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Young Canadians launch a groundbreaking movement with environmental ideals and public relations savvy
In the early 1970s, Vancouver was the launching ground for an environmental movement that would take the world by storm.
In September 1971, a group of activists sailed to Alaska to protest an American nuclear test in the area. The group didn't stop the test but the Greenpeace movement was born. Pictured here, the activists bound for Alaska.
In September 1971, a group of activists sailed to Alaska to protest an American nuclear test in the area. The group didn't stop the test but the Greenpeace movement was born. Pictured here, the activists bound for Alaska.

Greenpeace's humble beginnings were inspired by the idealism a few young Canadians and by events that unfolded in a remote part of the continent.

In 1969, Robert Hunter, a young Vancouver journalist, wrote about American nuclear testing on the Amchitka Island in Alaska.

"Sometime between tomorrow and Oct 15 a 1.2 megaton atomic bomb will be triggered at the bottom of a 4,000-foot hole on the island. No one knows what the consequences will be," Hunter wrote in the Vancouver Sun.

Amchitka was four thousand kilometres north of Vancouver. The island was the last refuge for 3,000 endangered sea otters and home to a plethora of other wildlife. And it was situated in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. All along the Pacific coast people were concerned that the nuclear blast could trigger a giant tidal wave.

Hunter was one of 7,000 protesters who shut down the main border crossing between British Columbia and Washington State to protest the test. The protesters managed to keep it closed for one hour. For Hunter it was a great victory.

"Not since the War of 1812 had the border between Canada and the United States been closed. So there was a sense of history in the air," Hunter later wrote of the protest.

But the Americans continued the nuclear tests and activists began to reconsider their strategy.

In 1970, a Vancouver activist, Marie Bohlen, proposed a different idea.

"Why doesnt somebody just sail a boat up there and park right next to the bomb? Thats something everybody can understand."

A year later, a small Vancouver group called Dont Make a Wave rented a beat-up fishing boat which they renamed The Greenpeace. Then the group went searching for volunteers to sail to Alaska to protest another scheduled nuclear test at Amchitka.

Robert Hunter signed on immediately.

On board, Hunter met crewmate Patrick Moore, who had returned to Vancouver after going to college in St. Louis, Missouri.

"I knew right away I wanted to join it," Moore said. "I wanted to do something, I wanted to do something about ecology and peace."

Hunter, Moore and a dozen other activists sailed up the coast on the first voyage of The Greenpeace armed with environmental ideals and public relations savvy.

"We may have just looked like a little old fish boat but in fact we were cranking away at our typewriters and with our tape recorders," said Hunter. "In a sense, we were a media war ship."

The boat neared Amchitka on September 24, but the blast, scheduled for October 2, was postponed until November.

Moore was convinced the Americans were delaying the test to throw them off their plan. And it worked. The group had little choice but to sail back to Vancouver.

"The big problem for us was to have to wait for a month," Hunter said. "We had food and fuel supplies to last only six weeks. We would have been stuck up there, a few hundred miles from the Russian coast, without food and drink."

The United States finally detonated the bomb on November 6. There was no resulting tidal wave but the protest group had managed to garner world-wide media attention for its actions. Shortly afterwards, the Canadian government voted to condemn nuclear tests.

Following the Alaska trip, some crew members decided to develop their protest movement. It was based on the use of non-violent direct action to increase public awareness and influence government policy. The Greenpeace Foundation was born and Hunter and Moore were its first co-presidents.

"Greenpeace became the first organization that linked the survival of the human race with the survival of the environment," said Moore.

Today, Greenpeace is the most visible environmental movement in the world, headquartered in Amsterdam with offices in dozens of countries. The organization opposes nuclear weapons, pollution and has launched successful campaigns against the commercial seal hunt and whaling.

There are 130,000 Greenpeace members in Canada.

Today Hunter promotes environmental issues through his work as an author and television broadcaster. Patrick Moore is a director of the Forest Alliance of British Columbia, and president of Greenspirit, an independent environmental consultancy.

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