by Janis Alton & Vicki Obedkoff
Shirley’s death on December 18, 2012 was somewhat a surprise, because time and again she had successfully rebounded from cancer’s grip. Her sparkle, humour and good sense were woven into the work of Science for Peace, among many other organizations. Shirley’s peace activism, like her life, was filled with passion. It was no less than seeking to build a culture of peace! For example, along with her many friends such as those in Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, she lobbied steadily for the abolition of war and its system. With VOW, she travelled often to the UN, mostly to its headquarters in New York but also to Vienna and Geneva. She took these opportunities to push for various disarmament issues and, it seemed to her travel mates, to effortlessly produce fulsome reports of many of these international encounters.
In the midst of this, Shirley took time out (1993) to learn more and enrolled in the fledgeling European Peace University based in a beautiful castle in a colourful town not far from Vienna. Here she thrived on the teachings of itinerant scholars from far and wide, including the “Father of Peace Research” Johann Galtung.
Perhaps equally, she wore a feminist hat which on several occasions expressed itself through her witty plays on the long overdue victories of Canadian women being rightfully declared persons, and the more recent right of women, globally, to be included in decision-making related to all aspects of peace building – from prevention to post conflict reconstruction. These plays stand as examples of resources Shirley’s creative self contributed to the cause. One of the latest was a package of greeting cards with satirical, illustrated messages meant to wake us up about environmental threats. She was the change she wanted to see – zealous, optimistic, studious, creative and unfailingly supportive to companions in this mammoth struggle for a peaceful world. How we will miss her! -Janis Alton
I miss Shirley, that lovely spirit, a wonderfully witty, warm friend. Her father was a stretcher-bearer in the First World War, and the horror he witnessed strongly influenced Shirley to become one of Canada’s most passionate peace activists. Learning from her first- born son Brian, an AIDS activist, Shirley dedicated the last thirty years of life to world peace, the environment, and women’s equality. To improve her writing and advocacy skills she returned to university, graduating with a journalism degree in 1980. In 1988, Shirley ran in the federal election against the Minister of National Defence, Perrin Beatty, in order to highlight peace issues.
Throughout her entire life, Shirley remained a faithful and active member of the United Church of Canada. In 1984 the UCC set aside half a million dollars for a Peacemaking Fund dedicated to making peace education and advocacy a high priority for the following five years. This money seeded 150 grassroots projects across the country. Shirley served on the Working Group on Peace and Justice of the church which shaped this peacemaking fund and project. Then she wrote the story of the Peacemaking Fund, “A Million for Peace”, published in 1995. “The sight of two boxes marked “Archives- Peacemaking Fund” at United Church House was the first catalyst for writing this book. I believe they were filled with stories that were about to be buried alive. I just couldn’t let that happen.”
She captures how those funds were used as part of a continuing social movement, from nuclear weapons- free zones campaigns to church coalitions around uranium mining, to folksinger/activist Bob Bossin and the Raging Grannies with their cheeky and popular cultural work for peace. Shirley’s story is found in the United Church Archive’s Making Room for Women oral history project.
And to the very end of her life she was a board member of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, founded by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Grey Nun. Shirley’s deft editing touch is present in the “Lives Lived” piece written by Dr. Mary Lou Harley, and published in the Globe and Mail on August 6, 2012 in memory of Rosalie.
Shirley, May Lou and myself began a book about Rosalie, and the torch has been passed to Mary Lou. The first chapter, “Why Care”, starts with a quote from Rosalie:
We are part of a great chain of people who care about the Earth, about the life that gives it fruitfulness and about a world where rights would be respected, children cherished and peace prevail. We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes.
Shirley’s dreams are rippling beyond her lifetime, through our collective future.
Mary Lou loved Shirley’s wicked sense of humour. They would go out to a restaurant and Shirley would pull out yellow post-it notes saying “No Nukes” from her purse, and stick them on the mirrors in the women’s washroom. In 2012 Shirley and I attended the Darlington hearings where I presented the UCC’s policy – maybe she left post-it notes there as well!
Her lightness and playfulness helped her deal with heavy problems. Shirley’s poem ‘Guantanamo’ was read at the celebration of her life at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church. Shirley led us in “Prayers of the People” on Sunday mornings, even in the last months before she died. During the Nov. 20, 2011 service, the day her play “1325 Keys to Peace” was read, Shirley’s spirit shone in our ecumenical prayer:
We pray with the church in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger:
We share a common earth. We stand among each other.
We share our planet,
we share birth, death, hunger and love.
We are the people of pain and fear,
we are the people of anger and joy,
we are the people of compassion and grace.
In all of us is a longing for a life that will yet come,
for a world that is free and just,
a dream of hope for all people. – adapted from Wendy Robins
Even in her dying days, she was sending out the last of her 150 published letters to the editor of The Toronto Star. That must be a record. I still open my Star and turn to the letters, expecting to see one from Shirley. – Vicki Obedkoff
The following image exemplifies the work that Shirley did – it is a reply from Mordechai Vanunu in 1996 (please note that it has been redacted by the Israeli government).