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Greenpeace Gets a Name

In 1970, a Vancouver anti-nuclear activist casually uttered the words "green peace" and a great movement was launched.

Rex Weyler 10 Sep
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[Editor's note: This excerpt is adapted from GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World, Vancouver journalist Rex Weyler's history of the group's first eight tumultuous years. Enter to win tickets to an upcoming Greenpeace benefit concert or free copies of the book.]

The ordinary citizens of British Columbia spawned Greenpeace, the most visible manifestation of a new ecological ethos that developed globally during the 1970s. By the mid-1960s, B.C. had moved well ahead of the global ecology movement. Whereas California had more environmental groups, B.C. hosted a much broader base of civic support and action. UBC offered one of the world's first ecology doctorates. A New Zealand brain scientist, Paul Spong, performed the world's first clinical studies on a captured whale at the Vancouver Aquarium. B.C. naturalists halted the flooding of the Skagit River Valley by a Seattle power company. And when the government proposed a highway through Vancouver, along the beach and around Point Grey, Vancouver citizens rose up to preserve the seaside quality of the downtown core and the shoreline of English Bay.

This marked a turning point in B.C. history: The environmentalists had discovered the greatest inspiration for any social activist: They could win.

Three B.C. journalists from Winnipeg played a key role in creating the Greenpeace mystique: Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe and Bob Hunter. Metcalfe's CBC radio and television broadcasts comprised the first broad public voice for ecology in British Columbia. Dorothy Metcalfe, formerly with the Winnipeg Free Press, operated an international news service from her home during the first two Greenpeace campaigns. In a 1969 Vancouver Sun column, Bob Hunter reprinted the ecology symbol designed by Ron Cobb at the Los Angeles Free Press. "I venture to predict," wrote Hunter, "that it will become as familiar as the peace symbol."

Greenpeace evolved as much by happenstance as by design. In October 1969, the United States detonated a one-megaton nuclear bomb on remote Amchitka Island, 2,400 miles northwest of Vancouver in the Aleutian Islands. The blast created a Richter 6.9 shockwave. Hunter, recalling a 1964 tsunami that swamped Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, wrote in his column: "There is a distinct danger that the tests might set in motion earthquakes and tidal waves which could sweep from one end of the Pacific to the other."

Don't Make a Wave

For a disarmament rally in front of the U.S. consulate, Hunter came up with the slogan "Don't Make a Wave." When the U.S. Department of Defense announced another test, five times more powerful, for the fall of 1971, Vancouver activists vowed to stop it. American Quaker Irving Stowe, living in Point Grey, phoned journalists Hunter and Metcalfe. He called his expatriate American friends Jim and Marie Bohlen, local members of the Sierra Club, and others. Stowe borrowed Hunter's slogan and organized a group that came to be known as the "Don't Make a Wave Committee."

On Sunday morning, February 8, 1970, Sierra Club members Jim and Marie Bohlen drank coffee in the kitchen of their home on West 19th, in the arborous neighbourhood of Dunbar. From the typically overcast winter sky, a diffused light filtered through the chestnut trees. Marie, a nature illustrator, watched busy juncos and chickadees in the damp morning foliage.

Jim told Marie he was frustrated with the Sierra Club for its failure to oppose nuclear weapons, and with the Don't Make a Wave Committee for its inability to arrive at a strategy. Marie sipped her coffee and watched the birds. Jim seethed as he read the newspaper. He got a second cup of coffee. Finally, somewhat casually, Marie said, "Why not sail a boat up there and confront the bomb?"

Confronting the bomb

The Vancouver activists knew about the Golden Rule, the Quaker boat that had attempted to sail into the Enewetak test zone in 1958. Bob Hunter and lawyer Hamish Bruce had launched a fishing boat, Maddy, to stage ecology actions, but it had sunk at dockside. But Marie's suggestion was pure inspiration, detached from the practicalities. It just seemed to her like the right thing to do.

As Jim and Marie contemplated this, the phone rang. A reporter from the Vancouver Sun, making a routine call, asked what campaigns the Sierra Club might be planning. The synchronicity caught Bohlen off guard. Out of frustration, he took the plunge. "We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb," he explained. To Bohlen, this may have been a hypothetical idea, but to the Sun reporter, it was a scoop. The Sun ran the story the next day. The headline proclaimed: "Sierra Club Plans N-Blast Blockade."

The initial glitch was that the Sierra Club had approved no such campaign. Furthermore, the B.C. chapter had set itself up with the blessings of the Seattle group but had not received official sanction from Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco. What happened next would be clouded by myth, but over the next week, the Don't Make a Wave Committee devised a plan to sail a boat to Amchitka Island and they gave the boat a name, although no such boat had been committed to the cause.

In the Fireside Room of the Vancouver Unitarian Church on Oak Street, the committee held an emergency meeting. Light entered the unadorned room from two tall, thin windows in the west wall. Wooden and grey metal chairs had been pulled out, facing a table where Irving Stowe presided. The throng pulsated with anticipation. Although Marie's idea and Jim's pronouncement to the media had bypassed the consensus process, no one opposed the plan for a boat. On the contrary, the idea had given the group some direction.

When the Sierra Club declined to support the plan, the Don't Make a Wave Committee simply assumed an ad hoc status. The group unanimously ratified the action, although they had neither a boat, the money to charter one, nor any legal standing other than the democratic right of citizens to assemble and challenge their governments.

'Make it a green peace.'

As the meeting wound down, people drifted into the courtyard of the Unitarian Church grounds, milled around, and talked in small groups. When Stowe left, he flashed the "V" sign, as was his custom, and said, "Peace." Bill Darnell, a quiet ecology activist who rarely spoke at the meetings, said modestly, in the same offhanded manner that Marie Bohlen had suggested the boat, "Make it a green peace."

The assembly went silent for a moment. Darnell was not aware that anyone took notice, yet everyone heard the magic in the two words. Others in the group had discussed the confluence of disarmament and ecology, and Hunter and Metcalfe had written about the idea, yet no one had quite articulated the fusion so succinctly. The indelible conjugate lodged in people's minds. A green peace. Later, Stowe confided to Darnell that he could not stop thinking about the words. Hunter believed the expression fused the two most urgent movements in human affairs. Metcalfe said, "Yeah, well, it fits better in a headline than the Don't Make A Wave Committee." Over the next few days, people talked about the hypothetical boat as if it existed, and some called it "the Green Peace."

The group soon found fisherman John Cormack on a Fraser River dock. With the salmon and halibut fisheries closed, Cormack needed money, and agreed to take 12 volunteers to Amchitka Island. The boat, re-christened "Greenpeace," left Vancouver on September 15, 1971, but never reached Amchitka. The U.S. Coast Guard arrested them in Akutan, 600 miles from their goal.

Sailing into history

Nevertheless, the voyage provoked protests across Canada and the US. Journalist Ben Metcalfe kept daily radio links to the world through Dorothy's makeshift global news agency in West Vancouver. Bob Hunter filed columns and news to the Vancouver Sun, feeding the international wire services. Eighteen Coast Guard sailors signed a letter supporting the Greenpeace. Richard Nixon fumed and the US Supreme Court dithered. In Vancouver, Union workers marched with hippies. Even ultra-conservative B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett joined the protest. Nixon mulishly approved the test, but it would be the last. Two months later, the US military abandoned the test series and declared Amchitka Island a wildlife sanctuary.

The following spring, the new "Greenpeace Foundation," with Ben Metcalfe as inaugural chairman, launched a sailboat to the French nuclear test site in the South Pacific, eventually forcing France to abandon atmospheric testing.

In 1973, Hunter took the reigns of the fledgling organization to "put the green in Greenpeace" by staging dramatic ecology actions. When Paul Spong came to him to help save the world's whales, a new era of seagoing environmental protest was born. In 1975, Greenpeace zodiacs interfered with Russian whaling boats off the coast of California, and millions of people around the world fell in love with Greenpeace. That same year, B.C.'s first NDP Premier, Dave Barrett, established the world's first orca whale sanctuary in British Columbia.

In 1979, Greenpeace International was formed in Amsterdam, under the leadership of Vancouver native David McTaggart. The citizens of British Columbia, by making a coordinated and consistent stand on behalf of their environment, created an endowment to the entire planet: an ecological strike force with the ability to face down governments and corporations over environmental issues.

GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World (Raincoast Books, 2004) is available in bookstores and online at

Click Here to Win Tickets to a Greenpeace benefit.

On Sept. 21, a concert at the Commodore in Vancouver will celebrate the Greenpeace legacy. Musicians include Chilliwack, who played at the first Greenpeace benefit in 1971, Paul Horn, Ann Mortifee, Jim Byrnes, Zubot & Dawson, Shari Ulrich, Joe Keithley, and special guests Leonard George, Mayor Larry Campbell, Bob Hunter, Dorothy Stowe, Paul Spong, Tzeporah Berman, and others.

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