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Surfing is Surfing:
an essay on Grant Shilling
by Clayton Webb
Don't Care What You Say
in the Woods
off Main Street
& Play & Adults
People, Vulture Culture & Cars
of the Fittest
Travel & the Dead
& Roll Road Kill, Kill, Kill!
We Don't Care What You Say
by Grant Shilling
20 years after, Grant Shilling ponders the legacy of the "Squamish
Five" and the future of punk activism in a post-9/11 world.
Well, come on, man you better jump right in
This is one game that everybody's in
Don't care where you've been, don't care how you look
It's hell fire, man, you're in, you gotta cook
We don't care what you say - fuck you!
--" Fuck You" by Gerry "Useless" Hannah,
It's November 2001 and Joey "Shithead" Keithley of DOA, the
legendary Vancouver punk group, is firing up a Cumberland, British Columbia
crowd with a chorus of cathartic FUCK YOUs. The put-downs are for the
province's Liberal government and their bone-headed decision to remove
the "Ginger Goodwin Way" signs that dot the new Vancouver
Island Autobahn. The signs were designated in 1996 by the NDP provincial
government in memory of the labour martyr, who was shot in the back
by the RCMP in 1918 in the woods just outside of Cumberland. Keithley,
who has written a song about Goodwin, was invited by local labour leaders
to take part in the Cumberland rally. Ginger Goodwin was a worker's
friend who fought for a 40-hour work week. Many consider Goodwin the
Che Guevara of the region. Others consider him a coward for taking a
pacifist's stand during World War I.
" Fuck You" is an old Subhuman's song, which DOA initially
covered in 1983 as part of a benefit single to provide support for Subhuman
singer Gerry Hannah and the other members of the Squamish Five. "Fuck
You" is the verbal equivalent of a bomb. It is a total rejection
of structure, power or polite society. "Fuck You" is non-negotiable,
nihilistic and knowing. It is the essence of punk and once uttered it
often finds its agents. Hannah was one of those agents.
In the early 1980s Gerry "Useless" Hannah left the seminal
Vancouver punk band Subhumans and joined an underground group of saboteurs
who named themselves Direct Action. The group, dubbed by the media as
"the Squamish Five," were responsible for a campaign of dramatic
actions culminating in the bombing of a Hydro Substation on Vancouver
Island and the Litton Systems plant in Toronto in 1982. The Squamish
Five were arrested on the Sea to Sky mountain highway (the road to Squamish)
in B.C. in 1983. Hannah would serve five years for his part in the actions.
On the 20th anniversary of the first activities by Direct Action, and
in light of the anti-terrorist laws proliferating across the world in
the wake of the events of September 11 (including Canada's ominous C-36),
now is the time to gain some perspective on the group.
Clearly, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Direct Action: Memoirs
of an Urban Guerrilla (Between the Lines Publishers) by former "Five"
member Ann Hansen, has just been released and Hansen will also be the
subject of a CBC Fifth Estate documentary this spring. "Useless,"
a documentary by BC filmmaker Glen Sanford which explores the life and
actions of Gerry Hannah, recently played to a raucous and supportive
crowd at the Vancouver Underground Film Festival (held at the fantastic
Blinding Light! Cinema in November).
All these works, including Keithley's semi-nostalgic rendering of the
Subhumans song, provide an opportunity to reconsider the links between
dissent, culture and what may in the future be called terrorism. After
all, aspects of the far reaching Bill C-36 anti-terrorist bill include
"Preventative Detention," which gives the police the power
to throw anyone in jail they choose, without justification or recourse
for the detainee. In the bill, there is no definition or benchmark for
what actually defines terrorism, leaving the powers handed to the police
force and government rife with the potential for abuse. Similar laws
are in place in the U.S. and U.K. At a time when activism and terrorism
are all being lumped together, we can consider these works as welcome
reflections on the criminalization of civil disobedience. We can also
consider the Keithley performance, the Hansen book and the Sanford documentary
as important reminders of the way cultural activity plays a role in
the fight for memory.
An example of the way time and culture change perspective can be found
in the shifting legacy of Metis revolutionary Louis Riel. Riel led a
lengthy campaign in the 19th century to secure a homeland for the Metis
(half Native, half French) people of Canada. As leader of a rogue army,
he was considered a terrorist at the time, and hung by the Canadian
government for his troubles. Today, he is a hero to many. On the same
day Bill C-36 passed, Thelma Chalifoux, the first Metis senator, stated
that her private member's bill declaring Louis Riel a Canadian hero
and calling for May 12th to be officially declared Louis Riel Day, has
enough support in Parliament to become a law by next spring.
Still, there remains much controversy about Riel and his legacy. This
is controversy that has been played out not in the hallowed halls of
politics but in the dirty back rooms of cultural policy. A justly famous
statue in Winnipeg - the work of architect Etienne Gaboury and sculptor
Marcien Lemay - unveiled on the grounds of the Manitoba legislative
building in 1970 shows a tormented Riel, his naked body twisted into
muscled knots. The statue is compelling and clearly conveys a sense
of a great man thwarted and betrayed. But in 1995, that statue was moved
across the river to St. Boniface College where it sits, barely noticed,
facing a small parking lot. A far less enticing conventional sculpture
replaced the original. It shows a statesman-like Riel standing tall
in suit and tie. To prevent the removal of the Lemay statue, the artist
and a supporter staged an ineffectual protest and chained themselves
to the original.
Chester Brown is a Toronto comic artist whose illustrated history of
Riel is being published in serial form by Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly.
I called him up and asked him if he considers Riel a hero, and what
kind of relationship there is between heroes, dissent and culture.
" The whole question of how we create heroes certainly helps when
we have storytellers telling and retelling stories," Brown tells
me. Brown defines a hero as "Someone who acts selflessly, in a
good cause. Especially exposing themselves to possible danger, possibly
physical danger." While Brown sees some of Riel's actions as heroic,
he'd prefer to leave the final decision up to his readers.
Brown is probably wise to defer on the question of who is and is not
a hero. The grey areas between terrorism, heroism and dissent are something
that is often sorted out by time. One person's terrorist is another
person's freedom fighter. With the anti-terrorist Bill C-36 now law
in Canada, we are forced to consider what defines terrorism, something
both Riel and the Squamish Five could have been accused of. It is only
with the perspective of time that we begin to realise the role dissent
plays and how individual acts of defiance which at one time might appear
criminal may eventually be considered heroic. But Brown's comic celebrating
Riel also reminds us that it is up to us to reconsider and remember
the past. We have to choose our own heroes, or it will get done for
" It takes a long time for people to appreciate the heart behind
dissident opinion and activism on that [opinion]," says Hannah,
on the phone from suburban Burnaby, B.C., where he grew up. "Not
that I'm holding Direct Action up as some kind of shining example of
liberating human kind but I do think that what we believed in was valuable.
We weren't doing it because we wanted to fill our own pockets. We were
doing it because we were concerned that the world was going to be annihilated
by nuclear war. That's what led us to our actions. We went to jail for
that. You can argue with our tactics and our methods, but can you argue
with those sentiments?"
This current provincial Liberal era of cutbacks and programs meant to
marginalize and criminalize the poor is evocative of a British Columbia
Socred government 20 years earlier. It was in this climate that the
punk scene in B.C. was developing and the Squamish Five emerged. 20
years later punks young and old are still here to say fuck you, which
begs the question: what is the link between punk and dissent?
"The Subhumans 'Fuck You' was a mentality and an anthem. The song
was a rallying cry for people from Los Angeles to Vancouver," Useless
filmmaker Glen Sanford tells me.
"Punk rock effected the way I saw the world. I grew up in a small
town and didn't have much exposure to that kind of rebellion,"
says Sanford. In fact, he was born in small town Courtenay located in
the centre of Vancouver Island just down the road from Cumberland. It
wasn't until he moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British
Columbia that he was exposed to punk. "Punk made me realise that
it's okay to be angry about the political conditions of the world we
live in and to express that rage in a positive way. Punk rock gigs were
fun and there was a real sense of community there too."
"Young people are impatient, they want to bring about change fast,"
says Sanford who has worked as a campaign manager for the NDP both federally
and provincially. "Punk rock wasn't bringing about the social change
that some players might have initially hoped for. In some ways it wasn't
surprising that Hannah moved from that kind of rebellion into a different
kind of rebellion that involved Direct Action strategies."
Sanford's documentary features late 70s and early 80s Subhuman concert
footage, media coverage of the arrest in 1983 and interviews with Hannah
since his release from prison up to the present day. In the film Hannah's
mom recalls coming home from work one day and finding Joey Keithley's
drum kit set up in her living room. "I didn't know it was punk
rock," she recalls, "it was just the neighbourhood kids."
Keithley is credited with suggesting Hannah and friends stop wanking
off on 70s Pink Floyd and get with the punk program.
"When you are young you have this kind of anger -- this Arrrrghhh!,
shouting at the world kind of thing. After awhile you have to figure
out what specifically you are going to shout at," says Keithley,
backstage at the Cumberland gig. "But I think that kind of rebelliousness
was always part of rock and roll. It was in the jazz of the thirties
and forties. It was in early rockabilly. It was in the counterculture
of the late 60s that I was really effected by."
For Gerry "Useless" Hannah punk rock was a powerful musical
and political tool. Hannah, now working as a snow plow operator and
involved in a loving relationship, feels that punk rock was music for
people who didn't really fit, because "they knew the game, saw
the game too clearly and couldn't pretend. I was always one of those
people... With punk rock I found something--some art--which reflected
"For some people there is no connection between punk rock and activism.
To them punk is merely a musical style or fad but to the more serious,
punk rock is the 'soundtrack to the revolution' for a lot of activists,"
says Keithley making reference to the gathering in Cumberland. "It
has a connection to activism the same way that folk music had and still
has and the way rockused to in the late 60s and the early 70s."
For Hannah, the mid-70s music scene wasn't challenging any preconceptions
of what life was supposed to be about: "It seemed that it had been
co-opted by the establishment completely. I was really a fan of the
late sixties music. Music by people like Hendrix, The Byrds, and to
a certain extent The Doors. People that weren't afraid to talk about
things politically and weren't afraid to challenge things.
"Then all of a sudden I heard the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten
screaming in animal anger. Here was a band that was not afraid to sing
about real issues again. About people going and having holidays at Belsen
and places where people were gassed in concentration camps. He was saying
'Hey let's not forget about this. The ideas that led to this kind of
thing are right here among us still. We haven't dealt with them. We've
just failed them.' I thought it was brilliant. I still think that John
Lydon is basically a genius."
The "Useless" nickname he says derived from "the fact
that I knew people would see me as a useless guy because I played punk
rock music, I was unskilled and uneducated."
The scene for much of this music was the Smiling Buddha night-club in
the downtown East side of Vancouver. It was there that Ann Hansen, Brent
Taylor, Julie Belmas and Gerry Hannah all met on their way to being
the Five (Doug Stewart was the fifth member). In one of the chapters
of her book Hansen evokes the late 70s era of the Smiling Buddha and
what motivated the reasons for punk. "The kids at the Smiling Buddha
were the ones who didn't come from families that could afford the expensive
education so essential for a job. As their music so frequently reminded
us, theirs was a world of no future, no hope. Their music was filled
with warnings of suicide and death, cries of anguish and despair."
Ann Hansen describes her upbringing as idyllic, a childhood spent in
the Ontario countryside dreaming of horses, and in high school as an
honours student and a cheerleader. Hansen finds it difficult to explain
how she chose the path she did, only to say that some things are a "mystery"
and that she always felt sympathetic to the underdog and an "intuitive
dislike for the wealthy."
One of the themes Hansen constantly repeats in her book is the relative
isolation Direct Action operated in and its inability to draw a larger
constituency. Was there not a ready-made group of rebels in punk rock,
particularly given that much of the Vancouver punk rock scene was political?
Hansen feels that due to the highly illegal nature of the Five's activity,
operating in secrecy and going underground ultimately was their only
option. "That said, the dominant counter-culture movement at the
time was the punk community. I just don't know how you would organise
them," says Hansen who notes that she herself was not a punk. "I
was from a different era."
"Politically, punk rock made us re-evaluate the idea of leadership
and challenge the whole notion of authority," notes Sanford. "What
do you do when you know something is wrong and feel powerless to do
something about it?"
The do-it yourself ethic of punk rock is consistent with direct action
philosophy. To act directly is to address the actual issue of your concern.
If you're working against hunger, it might be simply giving someone
a meal. If you're working against homelessness, it might be taking over
an abandoned house and making it liveable. Direct action differs from
symbolic protest action, which is everything from lobbying someone in
authority to change their policies or putting together a documentary
about a punk-star-turned dissident. An advantage to direct action is
that it doesn't require the co-operation of the authorities --cultural
or political--to be effective.
This is a perspective that Hansen still holds to this day. "I wouldn't
say that I've changed a lot in my politics actually," says Hansen
who served seven years in prison for her actions. "The difference
is that I can see in retrospect there is not enough support out there
to justify a small guerrilla underground." Hansen who now lives
and works on a farm near Kingston giggles nervously and adds, "I
shouldn't be saying this because I'm still on parole but, we shouldn't
allow the state to determine what is right and what is wrong and what
is illegal. I think people should be determining that amongst themselves."
No longer playing punk rock music, with three years of university under
his belt and still very much politically engaged, Gerry Hannah still
sees himself on the outside looking in.
"What drove me from punk rock was that it was becoming extremely
violent," says Hannah. "There was a lot of totally senseless
violence being carried out at gigs and I was just sick of seeing it.
I was sick of seeing people who were supposedly claiming that they wanted
some sort of better or alternative world, but they were perpetuating
the violence that they had seen around them."
Keithley, who recently ran for the provincial Green Party in B.C. garnering
15% of the vote from 2,600 "wise constituents", feels that
punk rock is still sound as a way to organise and agitate. He started
his own punk rock label, Sudden Death Records, in 1979 (put to sleep
for awhile and revived in 1998, Sudden Death has now released 40 records)
and is quick to dismiss the role of random violence in punk which happens
only, he says, "when there are idiots there."
"I still get just as angry at the bill of goods we are being sold
by society, but I'm less judgmental now," says Hannah. "I
realise that there are people on every side of the political spectrum
that believe in what they are doing and are doing good things."
Ann Hansen says that she sees the movement of people that weren't behind
Direct Action are now present at the WTO and APEC protests. In fact
Hannah, Keithley and Hansen all see the current climate of globalisation
as a rallying point for a revolutionary movement. While Hansen considers
her story a cautionary tale, she wrote the book to encourage more militancy
-- not less. She hopes that she "doesn't die soon, because I don't
want to be remembered just for Direct Action. I want to be involved
in the revolutionary movement right now."
Hansen's prison experience was emotionally debilitating and she feels
she is just beginning to be able to once again become politically engaged.
For the longest time she was "emotionally dead to it all."
Sanford says he made the Useless film because the Squamish Five and
the punk rock movement that was part of that world are an important
part of Canadian history, no matter how one perceives their actions.
This leaves the figures of that time in the strange position of being
elders to a movement. I asked Keithley if he sees it that way.
"Geez, it sounds like I'm in the Mormon church or something like
that," says Keithley. "But, ya," he concedes "I
guess I am. If anything I'm an example of how anger and dissent can
be used as a powerful yet peaceful force."
"Here's an interesting question," says Hannah. "When
is a person no longer a terrorist if they were considered a terrorist
at one time? Are they no longer a terrorist after they're arrested?
Are they no longer a terrorist after they're convicted? Are they no
longer a terrorist after they've served their sentence? Or are they
no longer a terrorist after they're dead?"
How does Hannah think he'll be remembered by history? "50 years
from now they'll still think we're jerks," he laughs, "but
200 years from now they might think we're great." Hannah notes
the role dissent plays in who we are as Canadians and what this country
is. He cites such figures as Tommy Douglas, Emily Carr, The Group of
Seven, Ginger Goodwin and Louis Riel. "I mean they hanged him,
and now he's recognised as a hero."
Grant Shilling is Editor and Publisher of The GIG -Gulf Islands Gazette
an alternative story telling rag for the Gulf Islands and Vancouver
Island. Shilling's The Cedar Surf: An Oral History of Surfing on B.C.'s
West Coast is to be published by New Star Book in 2002.
from broken pencil 18