Joanne Young: A Civilly Disobedient Peace Activist

ONE OF CANADA'S staunchest opponents of the arms race is a 57-year-old grandmother named Joanne Young. Until she was fired for her activism, Joanne was a high school teacher in Huron County, Ontario. One Saturday, after she had marched all day protesting against war toys, she relaxed with a cup of tea and talked to me about her life and her commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience.

By Metta Spencer | 1985-03-01 12:00:00

It was her husband Bill's death that had set her on this course, she explained quietly. They had been married for only eight years when he died. A chemical engineer at the Eldorado uranium refinery in Port Hope, and proud of his work, Bill knew that Canadian uranium had been used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and that it was being exploded in the American deserts, contaminating the world with fallout. However, like most of the other citizens of Port Hope, he believed in the benefits of nuclear power that would come from the work at Eldorado.

But one day things went wrong. The company had been dismantling an outmoded radium lab, and the air ducts were full of radioactive dust. Bill, who was in charge of the job, has seen the plumber taking the ducts apart and tossing them carelessly on the floor.

"Bill went roaring up and told him to cut that out," reminisced Joanne. "But he came home that night very depressed. He said he was sure he'd ingested a great deal of radioactivity and was very concerned. I forgot about it until a couple of months later when he said, 'I haven't had any effects so far, so it must have been all right.'"

But it wasn't all right. That winter he didn't feel at all well. There were medical tests, but no diagnosis was possible until it was too late. Bill died of cancer exactly two years after the day he had been exposed. He was thirty-four.

Joanne sold their car to pay for the funeral. The company took the case to the Workman's Compensation Board without telling her and obtained a clearance of any connection between Bill's work and his death. Joanne found herself alone with a sick newborn daughter, three other small children, insurance money sufficient to pay off their $5000 house, and nothing much else. She went on Mother's Allowance and stayed in Port Hope for a few years before going to work in the children's library.

Her very existence in Port Hope had a polarizing effect on the community. The townspeople mainly wished she'd go someplace else with her Mother's Allowance - or at least stop blaming the uranium refinery for her troubles. But instead she wore black all the time and opposed Eldorado every chance she got. She even published a piece in Saturday Night magazine when Diefenbaker was campaigning, arguing that the atomic tests that were going on in the atmosphere ought to be an election issue.

Finally she did move away, taking one teaching job after another in various small Ontario towns. She kept so busy, earning two more university degrees, plus teaching and looking after her four kids, that she never thought of taking part in the anti-nuclear movement. Not, at least, until Penny Sanger's book about Eldorado and Port Hope was published about three years ago. Ms. Sanger had been brought up in Port Hope and still loved the place. Her book, Blind Faith, touched a raw nerve, reports Joanne: "I found out so much that made me so angry."

It was a turning point. Her children were grown and she felt a duty to do something more. The chance came in June of 1982 when, along with 800,000 other people, she marched in New York to support the Second United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. Besides the big march, there was a training session for people who wanted to undertake some nonviolent direct action, including a protest in front of each of the UN Missions of the five countries possessing nuclear weapons. Joanne took the training and was assigned to sit in front of the French Mission. She was arrested, went limp and was carried off to jail, where she kept her resolution not to cooperate in any way. She would not allow herself to be fingerprinted, nor would she identify herself. "My name is 'Legion,'" she told them.

"What's your first name?"

"American," she answered. "American Legion."

That was June. By November she was jailed again and called herself "Canadian Legion" this time. Her third direct action was at Griffiss Air Force Base, in upstate New York, where the M.P.s who arrested her were especially harsh. She called herself "Louis Riel" there and they kept her for three weeks, while she fasted, losing about twenty pounds. It was the first time she had fasted in jail, an experience that she has repeated twice since then.

Joanne found a special satisfaction in nonviolent non-cooperation, and has persisted with it. Whenever arrested, she scrupulously refuses to be fingerprinted, or to promise to keep any conditions of bail, or to give her name. Lately she's called herself "Annie Buller," in honor of a needlework union organizer who had been badly treated by the justice system at the time of the Winnipeg General Strike.

Joanne's last few arrests have had an unsatisfying conclusion: The charges have been dropped for legal technicalities. "After fasting for two weeks in jail, it was disappointing," she says. "We want to get our point of view in to the media. This is the basic reason why I do it this way - it's the only way to get the story across to the average Joe."

Joanne reports that most of the teachers and students in her old school think that what she does is great, but the school board is an altogether different matter. She had applied for three special days of leave (to which every teacher is entitled each year) to attend the demonstration at Litton in November of 1982. Her principal gave her verbal permission, she says, but two weeks later denied that it had been granted. She went anyway, and was accused of breaking her contractual obligations.

Joanne did not bow to this pressure: Again and again she asked for time off without pay to participate in direct actions. Again and again she was refused, but participated anyway. Last November, after a year or so of warnings, her school board fired her. With the legal help of the Teachers' Federation, she is appealing the decision.

In the meantime, she has been living on borrowed money. She may have to wait for about two years to find out the results of her appeal before she will be entitled to any pension benefits, which, in any case, will be very small, considering the earliness of her "retirement." Still, her financial problems seem to worry her very little.

"I've lived below the poverty line before," she says calmly. "I have no reason to assume that I won't be living below the poverty line again. I don't look at it as much of a sacrifice. I'm 57. It wasn't as though I was a kid in university doing this and that would mean I never would get a job. I feel we've all got to make sacrifices if we expect to see an end to the arms race, and some sort of a decent chance for Third World people.... If I can get these issues in front of the public, I'll figure I've done what I wanted to do. I think the few of us who are aware of what is going on have a responsibility."

Civil disobedience seems to her the best way to contribute, provided it is non-violent. "It's one way of letting people know just how sincere we are. If you're willing to put your body on the line down there at Litton, then people will see that someone feels that strongly about it and they're going to pay more attention. Rallies, parades, picketing - that sort of thing has some effect, but not nearly as much as civil disobedience."

When I asked her if Bill would be out there protesting with her today, if he had lived and knew what she knows now, she said, "No, I don't think so. He was capable of convincing himself that the government could do no wrong."

"But I've never been very interested in what anybody else thinks," Joanne Young added softly. "It's as though I got married to him so I could get a good background for my peace activities. It's a weird thought but I wouldn't have been this active if I hadn't been married to Bill and if that hadn't happened to him. In Hamlet there's a line -'There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.'"

Peace Magazine March 1985

Peace Magazine March 1985, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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