Saturday, August 22, 2009

Muriel Duckworth, Rest In Peace

To produce the book that I am one chapter and change away from finishing, I interviewed 50 Canadian activists who have been "long distance runners" in struggles for social change. Though the plan for the book that I have ultimately settled on does not have a chapter focusing on my interview with her, Muriel Duckworth, who died today at the age of 100, was the longest active person that I had the pleasure of talking to.

Duckworth was originally politicized while a student at McGill University in the late 1920s, through her involvement in the Student Christian Movement. (The SCM is an organization that was originally created by returned veterans of the First World War. Its activists combined radical explorations of Christianity with a commitment to change in the service of social justice -- at some moments, quite a radical vision for social justice. It is not nearly as influential today as it was in a long-gone era, but it still exists.) She and her husband, who was already a committed pacifist when they married, arrived as students at New York's Union Theological Seminary, at that time a stronghold of progressive and leftist Christian politics, not long after the great stock market crash in 1929. When they returned to Montreal a few years later they got deeply involved in the League for Social Reconstruction, the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation -- all key organizations working towards a particular version of democratic socialism during the Great Depression in Canada.

She and her husband belonged to the Fellowship of Reconciliation before the outbreak of Word War II, and he was a conscientious objector during that conflict. After the war they moved to Halifax, where they continued to be involved in the adult education movement and in the peace movement. She was involved in the very early anti-nuclear arms movement, which began in Canada around the time of the Bomarc Missile controversy during John Diefenbaker's time as Prime Minister. She is perhaps best known for her long-time involvement, including a stint as national president, with Voice of Women, a very important organization to both the peace movement and the women's movement in Canada. The group was started nationally in 1960, and the Halifax chapter began soon after. The Halifax group had an early commitment both to working on human rights issues, particularly around the oppressions experienced by the African Nova Scotian community, and to anti-nuclear and other peace issues. VOW played an important role in Canadian organizing against the Vietnam War. One of their most important initiatives at the height of the U.S. assault on Vietnam was to bring Vietnamese women on a tour of Canada to talk about their experiences. They were also involved in the resurgent anti-nuke movement of the 1980s, in introducing feminist practices and values to national spaces of the Canadian peace movement despite ongoing resistance from others in the movement, and in a great many other struggles for peace and justice over the years. Muriel was also active more broadly in the Halifax community.

When I spoke to Muriel in 2004, she was no longer as able to be central to organizing as she had once been, but it sounded like she still managed, at 96, to make it to many of the social justice and peace-focused events that happened in Halifax.

The last question I asked her was what she would say to young people who are newly discovering the messed up state of the world, and just starting to get involved in activities for peace and justice. This is what she said:

Stick to it. [laugh] That's what I would say to them. Keep it up. Because I think there's so much, so much opposition to the violence, to the poverty, to the misuse of power, amongst young people. Everywhere, everywhere young people are not happy about what's going on. Probably we all need to know more. There are some wonderful young people giving leadership. And to keep up their belief that somehow they can make a difference. Somehow or other we all have the responsibility of changing the social organization so that they can have access to power, which they feel very cut off from. Anything that the older generation's going to do to help them to get access to power is worth doing. Keep singing and dancing and loving.

Most of us can't do much alone. We need the strength of others who share our concerns. We help each other to understand the issues and figure out how to deal with them.

One more thing I would say to a young friend, which A.J. Muste said years ago: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

Of course different people with different visions of social justice and liberation might indulge the inevitable leftist propensity to quibble with some of the details of her advice, but much more appropriate to the moment would be, I think, to take some time to learn more about Muriel. Let us contemplate her example and honour her life and her commitment to social change, which extended through an amazing eight decades, by reflecting on how we can apply the lessons of her unwavering passion for justice and peace to our own choices and activities.

It was an honour to have had a chance to meet her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some of us are working on a campaign to get the new public library in Halifax named the Muriel Duckworth Library. Any help you can give in that direction is welcome. Contact Catriona Talbot at