Dave Martin

Feature story - September 9, 2011
Dave Martin was the kind of guy you wanted in your corner. Smart, tenacious and articulate, Dave was quick to tell a joke and possessed an infectious laugh. The proverbial steel fist in a velvet glove, he was among Canada's most effective, respected and admired environmental activists.

Dave died this morning of prostate cancer at Toronto's Perram House hospice, surrounded by loved ones. He was 56 years old.

An avid whitewater canoeist, kayaker, sailor and backwoods tripper Dave loved the company of friends; he sang, played guitar and piano and was a peacenik and environmentalist who fiercely believed in non-violence and civil disobedience as honourable and necessary tools for change.

For more than 30 years, he was the gold standard in environmental and peace activism, one based on vast expertise and a storehouse of facts, not just passion, though Dave had that in spades.

On growing opposition to the Alberta Tar Sands, he predicted, "I don't think there's any question that you'll be seeing civil disobedience in the future." He was passionate in his belief that Canada had to choose between becoming an energy superpower in "an ocean of oil-soaked sand" or "joining in a global energy revolution that allows us to live well, while respecting nature's limits. It's time for a revolution."

Dave would have spurned the term environmental "warrior" for its connotations of violence. Though arrested in numerous non-violent actions dating as far back as the early ‘80’s (most recently for an occupation of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's office demanding action on climate change), Dave believed in the power of non-violence to make societal change. He worked tirelessly to ensure that protests at last summer's G8/G20 summit in Toronto would be free of violence.

Unfortunately, the summit was marred with vandalism and police brutality and Dave was terribly disturbed that rampaging “Black Bloc” had essentially let the Harper government off the hook on everything from climate change to poverty to security spending. He felt strongly that the violence weakened the movement for social change.

Born on December 4, 1954, Dave grew up in East York region of what is now Greater Toronto. He hitch-hiked around North America and tended bar before settling at the University of Toronto to study linguistics. He was still a student while he served as executive director of Ontario Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (now the Ontario Environment Network), having been fired up by the Three Mile Island near-meltdown of 1979. Also at U of T, he ran the referendum campaign that led to the founding of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group – Toronto. On graduation, he worked for the Nuclear Awareness Project.

It was at a peace rally in the early 1980s where Dave met Irene Kock, a fellow activist who would become his partner in life and vocation. They went on to volunteer for the Toronto Disarmament Network and in 1987, moved from Toronto to Oshawa to start Durham Nuclear Awareness, which, alongside other grassroots activists, fought the construction of the Darlington nuclear station and called for the shutdown of the Pickering nuclear plant.

Nuclear awareness projects sprang up across Ontario in the late 1980s, and Dave and Irene became pillars of the Canadian anti-nuclear movement. Tragically, Irene died in an auto accident on New Year's Eve, 2001. Dave was inconsolable, he had lost his life partner and the movement had lost a guiding light. Later, Durham Region would establish the Irene Kock Education/Communication Award for fostering effective communications, sharing knowledge or exhibiting leadership in helping others to learn about the environment.

Dave became a regular intervener at the AECB (the Atomic Energy Control Board, which he called "a lapdog, not a watchdog"), and later the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. He routinely filed Freedom of Information requests to challenge the safety claims of Ontario Hydro, whose problems, he once told an Ontario legislative committee, "are fundamentally linked to CANDU technology, and it is a severely flawed technology."

But regulators did their best to dismiss Dave and Irene. In 1997, Dave pushed for a referendum in the town of Pickering that asked residents whether they supported an environmental assessment prior to restarting the Pickering A nuclear reactor and the refurbishment of the Pickering B facility.

Residents overwhelmingly agreed. The "yes" side won by a landslide (17,038 of 19,599 votes cast) but the AECB ignored the result and pushed forward with their plans. The agency also put no mind to health officials, MPPs, MPs and other concerned citizens who sought an inquiry, finding there was insufficient public concern to trigger a full review.

Dr. Michael Mehta, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, chronicled Durham Nuclear Awareness's fight against the relicensing of the Pickering nuclear station in his book Nuclear Power and Public Protest in Canada. Mehta first met Dave in the early 1990s as a doctoral student in sociology. His dissertation was on nuclear issues in Canada and he was encountering an uncooperative industry. "I was being shut out systematically by the nuclear industry," Mehta recalled. "They wouldn't provide me with any information. They didn't give me access to any archives."

He contacted Durham Nuclear Awareness. Dave and Irene "welcomed me with open arms and gave me complete, unfettered access to their files and invited me to join them." Dave's files "really propelled my research forward. His research was top-notch. There's no doubt that Dave and his team were on the cutting edge, which frankly I found quite surprising. My expectations of an anti-nuclear group were that they were a bunch of lay people who had no expertise, who were simply risk-averse.

"As I got to learn about their approaches and their ways of asking questions and digging into the data," Mehta said, "I was incredibly surprised by the sophistication of the analysis that Dave and his team showed."

Among Dave's legacies was an ability to "fuel and inspire young, active people to inquire in an intellectually rigorous and honest way into complicated technologies like nuclear power," Mehta said. "Dave and Irene catalyzed a group of people to focus on a very complex social issue."

In the late 1990s, Dave led a fight against the efforts by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to sell several CANDU reactors to Turkey. He wondered: "If Canada cannot operate CANDUs safely after 30 years of experience, how can we expect Turkey to?" He embarked on a speaking tour alongside Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis. The two drew close as they crisscrossed North America and travelled to Greece, getting petitions signed and marshalling opposition. The federal government eventually scuttled the sale to Turkey.

"We became very close friends," said Karygiannis, who opposed the sale because one of the reactors was to be built on a seismic fault line in Turkey but also because of age-old Greek/Turkish tensions. "He knew his stuff. I got an education from David."

In recognition of his efforts, the government of Greece named the MP to the Greek Order of the Phoenix in 1999 and Dave was also awarded a civilian decoration (Karygiannis doesn't dwell too much on memories of Dave stripping naked for a spur-of-the-moment swim in the Mediterranean).

In 2001, Durham Nuclear Awareness folded and Dave joined the Sierra Club of Canada where he worked with Elizabeth May, now leader of the Green Party, who he had first met at anti-nuclear protests in the late 1970s. May could not speak about Dave without mentioning Irene.

"We figured out a way that I could fundraise for them and bring them on board at the Sierra Club," said May, who at the time was the club’s executive director.

Dave and Irene "jointly made sure that people across the country who were concerned about nuclear energy had tremendous access to research," May said. "They worked without anyone knowing how they were going to survive. They worked with no visible means of support. They contributed so much to the knowledge base of people in any part of the country who suddenly found themselves faced with a nuclear threat."

Among the more prosaic work that no one was else was doing, and on which Dave and May embarked, was to fully cost out the extent of federal subsidies to the nuclear industry in Canada. Dave was the people’s champion in his condemnation of nuclear subsidies: "Giving taxpayer subsidies to AECL is just throwing money down a black hole," he wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in 2001. "It's time to pull the plug.”

Eight years later the Prime Minister Harper’s chief spokesman, Kory Teneycke, agreed: “The government has put $30 billion into AECL over its history and it's been one of the largest sinkholes of government money probably in the history of the government of Canada.”

Dave joined Greenpeace Canada in 2004 as Climate and Energy Coordinator, a dossier that encompassed the hottest-button issues of the day: Nuclear energy, climate change and the tar sands.

He attacked these files with a legendarily encyclopedic knowledge of governmental energy policy combined with meticulous research skills. When he joined Greenpeace, he brought with him 16 filing cabinets groaning with background material on a wide range of environmental issues.

On Dave's success in limiting the development of nuclear energy in Ontario, Greenpeace executive director Bruce Cox said, "The people of Ontario owe a debt of gratitude to Dave Martin for ensuring that this province isn’t fatally mired in dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear reactors. He took on Ontario’s nuclear cult and severely curtailed the nuclear agenda here.”

Dave "opened the eyes of a lot of people," recalled his friend and Uxbridge, Ontario neighbour, Harald Wiedner. The two became close after Wiedner immigrated to Canada from Austria in 1999 and related to Dave the story of how Austria was the only country in Europe to have a built a nuclear power plant only to have it  sit idle following a national referendum in which citizens voted it shuttered.

"We called it the most expensive museum in the world," Wiedner said with a chuckle.

But Dave was not all work. He loved the outdoors and was an avid canoeist and kayaker. He worked for a stint organizing to save Ontario’s Temagami forest, an area that he loved to paddle and camp in. He was a skilled outdoorsman making month long canoe trips and challenging the white water of northern rivers.

On a Caribbean sailing adventure that ended with a broken mast after a tropical storm, he took it in his usual stride saying it was a terrifying experience, “but we had beer when we made it to port.”

He made his last wilderness trip last August with friend Mark Calzavara to British Columbia’s remote Haida Gaia. Dave cherished the trip sharing photos, great stories and enjoyed mapping the route afterward with friends.

Dave will be most remembered for the energy and joy in which he embraced life. His laugh echoed through the halls of the Greenpeace office. His reenactments of making a politician squirm with unease or surprising the Prime Minister at a campaign stop were animated and always good natured

Dave was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 and given just months to live.

Elizabeth May summed up Dave's legacy as "one of grassroots activism and a phenomenal knowledge base." Also, and no less important, "he left behind a lot of people who loved him.”