Jean McLaren

Jean McLaren

Gabriola activist proud to stand up for beliefs

NANAIMO – Jean McLaren, 86, is still engaging in peaceful protests and sharing tips with fledgling demonstrators.

Under the looming threat of nuclear war, Jean McLaren decided it was time to take a stand.

In 1949, Russia and America were locked in a frigid standoff and nuclear destruction was a growing concern for Canadians. Instead of wringing her hands about what could happen, McLaren said she decided to take action. She joined the ranks of the Communist Party – one of the few organizations she felt was doing anything about world peace – and worked as a door-to-door canvasser against nuclear weapons.

On $1.49 day at Woodward’s department store in Vancouver, she’d stand at the building corner and call out for the crowds of bargain hunters to sign petitions for peace.

It wasn’t an easy job, she recalls.

“People would actually spit on me and tell me to go back to Russia. I’d never even been there,” said McLaren. “They really did say horrible things and you know [banning the bombs] is something we won in that time. We didn’t think we had [because] there are nuclear weapons still, but no one has dropped a bomb since [Hiroshima and Nagasaki].”

Since the beginning of McLaren’s protest efforts, she has been arrested nine times and held at gunpoint – but nothing has deterred her from the causes she believes in.

McLaren said she takes pride in standing up against injustices and isn’t afraid if it gets her into a little trouble along the way. She participated in Canada’s largest non-violent blockade at Clayoquot Sound two decades ago and is a pioneer of Gabriola’s Raging Grannies. She has accumulated a few tricks over the years on techniques for peaceful rallies and now, as the Gabriola resident sees activism make a comeback, she’s sharing those tips with fledgling protesters.

McLaren recently spoke to a dozen people interested in marching against Nanaimo’s Linley Valley development – an area advocates feel should be preserved as a nature park.

“I love [non-violence training],” McLaren said. “I teach them not to be afraid … that everyone has a job to do, whether it’s risking arrest or not … [and that] if you love something, stand up for it.”

McLaren moved to Vancouver Island in 1951, where she was eventually expelled from the Communist Party for questioning the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. She continued to find avenues to protest including the Congress of Canadian Women, Nanoose Conversion Campaign and Clayoquot Sound.

In 1992, McLaren was arrested for refusing to get off a logging road where she was teaching a peaceful protest workshop. It would be a full year before she made her way back to Clayoquot Sound and this time she was banned from going within 200 metres of any logging road in the province. She spent her time at the “black hole” – a clear cut area near Kennedy Lake where protesters set up a camp. There, she would listen to the experiences of blockaders and counsel them on the best ways to stand up for their beliefs.

“Clayoquot Sound – it changed my life a lot,” McLaren said. “It just got me to understand how to act and not to act and how it works if you do not get angry.”

Twenty years after Clayoquot Sound, the 86-year-old is anything but retired. If she isn’t protesting, she’s teaching people how to take a stand.

There seems to be a resurgence in activism, says McLaren, who has watched with interest the Occupy and Idle No More movements. In Nanaimo people threatened civil disobedience to protect the Colliery dams and people are considering peaceful protests to push back against a Linley Valley development.

McLaren said people seem to want change. Her advice?

“Stand up for what you believe in, but do not get too angry,” McLaren said. “If you get angry, then [those on the other side] get angry and it’s hard to understand each other.”