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When Greenpeace championed peace

February 27, 2020

On July 10, 1985 French secret service agents attached bombs to the hull of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, moored in Auckland, New Zealand. The French agents thought the entire crew would be in town at the captain’s birthday party when the bombs went off. Photographer Fernando Pereira wasn’t feeling well, so stayed behind. He was killed by the explosions that sank the ship.

Why did President Francois Mitterand authorise the destruction of the Greenpeace flagship? Because Greenpeace kept showing up at the French nuclear test site in the Mururoa atoll in the South Pacific.

A decade later, as the tenth anniversary of this act of state sanctioned terrorism approached, Greenpeace was making plans. On July 10, 1995 the Rainbow Warrior II sailed into the territorial waters claimed by France, surrounding the Mururoa atoll. As the French navy descended on the ship, first ramming it, then boarding it and teargassing the crew, a few miles away, in international waters, three men transferred themselves from the Vega into an inflatable and hightailed it to one of the many islands in the atoll. (The three men –New Zealander Henk Haazen, Australian Chris Robinson and David McTaggart, the Canadian head of Greenpeace International – drove the French authorities mad by evading capture for weeks.)

Events to mark the tenth anniversary were planned by Greenpeace offices around the world, including Vancouver (known within Greenpeace International as “the little town of Bethlehem” – the birthplace of the organisation).

It so happened that one of the activists in Vancouver had a French father. Although she was born in Canada, this entitled her to acquire a French passport. Not that she really wanted one, but this gave her an excuse to go to the French consulate office on Granville Street to pick up an application – and scope out the emergency exits. The consulate staff assured her she could simply mail the application back, but she insisted she would like to make an appointment to have the application reviewed in person. Her appointment was made for July 10.

In between her first and second appointments, French President Jacques Chirac announced his country’s plans to abandon a voluntary moratorium and resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific forthwith. After all, completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was fast approaching and France clearly wanted a few more big bangs first. The announcement, coming so close to the tenth anniversary of Fernando Pereira’s murder felt like a deliberately timed slap in the face.

On the morning of July 10th, our intrepid passport seeker arrived at the French consulate, passed through security and went straight to the fire door, which she opened to allow our former Nuclear Free Seas campaigner and several other volunteers to gain entry. All six chained themselves together and plonked themselves down on the floor of the consulate.

I was not one of the people inside the consulate. I was one of the people outside the building, holding up a banner and wearing the baseball cap I’d acquired four and a half years earlier after my arrest at the US  nuclear test site in Nevada. When it was my turn to speak, I pointed at the Stop Nuclear Testing cap and said how furious I was that the French government had forced me to put the cap back on my head.

The moratorium France abandoned had never involved China, which hadn’t stopped nuclear testing and that year was picking up the pace. The tests by China and now France were seen by all those who favoured it as an impediment to the completion of the CTBT. (Two days before an announced Chinese test in August 1995, five Greenpeace activists staged a protest in Tiananmen Square. Within two minutes security forces had arrested the activists and the Western reporters there to cover the protest. It didn’t last long, but it certainly pissed off the Chinese government.)

In early September, an anti-nuclear testing protest march, organised by Greenpeace and End the Arms Race, was held in Vancouver. It began at the Chinese consulate, also on Granville Street, but across the bridge from the French consulate’s downtown location. Several hundred people marched across the bridge (which had been closed) and down Granville Street (also closed to traffic). I was there with my partner Mike, a founding member of End the Arms Race.

At one point as we were walking down Granville Street, I spotted a guy standing on a street corner watching the march. “Hey,” I said to Mike, pointing him out, “that guy really looks like Michael Moore.” Then I clocked the Detroit Tigers baseball cap and realised, holy shit, it actually is Michael Moore.  What on earth was he doing there? Oh, right, the Vancouver International Film Festival was on and he was screening Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film.

I quickly sought out Tamara, the Greenpeace communications director, to point out my discovery. She’d already spotted Moore. Together we approached him and explained what the protest was about, before she asked him – just out of curiosity, you know – how he felt about nuclear testing. Not surprisingly he thought it was a bad thing. Tamara then sounded him out on whether he’d be willing to say so in front of the French consulate. The answer was yes. As we approached the consulate Tamara gave him a pretty thorough briefing on the issues involved.

For some reason which I can neither remember nor fathom, the head of the forest campaign had been tagged to introduce the various speakers (one of whom was Mike – poli-sci professor by day and lifelong, all round anti-nukes campaigner). Tamara grabbed the forest campaign woman to say there was a change of plan: the first speaker would now be Michael Moore. “Who?” she asked. Tamara rolled her eyes and said: “You know. Michael Moore. Roger and Me? The famous documentary maker?” The woman nodded and when the time came to introduce him said how happy she was to “welcome that famous Canadian documentary maker, Michael Moore”. I cringed, but, god love him, he simply said “I’m not actually Canadian, but I’d like to be, so thank you.” He then spoke very well about the perils of nuclear testing and why it should stop.

Why am I writing about this today? Because it all came flooding back a few days ago when Tamara posted this photo on Facebook.

nukes 1995

Yes, that is Michael Moore (doesn’t he look young?) with Tamara in her then trademark biker jacket (worn, she reminded people on Facebook, with cowboy boots). And that’s me on the far right. Don’t I look young, too? Well, it was 25 years ago.

There was a very satisfying postscript to that day’s events.

BCTV, with a number of forest industry leaders on its board, had a policy of never covering any Greenpeace event. I really enjoyed the thought that, when both the CBC and the Global local news that night led with footage of Michael Moore speaking out against nuclear testing, someone at BCTV kicked themselves – or got a good kicking.

From → Columns

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