Kwikwasut’inuxw people.”

Chief Willie agreed to incorporate the Greenpeace Sisiutl project into the potlatch, hoping it would build alliances to protect the natural environment. “For me, the potlatch is about empowering our hereditary chiefs to stand up and take their rightful positions,” he said.

This is a pivotal time for First Nations in Canada, with communities like this one asserting their rights in stronger terms following last summer’s landmark title ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.

Allies are welcome: “The timing is just perfect.”