Greenpeace cofounder Dorothy Metcalfe passed away on December 10. Dorothy operated the radio link, connecting the boats to international media, during the first two Greenpeace campaigns to stop nuclear testing in 1971 and 1972. She waged a media battle with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and organized an audience with Pope Paul VI. She was a seasoned journalist and a creative campaigner, who knew how to capture and hold the interest of the media and public.
Dorothy was born April 16, 1931, in Winnipeg, Canada. Shortly after her birth, her Ukrainian-Polish parents changed the family name from Hrushka to “Harris,” to fit into Canadian society. She grew up through the depression, alcohol prohibition, and World War II. Dorothy loved history and literature, and became a journalist for the Winnipeg Tribune. At a gathering of Winnipeg reporters, drinking bootleg whiskey, she met her future husband Ben Metcalfe. In the 1950s, Dorothy and Ben travelled Europe, filing stories for the North America Newspaper Alliance. Dorothy gave birth to their first child, daughter Michelle, in London.
In 1954, when the US detonated a massive thermonuclear bomb test in the Pacific ocean, spreading radioactive fallout around the globe, Dorothy and Ben became dedicated peace activists.
Back in Canada, Ben found work at The Province newspaper in Vancouver. Their son Michael was born in West Vancouver in 1956 and Christopher two years later. Dorothy continued her peace advocacy from home, often doing research for Ben’s newspaper stories and for his CBC nature show, Klahanie. In 1969, to promote the idea of ecology, Ben and Dorothy spent $4,000 (about $20,000 in 2020 Canadian dollars), to place twelve billboards around Vancouver, proclaiming: “Ecology? Look it up! You’re involved.”
In August 1969, when the US announced a nuclear bomb test for Amchitka Island in Alaska, Dorothy and Ben joined forces with Irving and Dorothy Stowe, Bob and Zoe Hunter, Jim and Marie Bohlen, Bill Darnell, and others to launch a campaign to stop the test. This small group of Canadians and expatriate Americans became Greenpeace.
Borrowing a Quaker tactic, the group decided to send a small fish boat into the US nuclear test zone. Ben Metcalfe joined the crew, and relayed news stories back to Dorothy, who had set up a radio and wire service in her home. Dorothy recorded radio calls from the boat and passed them along to Canadian and international journalists.
Dorothy’s political savvy and journalist network made the campaign a huge story across Canada and the US. Over the radio, Dorothy told Ben. “Nixon’s under pressure from his own party. Gravel and Inouye in the Senate are opposed. Hirohito is going to meet with Nixon in Anchorage this month and he’s not in favor of the bomb. No one wants to come out in favour of the bomb. It’s going to come down to the Supreme Court.”
Since the US Air Force was attempting to keep track of the Greenpeace vessel, Dorothy remained in daily contact with the US Coast Guard and learned that a directive had gone out to pilots: SEARCH CAN VES GREEN PEACE. Dorothy Metcalfe gave the coast guard the ship’s position and told them: “We have no secrets. Our ship is heading for Amchitka Island to stop this nuclear test.”
Dorothy wrote personally to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, insisting that he urge the Americans halt the test. When he took no action, Dorothy chastised him in the press for being “cowardly.” She sent Trudeau a personal message through the media: “From the wives and families of the men on board the Greenpeace. Our men are risking their lives for the benefit of all mankind.” When some Canadian supporters rebuked her for calling the Prime Minister a coward, she told them, “This is a democracy. People have a responsibility to speak their minds.”
The sophisticated media operation became a fundamental difference between Greenpeace and earlier protest boats such as the Quaker Golden Rule, and Dorothy Metcalfe provided the hub of that media campaign.
The US detonated the bomb test in 1971, but then cancelled all future tests due to the opposition. After the success of the Amchitka campaign a Canadian reporter accused the Metcalfes of being “anti-American,” and claimed that they would never mount a similar campaign against French nuclear testing.
“Good idea,” Dorothy told Ben, and within days, they formulated a campaign against the French tests on Moruroa atoll in the South Pacific. A popular French film at that time, Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour, told a love story set against the tragedy of the Hiroshima nuclear explosion. Dorothy called their campaign “Mururoa Mon Amour,” which immediately struck a nerve in France. (At the time, Greenpeace used the French colonial misspelling “Mururoa,” which persisted on most maps.)
Ben and Dorothy ran ads in New Zealand and Australia to find a boat and skipper who would saild to the French test site, which led David McTaggart to Greenpeace. They began a letter-writing campaign directed at French President Pompidou and arranged to attend the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, to get atmospheric nuclear testing on the agenda. To put more pressure on predominantly Catholic France, Dorothy arranged an audience with Pope Paul VI in Rome. She received a reply from the Canadian Archbishop, saying the Pope would see them at the Vatican in June.
Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe and their assistant Madeleine Reid arrived in Paris at the end of May. They made their way along the Seine to meet Greenpeace activist Rod Marining for a planned protest at Notre Dame Cathedral. At Quai St. Michel, French security agents disguised as hippies surrounded them, demanded their passports, and placed the three Canadians in a decrepit-looking Citroen. Exotic communications gear had been built into the car and the dashboard looked like the cockpit of a jet airplane. Inside a windowless room at the Securité National headquarters, an agent told them they would be deported back to Canada.
“Non!” said Dorothy Metcalfe defiantly. “You can’t.”
Dorothy reached into her handbag and produced the Vatican cable. “We have an audience with the Pope,” she insisted. The agent grabbed the cable. There followed a great deal of stomping back and forth from the adjoining room, voices on the telephone, and finally the officer in charge said, “Fine, we’re deporting you to Italy.”
“We have to get our luggage,” Dorothy insisted. The officer said he would arrange to collect their things from the hotel, but Dorothy refused the offer. “It’s personal.” More stomping and phone calls. Reluctantly, the agents allowed Dorothy and Madeleine to return to their hotel to retrieve their own luggage, but they held Ben Metcalfe in custody. As Dorothy left, her eyes met her husband’s and a faint smile crossed her face.
On their way to the Left Bank hotel, Dorothy and Madeleine stopped at the Reuters office, reported their arrest and deportation, and left information about the Moruroa campaign. At the hotel, Dorothy called their Canadian friend Lyle Thurston in Rome and told him they would meet him on the Spanish Steps the following day. The two women returned to the Securité National office, where a young agent, assigned to escort them to Rome, ushered them into a cab. He carried a thin briefcase and appeared nervous in his new trench coat.
In the cab, the Metcalfes spoke in French with the agent, which seemed to relax him. When they arrived at Gare de Lyon, a Reuters photographer stood waiting at the train platform. The agent threw up his hands. “Non! Non!” he protested, but it was too late. The photographer weaved and crouched, clicking his shutter. A crowd gathered to see the celebrities. The Canadians waved and smiled. The agent attempted to hustle them onto the train, but Dorothy and Madeleine took their time and chatted with the crowd. “Madame. Madame,” the agent pleaded. “S’il vous plaît. Please.”
Once aboard, Ben and Dorothy opened the windows and waved as the train pulled out. The UPI photographer took more pictures. Photographs of Madeleine, Ben, and Dorothy circulated on the wire services with the story. The three Canadians looked like international jewel thieves, well dressed, suave, but in custody. The flustered agent appeared to be on his first big assignment, discreetly whispering to the conductors. A youthful waiter in the dining car heard they were from Greenpeace, shook their hands, and returned with a free round of cognac for the four travellers. The agent enjoyed his cognac, so Ben bought another round. Then the agent felt compelled to buy a round. His confidence bolstered, he now appeared pleased to be escorting such famous villains.
The drinking continued through Dijon, the Alps, and into Torino. Ben and Dorothy kept the agent entertained with stories of the Canadian prairies and Europe after World War II. The young man shared stories of his boyhood in the French countryside. Ben and Dorothy kept ordering cognac. Madeleine pasted a Greenpeace “Mururoa Mon Amour” sticker onto the agent’s briefcase. Ben and Dorothy explained to him the horror of nuclear weapons and radiation. The young man defended France’s right to protect itself, but soon agreed that nuclear bombs might not be the best solution to world problems. The agent fought off sleep as they roared south toward Rome.
When they arrived at the Rome terminal, sixteen hours from Paris, the story of their deportation had appeared in the international newspapers. The French agent stepped gingerly along the platform, pale and appearing queasy. Madeleine and the Metcalfes headed off to see the Pope and left him in the train station with the “Mururoa Mon Amour” sticker still on his briefcase.
Dorothy Metcalf was a skilled campaigner, who knew how to create public interest, and who was fearless in the face of governments and corporations.
There will be a Celebration of Life for Dorothy on Tuesday, February 18 at the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver, 5 to 7 pm.