Author Tags: Environment, Journalism

Ben Metcalfe (E. Bennett Metcalfe) was, among many things, the first chairman of the Greenpeace Foundation.

He was born in Winnipeg on October 31, 1919, the son of a Cockney mother and Yorkshire-born surveyor. During the Depression he caught fish for his family on the Assiniboine River. Idolizing Charles Lindbergh, he left home at age fourteen and reached England where he joined the Royal Air Force. Trained as an aerial gunner prior to World War II, he was shipped to Karachi and soon saw action in India during civil strife in response to colonial rule. In a two-seat, open cockpit Hawker Demon biplane, Metcalfe's job was to disrupt rebels loyal to the Indian Congress Party. The story goes that he and his pilot deliberately dropped their bombs in fallow fields in support of Gandhi's side of the struggle for independence.

During World War II he served in the campaign against Rommel's Afrika Korps in the desert at El Alamein in 1942. He reportedly decided to become a writer after wandering alone in the foothills near his barracks in Yemen, having witnessed the death of a close friend by machine-gun fire. Discharged from the RAF, he was first employed at an ad agency in Bond Street. At age 27 he was hired as a British Foreign Service information officer in Dusseldorf, Germany, during which time he escorted journalists through occupied Germany. Eager to become a professional writer, he watched and learned as news correspondents plied their trade. Metcalfe resigned and headed to Paris, a la Hemingway, where he married the beautiful Belgian Baya de Frahan, lived in poverty on the Boulevard St. Germain, tried writing a detective novel and fraternized slightly with French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. His daughter Sophie was born and he took a job as a sports editor for the Continental Daily Mail. He sold a story to Reuters about how the U.S. efforts to develop nuclear bombs were reliant upon Canadian uranium. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Partly to obtain his Canadian War Veteran's Grant, Metcalfe moved his new family to Winnipeg in 1950. He worked at the Winnipeg Tribune but his European wife returned to Paris without him after the birth of their second daughter Charlotte, taking both children. In Winnipeg Metcalfe met his second wife, Dorothy Hrushka, of Ukrainian and Polish parentage, and they left for Europe in 1953 as journalists for the North American Newspaper Alliance. After their daughter Michelle was born in London, the Metcalfes returned to Manitoba where he worked briefly for the Flin Flon Daily Reminder until a friend from his days in Germany, Ross Munro, found him a job with The Province in Vancouver. Their sons Michael and Christopher were born on the West Coast in 1954 and 1956. Metcalfe was always looking for a scoop and he found one in northeastern British Columbia. The provincial government of W.A.C. Bennett, in the name of progress, was flooding the homelands of the destitute Sekani First Nation. Metcalfe also worked to expose connections between Bennett's hydroelectric projects and a Swedish Nazi industrialist named Axel Wennergren. Trained as an aerial gunner, Metcalfe became a media gunner. With equal parts wit and wrath, he was formidable opponent, in both print or in conversation, contemptful of colleagues and enemies as he saw fit.

Metcalfe later worked for CBC Radio and founded a public relations firm with his wife Dorothy Metcalfe in Vancouver. Ahead of his time, Metcalfe paid for 12 billboards in Vancouver in 1969 that declared ECOLOGY? LOOK IT UP! YOU'RE INVOLVED, partially in response to two large detonations by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Alaska in 1965 and 1969. Metcalfe coordinated the initial media campaigns of the Don't Make a Wave Committee, soon to be renamed Greenpeace, as it planned to protest the Amchitka nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands in November of 1971. A small consortium of eco-activists argued that the nuclear explosions, near a geological fault line, could set off a devastating quake and a tidal wave.

Metcalfe was part of the Greenpeace crew that used a converted halibut seiner, the Phyllis Cormack, to sail northward in an attempt to disrupt the nuclear testing. Robert Hunter noted at the time that “Old father image mature war veteran cool hip all together Uncle Ben has gone through some awful transformation… ” It was Metcalfe who argued most persuasively to curtail their voyage. “From his experience of how power actually operates in a democracy,” Hunter observed, “his practical experience, he fought the Amchitka fight the way you would sell toothpaste.” The crew didn’t deter Richard Nixon and the AEC, but they triggered the outgrowth of Greenpeace, a worldwide movement with more than three million members.

It was Ben Metcalfe who recruited businessman David McTaggart into the movement. After Metcalfe fought with him over control of McTaggart's sailboat Vega (aka Greenpeace III) and decided to leave the ship in Rarotonga, McTaggart famously sailed with two others into the South Pacific to disrupt French atomic tests in the early 1970s. McTaggart dismissed Metcalfe as a fraud. The French military brutally commandeered McTaggart's sailboat, injuring him, to incite an international controversy. Again, it was Ben Metcalfe who worked at the heart of the publicity campaign to promote Greenpeace's activism. Metcalfe was arrested in Paris and expelled to Italy where he and others succeeded in getting the Pope to bless the Greenpeace flag. His expulsion from France was protested by French intellectuals and activists, including Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Metcalfes welcomed the publicity. (Metcalfe's first wife Baya had remarried to the chief of security of the French Atomic Energy Commission, Henri Messiah.) In Sweden, the Metcalfes and others, including ecologist Patrick Moore, attended the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and succeeded in getting a motion before the June 14 plenary session "To condemn nuclear weapons tests, especially those carried out in the atmosphere." It was carried by a vote of 48-2. The French nonetheless detonated their 28th atmospheric nuclear test in the South Pacific at Moruroa on July 1, 1972. McTaggart persisted in his efforts and later became the leader of Greenpeace in Europe.

Severely estranged from mainstream media, Metcalfe enjoyed a brief renaissance in Vancouver as a columnist for the Georgia Straight as of 1976, taking uncensored swipes at his peers and exposing the corporate agendae of the Tri-Lateral Commission. Respected as an outspoken journalist with a savage wit, Metcalfe was also encouraged by the Roderick Haig-Brown estate to write a biography of Roderick Haig-Brown--until he was strongly discouraged. The contentious result, ten years in the making, is A Man of Some Importance, a critical biography that attempts to "rescue Haig-Brown from the myth-makers who might have hidden him from true human understanding forever." Metcalfe critically places the long-esteemed Campbell River lay magistrate within a broad social and literary perspective. His 1985 book was independently published after severe objections from members of the Haig-Brown family who prevented him from quoting directly from Haig-Brown's diaries. Metcalfe was assisted in the publishing and legal arenas by David Gibbons, the lawyer for Greenpeace in its formative stages.

Metcalfe retired to Vancouver Island and died at age 83 of a heart attack at his home at Shawnigan Lake, B.C. on October 21, 2003.

At the close of his Greenpeace memoir of 1971, Robert Hunter has added a postscript from 2004 in which reassesses the group and its actions. “Everything we did or said got sucked into an overwhelming power struggle,” he recalls. But ultimately Hunter concludes the original Greenpeacers succeeded beyond their dreams. He credits the two oldsters among them, Jim Bohlen and Ben Metcalfe, for having saved his skin. “Ben Metcalfe, Bohlen’s co-conspirator in the plot to bring us home alive, the other mature war veteran on board, and the mastermind of the media campaign, saw no reason to put us at risk of committing mass suicide, and I sneered at him for having ‘lost it.’ But this guy had fought in the Desert War against Rommel, had resisted RAF orders to bomb Gandhi’s followers, and was so far ahead of me in terms of that elusive stuff called experience that there was never any doubt that in matters of life or death he could outmanoeuvre the mutinous but naïve youth faction.

“He was an old rogue survivor. A genius, I now realize. In the end, I studied at his feet.”

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004] "Journalism" "Environment" "Literary Biography"

Ben Metcalfe: A Journalist Who Made A Difference

In 1969, the US Atomic Energy Commission was planning to explode its second atomic bomb in Alaska, this time on the tiny island of Amchitka, in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. Some British Columbians feared a larger man-made blast in Alaska would trigger a devastating earthquake. That same year a headstrong journalist named Ben Metcalfe paid for 12 billboards that declared ECOLOGY? LOOK IT UP! YOU’RE INVOLVED.

In October of 1969, 10,000 protestors blocked the major US-Canadian border crossing, unfurling a banner that read: "Don't Make a Wave. It's Your Fault if Our Fault Goes". But the blast went ahead. As soon as the U.S. promptly announced plans for a follow-up test in 1971, some of the Peace Arch protestors reassembled at the Kitsilano home of transplanted American Quakers Irving and Dorothy Stowe in 1970 and loosely formed the Don't Make A Wave Committee. Its sole objective was to stop the next scheduled test. According to Greenpeace historian Rex Weyler, that mouthful of a moniker was suggested by the Vancouver Sun’s newly hatched radical columnist Robert Hunter.

Along with the Stowes, other members of that Don’t Make A Wave Committee included Paul Cote, a law student at the University of British Columbia, Jim Bohlen, a former deep-sea diver and radar operator in the US Navy, Marie Bohlen (who later suggested sending a protest vessel to Amchitka to serve as a floating picket line), Patrick Moore, a UBC ecology student and Bill Darnell, a social worker. It was Darnell came up with the dynamic combination of words to bind together the group's concern for the planet and opposition to nuclear arms. As the bushy-bearded Irving Stowe was leaving a meeting at the Fireside Room of the Vancouver Unitarian Church, Stowe made the peace sign and said "Peace" to everyone. That sort of thing was done earnestly in those days. Darnell quipped back, "Make it a green peace."

The Committee staged a major fundraising concert at the Pacific Coliseum featuring Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Chilliwack and an unadvertised appearance by James Taylor. The gathering was widely publicized in Dan McLeod’s increasingly influential Georgia Straight and oddly coincided with the implementation of the War Measures Act. Ecology was political, whether ecologists wanted it that way or not.

The DMAWC committee would later be reformed and renamed as Greenpeace, but it was the Don’t Make A Wave Committee that chartered a boat, the Phyllis Cormack, and set sail to Amchitka to "bear witness" (a Quaker tradition of silent protest) to the nuclear test. This tactic was not original. A former U.S. Navy captain had sailed his 32-foot Golden Rule from California towards an American nuclear test site in 1958, only to be arrested in Honolulu and charged with criminal conspiracy.

On board the original Greenpeace protest vessel were Captain John Cormack (the boat's tempermental owner), Jim Bohlen, Bill Darnell, Patrick Moore, Dr Lyle Thurston (medical practitioner), Dave Birmingham (engineer), Terry Simmons (cultural geographer), Richard Fineberg (political science teacher), Robert Hunter (journalist, Vancouver Sun), Ben Metcalfe (journalist, CBC Radio), Bob Cummings (journalist, Georgia Straight) and Bob Keziere (photographer). The group was soon jokingly divided between the Mystics and the Mechanics. Yale-educated lawyer Irving Stowe, who suffered from sea-sickness, stayed on shore to coordinate political pressure. Paul Cote stayed behind too, because he was about to represent Canada in an Olympic sailing race.

Few recall a second boat was sent to Amchitka, with Paul Watson on board, after the Amchitka blast was postponed and the Phyllis Cormack sailed south. The converted 154-foot minesweeper Edgewater Fortune, renamed Greenpeace Too, tied up alongside the Phyllis Cormack at Comox. Original crewmembers Simmons, Cummings and Birmingham joined the larger ship; the others reached the Lions Gate Bridge on October 30, 1971. The 5.2 megaton hydrogen bomb was detonated on November 6, 1971, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. But the Amchitka nuclear test program was cancelled five months later. It has been suggested that his marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War

Three decades later, Robert Hunter learned from Jim Bohlen that he had been giving the captain his orders all along, and that the semblance of democracy aboard the Phyllis Cormack was all a sham. Bohlen was chairman of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee and he wrote the cheques, “but rather than say he was the boss, and that the Greenpeace and the protest action were therefore being run as an old-fashioned hierarchical power structure, he played games to keep us radical young crewmen under control.”

Two new books about this era have brought it all back into its original focus. Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey (Arsenal Pulp $24.95) consists of Robert Hunter’s original record of the 1971 origins of Greenpeace, and Rex Weyler’s much broader history entitled Greenpeace (Raincoast $39.95) chronicles the Greenpeace Foundation until its dissolution in 1979 in favour of more international control.

In 1972, with Robert Hunter as its first president, Greenpeace sent the Vega towards France's nuclear testing site at Moruroa Atoll in the south Pacific. The successful propagandist for the Amchitka protests, Ben Metcalfe, was now chair of the Greenpeace Foundation. He chose the following crew for the Vega: Nigel Ingram (ex-Royal Navy), Roger Haddleton (ex-Royal Navy) and Grant Davidson (cook). The Vega's owner David McTaggart vied with Metcalfe for command of the boat. A Canadian living in New Zealand, McTaggart at first knew nothing of the original voyage to Amchitka. However the successful businessman and champion athlete later become Greenpeace's leader after he sent Metcalfe packing. McTaggart was famously boarded by the French navy, beaten and had his vessel illegally seized.

Various attempts to make the movie have failed, but eventually it’s gotta happen. Sean Penn can play the cosmic columnist Bob Hunter. Gene Hackman can grow a beard and play Irving Stowe. And perhaps Jack Nicholson can puff himself up and portray Ben Metcalfe…

[For more on the Greenpeace saga, see entries for Rex Weyler and Robert Hunter.]

by Alan Twigg

First Broadcast from the vessel Greenpeace (1971)
Radio broadcast

The First Broadcast from the vessel Greenpeace—by Ben Metcalfe, Chatham Point, Johnstone Strait, September 16, 1971.

“We Canadians started the Greenpeacing of America last night,” he began. “We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world. Our goal is a very simple, clear, and direct one—to bring about a confrontation between the people of death and the people of life.” The crew crowded around the door to listen. “We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations… If there are radicals in this story, they are the fanatical technocrats who believe they have the power to play with this world like an infinitely fascinating toy of their own. We do not believe they will be content until they have smashed it like a toy. The message of the Greenpeace is simply this: The world is our place… and we insist on our basic human right to occupy it without danger from any power group. This is not a rhetorical presumption on our part. It is a sense and idea that we share with every ordinary citizen of the world.”

Metcalfe, in his wool Cowichan toque, gripped the transmitter firmly as he broadcast to the world. “While it may be true that it began as the idea of a few men and women in the city of Vancouver, it was not long before these men and women were joined by thousands of others, and now millions who have learned about it over the past few days. Indeed, the crew of the Greenpeace know today that they are part of a massive international protest against the insanity of the Amchitka test. They know too, of course, that they are confronting a power that has a certain experience in ignoring and opposing and even scorning protest… But there is a certain feeling on board… that a new and tougher situation has now developed for the nuclear people. That is what we call the Greenpeacing of America. It could work.”

--excerpted from Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World (Raincoast, 2004) by Rex Weyler.