CANADIAN journalist Bob Hunter was one of the co-founders of Greenpeace in 1971. He became a key member and shaper of the group’s image, and served as its first president, from 1973 to 1979, leading it through its initial growth towards its current status as a highly influential movement located in 41 countries, and with more than 2.8million members.
In Hunter’s words, Greenpeace started as “an ad-hoc committee meeting in living rooms“, trying to find a response to US nuclear tests in Alaska.
It was 1969, and America was about to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the tiny Aleutian island of Amchitka. Thousands of protestors, fearing earthquakes and tsunamis triggered by the blast, gathered on the Canadian-US border in an attempt to stop the test. Hunter came up with the slogan, “Don’t make a wave.” The protest failed, and Washington announced plans for a second blast in 1971.
Hunter and 11 other men took a leaky, 99-ton halibut trawler, the Phyllis Cormack, renamed it the Greenpeace, and sailed it north from British Columbia, with the intention of circling Amchitka, just outside the three-mile exclusion zone, until either the bomb was detonated or the test was called off. Hunter, who had joined the expedition as a reporter, found himself taking first watch.
Dogged by terrible weather, 40-foot swells and mechanical problems, the Greenpeace never made it to the test zone, despite two attempts and 45 days at sea, and the Americans completed their testing undisturbed. But the audacity of the group’s plan caused an international sensation, and, five months after the voyage, the US halted all nuclear tests in the Aleutian islands. Amchitka is now a bird sanctuary.
Hunter brought whale and seal hunting to public attention, as well as the dumping of toxic waste into the oceans. He realised how direct action against Soviet or Japanese whalers could translate into dramatic reportage, leading him to develop the concept of the “media mind bomb” to describe such acts. He was also responsible for borrowing the term “rainbow warriors” from a Cree legend that prophesied that races from around the world would one day come together to defend mother earth. The Rainbow Warrior became Greenpeace’s flagship.
Hunter was born in land-locked Winnipeg on the Canadian prairies, where he was raised mainly by his French-Canadian mother after his father had left. Following a stint on the Winnipeg Tribune, he moved to Vancouver in the 1960s to become a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He also wrote television drama.
He left the employ of Greenpeace in 1981 to return to writing and broadcasting, becoming an environmental correspondent in Toronto, and the host on a television show, Hunter’s Gathering. He also continued to speak at Greenpeace functions. In 1991, he won a governor-general’s award for literature for his book Occupied Canada, in which a young white man, discovering that his family has hidden the fact that he is half-Mohawk, adopts the native Canadian way of life. Hunter published 12 other books.
In 2000, Time magazine named him as one of the 20th century’s top 10 environmental heroes, and, the following year, he unsuccessfully ran for the Ontario provincial legislature as a Liberal. He had, by then, been suffering from prostate cancer for two years, and turned this experience into a documentary film, Men Don’t Cry, to highlight the reality of how older men dealt with having the disease.
In 1979, when Greenpeace received a call from US President Jimmy Carter applauding its efforts to save whales, Hunter said he realised that the organisation had come full circle, from environmental fringe group to something much bigger and with vast appeal.
He added that Greenpeace’s vision “is the vision of the 20th century for the 21st century. When there are visions involved, and dreams and ideals and ethics and changed values … that all basically implies a revolution. No wonder governments don’t like us.”
[Edited Obituary from the Guardian, 04 May 2004].