British Columbia

Raging Grannies celebrates its 30th anniversary

The Raging Grannies, an activist group of older women who use humour, costume and song to highlight its causes, is commemorating its start in Victoria 30 years ago.

The activist group, which uses humour and music to advocate for peace and the environment, started in Victoria

Members of Vancouver's Raging Grannies group — decked out in their elaborate costumes — are celebrating their 30th year anniversary this year. (Vancouver Raging Grannies/Facebook)

The Raging Granny movement wasn't supposed to be an enduring 'thing', but the social justice activist group — which started in Victoria, B.C. — has persisted in ways that surprise even its oldest members.

Known for their loud, colourful costumes and cheeky protest songs about peace and environmental causes, the older women activists have become a mainstay at rallies and protests across North America.

They mark their 30th anniversary this year.

Professor Carole Roy at St Francis Xavier University has extensively studied the movement.

She said while it's generally difficult to precisely pin the moment when the movement began, she says the first official protest using the name "The Raging Grannies" was on Feb. 14, 1987 in Victoria, B.C.

'A one-off thing'

A group of women living in Victoria was disturbed by the presence of U.S. military ships in the Esquimalt military harbour. They were worried whether the boats carried nuclear arms and what that would mean for the community and local environment in case of a mishap.

Roy said local peace movements downplayed the older women's concerns — putting them on "stuffing envelope duty".

The women had other plans.

"They just dressed up in costumes and made a heart that was broken in two [to give to an MP who was a member of the defence council]," Roy said. 

"They thought it was going to be just a one-off thing."

They're all kind of opinionated — which is what you would expect in strong women.- Robyn Smith, Raging Grannies member

The grannies in their loud and colourful costumes and songs of protest were warmly received, Roy said, and soon other protesters were asking the group to come and sing songs at other events.

Individuals chapters began to spread across the country.

Robyn Smith, a member of the Vancouver chapter of the Raging Grannies, has been part of the group since nearly the beginning.

The octogenerian had been heavily involved in the peace movement, helping the draft dodgers and protesting the Vietnam War, before joining the group.

"They're just a wonderful bunch of women. They're all kind of opinionated — which is what you would expect in strong women," she said.  

Keeping current

Smith is still part of the group and keeps as up to date as possible with current events with "a lot of reading."

"When we look at all the current affairs, they've of course changed. But actually, when we look at some of the songs we did years ago, we can't believe the issue is still the same," she said.

A group of Raging Grannies protests against GMOs and Monsanto at a rally in Montreal in 2013. (CBC)

And while Smith admits the core group is getting older and it's harder to get out to different protests and engage younger people, they're still affectionately received.

"Whenever we appear at a function or a rally, they all crowd around us and say 'oh, wow the Raging Grannies, are you going to sing?'" she laughed.

Skillful humourists

Roy said the Raging Grannies have enjoyed longevity because of their ability to take advantage of and make fun of their own social position.

At one early event to protest the B.C. government's attempt to overturn a moratorium on uranium mining, Roy said, the Grannies brought a basket of laundry filled with women's briefs (a play on the word 'briefs') because they were sick of cleaning up after the male politicians in the legislature.

"That is the incredible skill of the Grannies. They are able to use humour, paradox and ambiguity to make people laugh," she said.

"As they would say, they're not little old ladies. Their rage has power."

The activist group has grown to include chapters across Canada, the United States and various other countries around the world. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

With files from Brenna Rose