Will Seccombe

Apocalypse Bob

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"An eco-shitstorm is coming," says Citytv ecology specialist and Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter. Out to save the world, he's partisan, pissed off and proud of it

It’s 4:30 a.m. Bob Hunter turns off his alarm clock, steps into his slippers and selects a robe from one of nearly a dozen in his closet. In the bathroom, he gathers his long, thin, greying hair and ties it back into a ponytail, splashes cold water on his face and hooks his dark-rimmed glasses over his ears. At his front door, he grabs the papers to prepare for this morning’s “Papercuts,” a popular weekday segment on Citytv’sBreakfast Television. In the kitchen, highlighter in hand, he begins to mark stories. A note above the stove reads: “Normalcy is the enemy.”

By 5:30 a.m., he sits at a small desk in the corner of his basement, arranging the papers in front of him. “Whenever you’re ready,” says cameraman Giancarlo Desantis. After a few false starts, Hunter breezes through his commentary in one mad-paced take, cramming in as much news as he can. “Good morning. Well, human rights groups are probably dancing in the streets. The headline in The Globe and Mail says it all: ‘Talisman to Pull Out of Sudan.'” He reads the first few paragraphs from the story about the Calgary oil company agreeing to sell its controversial share in a Sudanese oil project. He cites it as “one for the good guys.” Rolling along, he says, “Over here in the National Post, though, there’s one for the bad guys-‘Hezbollah Uses Canada as a Base: CSIS.'” Good guys and bad guys. For Hunter, journalism is often that simple. His main question: “Whose side are you on?”

When Citytv viewers tune in to “Papercuts” just before 7 a.m., they will see a long-haired, goateed, bathrobed man and hear him dish the morning news in an affable, off-the-cuff, satirical manner. And while they might glimpse the bookcase behind Hunter, they won’t notice what lies on its shelves. They won’t see the seven books he has written, or the five he co-authored, including Occupied Canada, winner of the 1991 Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction. They won’t see the dusty paper model of a freighter named Greenpeace (a memento from the organization he co-founded). Nor will they see the long row of videotapes from his various adventures as ecology specialist for Citytv.

Named one of the environmental heroes of the century by Time magazine in 2000, Hunter has been, for most of his career, a journalist with a cause, or what is known in Europe as a journaliste engagé. He is convinced that “an eco-shitstorm is coming down before our eyes. And overwhelmingly, we’re just watching.” At 61, with the vigour and passion of a teenager, and the knowledge and experience of a guru, he fights his battle mainly at Toronto’s independent Citytv. He is an activist first and a journalist second-a controversial stance in a profession where some pretence of objectivity is prerequisite. But Hunter is making no apologies.

Hunter was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, in 1941. After his father left and his mother went temporarily blind due to cancer treatment, a five-year-old Hunter read her the paper every morning. By age 10, he wanted to be a science-fiction writer. At 16, he dropped out of school, burned an art school bursary and worked a variety of jobs: warehouse worker, lathe operator, welder’s assistant, wheelbarrow pusher, encyclopedia salesman and slaughterhouse clerk. After a friend suggested he write for The Winnipeg Tribune, he marched into the newsroom, plunked a box full of manuscripts in front of managing editor Eric Wells and said, “At the risk of contaminating my style, I’m willing to come work for you guys.” Wells flipped through the stack of writing and said, “You’re hired.”

Hunter quickly worked his way from copyboy to general reporter and his “style” soon adapted to the conventions of straight objective journalism. Occasionally, however, he would wield what he called “the power of the pen.” When Mr. Wyatt, Hunter’s hand-strapping high school principal, ran for the school board, Hunter covered the election. “When I wrote the story, instead of an objective piece, I made everybody look really good and Mr. Wyatt like a piece of shit,” he recalls. Wyatt lost and Hunter likes to think his story helped sway a few voters.

He left the paper in 1962 at age 21, hopped a bus to Quebec City and boarded a Yugoslavian freighter bound for Havana. But, because of the Cuban missile crisis, the ship ended up in Genoa, Italy. He hitchhiked across Europe and made his way to London, where he worked in a library; met his first wife, Zoe, a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and wrote his first novel. After Zoe became pregnant, the couple moved to Winnipeg, where Hunter worked at the Tribune again before joining The Vancouver Sun in 1966. He slogged away on the desk for two years until the Sun wanted someone to be a voice for the counterculture psychedelic youth movement forming on the West Coast. The 27-year-old Hunter was perfect for the job.

He packed up his typewriter, left the newsroom and shed his shirt and tie. In his head shots over the next few years, readers saw his hair grow long, his sideburns creep down his face and his goatee come to full bloom. Occasionally, he would waft into the newsroom clad in paisley flared jeans, a headband in his hair and a peace pendant dangling from his neck. “The establishment columnists tolerated him in a good-humoured way, as one does an engaging, tail-wagging young pup,” recalls then-business columnist, now-senator Pat Carney. Compared to the Sun’s more conservative scribes, Carney says, “Hunter was like an ocean breeze – fresh, salty and invigorating.” Allan Fotheringham remembers, “We all thought he was a screwball, but he was a lovable screwball.”

In 1970, Hunter spent three days investigating conditions in a psychiatric institution and wrote a 12-part series uncovering the inhumane treatment of patients. The columns generated huge public debate and lead to the formation of the Mental Patients’ Association in B.C., of which Hunter is a founding member. Despite covering many protests and lending a sympathetic notebook to rabble-rousers, he had until then maintained a certain distance as a journalist. “No goddamn way you were going to get me carrying a picket sign making a fool of myself.”

But the following year, he did carry a picket sign at a nuclear weapons protest outside the American consulate in Vancouver. Worried that nuclear tests planned for the coast of Amchitka Island, in Alaska, would create a massive tidal wave, Hunter grabbed a marker and a blank sign and wrote: “Don’t Make a Wave.”

Then, in September 1971, he joined 11 other brave, committed and slightly crazy men as they set sail from Vancouver on an old fishing boat. It was the maiden mission of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. “Now, I wasn’t just covering the event,” says Hunter, who had been taking a strong anti-Amchitka stance in his column. “I was participating. I got quite a rush from it.”

When Hunter returned to the Sun, he had more readers than ever. He covered everything from pesticides to forestry, tankers to whales. The environmental movement was just gaining momentum, so Hunter’s timing was perfect. “He rode the crest of awareness,” recalls Carney. He also spent his spare time in church basements and people’s living rooms trying to keep Don’t Make a Wave afloat.

In 1975, after persuading the group to change its name to the Greenpeace Foundation, Hunter became chairman of the organization, which had made the transition from nukes to whales. He ran the meetings, organized and raised funds-and continued to write his column. “Of course at this point I’m in an ethical swamp,” he says. “Except to me it wasn’t an ethical swamp because I was there to save the whales. If I could use access to the media as a tool, then good enough.”

Before he and a Greenpeace crew went after the Japanese whalers that same year, Hunter asked Sun management to make him a reporter, instead of a columnist, so he could submit stories that might be picked up by the wires. “I was in a unique position of being the guy saying, ‘Go here and do this and do that,’ and being the guy reporting on what we were doing. For a while, I couldn’t understand how I was going to maintain this façade of being the objective reporter.”

Soon after that mission, he quit the Sun and for the next four years poured his soul into Greenpeace. He drew the world’s attention to whaling by standing in the path of harpoons and icebreakers (early antiwhaling efforts that contributed to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 decision to ban whaling). In 1979, after a long political battle, he helped set up Greenpeace International, but declined the executive director position.

Instead, he retreated to a farm in Anmore, B.C., where, for seven years, Hunter assumed the role of farmer, father and freelance writer. He wrote magazine stories (winning five Western Magazine Awards), books and a column for the North Shore News. Yet this period was a low point for Hunter. “He is a crusader and he wasn’t on a crusade,” recalls his second wife, Bobbi. “Greenpeace was sailing on. And he didn’t have a job with mainstream media because he had come out of the closet, so he couldn’t be classified as someone who wasn’t partisan any longer.” From these depths, Hunter entertained the formerly repugnant notion of moving to Toronto. Urged by Bobbi, who was soggy from life on the West Coast, the Hunters ended their farming phase.

Initially, the move to Toronto was a trial run. Hunter got into what is now the Canadian Film Centre on the strength of 10 episodes of The Beachcombers he had written and a recommendation from Moses Znaimer, president and executive producer of Citytv. His short film, Dead Meat (about a drug deal gone wrong), appeared in the Toronto International Film Festival. But, after nine months of studies, he had also accumulated a mountain of debt. He suspects that this was all part of Znaimer’s master plan. In 1988, after discovering that life in Toronto wasn’t so bad, a future in film was bleak and his pockets were empty, Hunter joined Citytv as ecology specialist.

Although the idea of a journalist being openly engaged with a cause is controversial, it was Hunter’s background as an activist that landed him the job. “What we like to do is find people who are deeply committed and involved in particular disciplines,” says Stephen Hurlbut, vice-president of news programming at Citytv. ”And Bob had the intelligence and the character and the persona to bring weight to something that really needed mainstream attention.” Just as Citytv had hired former Toronto Maple Leaf Jim McKenny to cover sports, and onetime city councillor Colin Vaughan to cover politics, the station wanted an activist to cover ecology. “It was irrelevant to him that I had a journalistic background,” says Hunter. Citytv’s hiring policy perfectly matched Hunter’s philosophy: “You know things by getting involved in them.”

More than 16 hours since taping “Papercuts,” Hunter now sits at a table in the Citytv newsroom, hosting the Halloween edition of Hunter’s Gatherings, his weekly talk show that debuted in September. Two jack-o’-lanterns perch near the edge of the table. The ceiling above is a cobweb of wires, beams and lights. TV screens dot the studio, emitting an eerie bluish glow. Hunter’s hair drapes over the lapels of his black jacket and rests just above a scarlet felt poppy pinned there. His face is weather worn. Crow’s feet claw the corners of his eyes, creases of skin frame his goatee and lines ripple over his expressive brow.

“Here’s a woman who loves nature so much, she’s out there risking her life to save it,” he says, introducing his second guest. “My old friend and colleague Dinah Elissat.” Hunter explains that Elissat was a Citytv cameraperson until he took her on a trip to save the whales with his old Greenpeace buddy, Paul Watson. After the life-changing experience, she quit her job and became a volunteer with Watson’s Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “Dinah, in your experience being out there now, instead of being one of these people who sits back and watches,” Hunter says, punching that final word, “you’ve crossed over the line from one side of the camera to the other.”

As the interview comes to a close, Elissat makes a final plea for donations to the Sea Shepherds. “It’s not an easy life,” she says. “It’s hard. And we do this with such a sense of purpose because we need to save…” Swelling tears cut off her sentence. Hunter reaches across the table to touch her hand and says, “Listen, Dinah, you’re one of my heroes. You really are.”

Elissat laughs. “Yeah, but you started this for me.”

“Well, yeah, but if you weren’t doing it now, God knows I’d have to be out there doing it.”

Hunter may no longer be involved in the day-to-day operations of any activist group (though he is a new member of the eastern chapter of Canada’s Sierra Club). But he’s still an activist at heart. And when environmentalist interests conflict with business bottom lines, Hunter says, “It’s self-evident to me who’s right and who’s wrong.” So when he has to meet the criteria of the six o’clock news, he makes only a halfhearted attempt to get the other side. “My stories are morality plays of the good guy, who is usually the handsome or beautiful young ecologist, versus the bad guy, who is usually some CEO of some multinational vastly polluting corporation that is trying to kill our children in their sleep. But if I’m going to say he’s a bad guy, I have to at least phone him. And if he hangs up on me? Oh well, he didn’t want to talk to me. As long as I’ve got that clip of me on my phone saying, ‘Well, they just told me to fuck off.’ Then it’s okay.”

Taking advantage of his experience as an activist, Hunter often taps creativity and cunning to tell media-unfriendly stories. In the early ’90s, when the continued depletion of the ozone layer still needed public attention, Hunter initially struggled to cover the story because TV news depends so heavily on pictures. “If I write a script with facts in it but I have no viz to back it up,” he says, “I might as well try to make a living as a full-time novelist.” So he enlisted the help of the graphics department. Together, they created an image of the earth with a bubble around it. Over dramatic music, CFCs attacked the bubble, which disintegrated, then collapsed. “Not scientific in the least,” Hunter recalls. “But really good.” His producers loved it and, as a result, he got ozone stories on air for about five months.

Because long-term environment stories can be forgotten by a media focused on the short-term, Hunter often orchestrates more elaborate stunts. In fall 2000, with Greenpeace activists, he sped along the California coast in a Zodiac, a Citytv video camera strapped around his neck, charging toward an oil supertanker. To draw attention to the link between petroleum and global warming, he planned to tape the activists hitting the tanker, clambering up its side, then hanging a giant banner with a Hunter-written slogan: “Oil Fuels Climate Chaos.” Though Hunter’s plan was foiled by the Coast Guard, it was clear that his commitment to the environment still dictated his actions as a journalist.

Furthermore, his continued involvement with environmental organizations like Greenpeace has placed him on the front lines, bringing both international and national stories to Citytv’s local Toronto newscast. With Watson’s Sea Shepherd Society, Hunter has rammed drift net boats in the middle of the Pacific; hunted Faroese whalers in the Norwegian Sea; chased Spanish and Portuguese trawlers along the Grand Banks; and witnessed the seal hunt on the ice floes of Newfoundland. “We make them local stories,” says Hurlbut. “Because we have Bob Hunter on staff, we go after them. That’s Bob’s great strength and great value to us.”

In his role as ecology specialist at Citytv and “Enviro” columnist at Toronto’s alternative eye Weekly, Hunter has also been a great value to the environmental movement. As a watchdog, he keeps constant surveillance of the issues, which have ebbed and flowed in the mainstream media over the years. Global warming, for example, has concerned many scientists and environmentalists for decades, even if it didn’t receive prominent coverage in the establishment press until recently. Hunter has followed the issue all along. “I’ve talked to journalists who have to do four or five hours worth of cramming to understand complex environmental issues enough to write a piece that has some credibility,” says Peter Tabuns, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. “Bob isn’t someone you have to educate from the ground up. And that is very useful.”

More than knowledge, Hunter has given Toronto environmental groups a steady voice in the media over the years. “Lots of ecology people want air time for their cause,” he says. “And I figure my job is to stickhandle it through the six o’clock producer.” So it’s no wonder Hunter has near-legendary status within the environmental community. “Generally, he’s a very well-known, well-respected and well-liked figure,” says Gord Perks, senior campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “He’s provided the best and most thoughtful coverage of any journalist in the city on the work we do.”

For Hunter, the end justifies the means. And for his conviction, many admire him. “Bob Hunter is a man of remarkable courage and significant insight, a man who really does what he believes,” says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe Research Foundation. “He’s a journalist with an agenda.” And, according to Adams, it is Hunter’s agenda that makes his style of journalism interesting. “The people who are the most exciting to watch and the most exciting to read are the ones who are really caught up in their subject.” John Willis, chairman of Greenpeace U.S.A. and senior consultant at Strategic Communications, says, “Guys like Bob continue to be the wave of the future to me. They have a political engagement and they’re quite willing to say it.” This engagement, however, makes Hunter’s style of journalism contentious. Even Adams, one of Hunter’s many admirers, admits that “on bad days, Bob’s a bit predictable.”

But some reporters who also cover environmental issues don’t think predictability is the only problem. Distrust-according to Alanna Mitchell, earth sciences reporter at the Globe-can be another by-product of advocacy journalism. For this reason, she often avoids quoting activists, preferring to focus instead on the science of a particular issue. “It’s happened where I talk to some advocacy group, and they tell me about some terrible thing that a corporation is doing, and I spend a day and look into it, and it turns out to be completely different than what they said. So I have a lack of trust sometimes.”

Eve Savory, a Vancouver-based reporter who covers science and the environment for CBC-TV, is also skeptical of combining activism with journalism. “It’s a risky thing because some scientists will close their doors to activists,” she says. “And journalists also tend to disdain people who wear their activist heart on their sleeve. I build an index of suspicion because I know that their feelings are so strong on an issue that they may not give me the other side. Perhaps there is a danger for an activist-journalist being discounted by the people he most needs to reach.”

While Stephen Ward, associate professor at the UBC School of Journalism, agrees that passion and commitment are essential traits in a journalist-“You can’t be a good reporter and not care about the things you report about,” he says – he cautions against going to extremes. “You can’t be so anxious to rant on about your own special causes that you don’t even give a wink of an eye to the other point of view and you prejudge the whole issue.”

If anything, though, Hunter’s passion and commitment are only getting stronger. After writing his latest book,2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime, he was utterly depressed by the planetary outlook and impatient with the impotence of his column. So in a move that shocked many who knew him, Hunter, traditionally a lefty, accepted the Liberals’ invitation to run against the NDP’s Michael Prue in a 2001 provincial by-election. The political battle was quick and dirty. Someone faxed an excerpt from Hunter’s 1988 satirical travel fiction book, On The Sky, to media outlets. The passage contained sexual descriptions that, pulled out of context, painted Hunter as a pervert. Amid smear allegations, Prue won handily.

Despite losing the election, Hunter retained a degree of political influence. The Liberals invited him to help formulate their green-energy policy and his book did reach some people. In early September of 2002, Dorothy Cutting, a 70-something grandmother from the B.C. Gulf Island of Salt Spring, drove (in a low-emission gas-electric car) from Victoria to Ottawa to deliver a copy of 2030 to every MP.

Although the end is all too near for Hunter, a self-proclaimed ”apocalypticist,” he has much to be happy about these days. The government ratified the Kyoto Accord last December; a U.S. publisher will release 2030 this spring; and at Citytv, he continues to dish his morning media criticism on Breakfast Television. Hunter’s Gatherings has freed him from what he calls “the tyranny of the six o’clock news.” Now he has the time and the forum to bring attention to stories he feels are being ignored by the establishment press. Ironically, as a host often mediating opposing points of view, he is doing some of the most balanced work of his career – in one show even Len Crispino, president and COO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, joined the Kyoto debate. Meanwhile, he rants on in his columns for eye and the U.S. men’s magazine Razor. And a Hollywood movie featuring the harpoon-dodging, boat-ramming adventures of Paul Watson and Hunter is in the works. Hunter is full of energy, despite the testosterone blocking treatment he is undergoing for prostate cancer. Retirement has never crossed his mind.

In his career as an environmental activist and journalist, Hunter has always taken a stand, making him a rare figure in the Canadian media. “There are darn few journalists in the mainstream who will categorically say they are environmentalists,” says Dan McDermott, director of the eastern chapter of Canada’s Sierra Club. “Even though they are.” For his part, Hunter is unapologetic about his strong positions. “The thought of doing an objective piece makes me cringe,” he says. He has felt this way since he was a hippie columnist at theSun. “If my column could be used to stop nuclear testing then that’s what it should be used for. I didn’t see any need to stand there and say, ‘On the one hand, the people who do not want to see Armageddon say this. But the military and business leaders insist that it must be done this way.’ I don’t want to do that shit.” That approach may make journalistic purists shudder, but for Hunter it’s a small price to pay to be one of the good guys.


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