Saturday, April 2, 2011

What makes an activist? (Part 1)


I have sometimes been asked, what events made me turn out the way I am – an environmental and social justice activist, interested in theoretical questions, and still going at the age of 77? More generally, I have often thought about what makes a person the way they are? Why choose one direction in life rather than another? What fosters in a person a sense of injustice, either human or ecological? What makes a person renounce the general sentiment of this society, which is to keep one’s head down and basically pay most attention to personal advancement? Also, what is the role of an activist’s partner or partners in life? Does it necessarily mean that the partner gives up their own self-direction, in order to play a supporting role to the activist? This amounts to basically subsidizing with their lives the life of the activist – is this acceptable? What makes someone say what they believe, no matter how unpopular, to stand up to power, and to public opinion if necessary? Why is it that today, Earth preservation turns out to be of overwhelming importance for some people and not for most others? Are there common factors to explain why someone remains an activist throughout their life, or is this a highly individual path?

Given the fundamental change in my personal health, with the early March diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I’ve decided to look back on my life and write out what seem to be the significant events that helped shape the way I am. I hope others might find this of interest.

Significant Events in my Life

- 1934, born in Portsmouth, southern England. An industrial city and the main naval dockyard in England at that time. There were four kids, all boys, in our working class family.

- Second World War (1939-1945). Our family spent some of this time in Portsmouth, but us kids were also “evacuated” to the countryside occasionally. My father was not drafted, but worked “on the bench” at an aircraft plant in Portsmouth.

- Failed the “11 plus” exam, which streamed kids into the “grammar”, “technical” and “secondary modern” school systems. I’m not sure how, but I ended up at Portsmouth Technical School. I disliked the school, with its concentration on preparing students to enter the industrial world. I was not much good at “shop” work. However, the school had a field club run by an energetic teacher, Gus Gates. We went on expeditions from Portsmouth into the English countryside. I was already somewhat primed for this, because of an earlier interest in nature. In Portsmouth, near where I lived, we had the mudflats of Langston Harbour and not too far away was Farlington Marshes, with its many ducks and geese. Opposite our house was Baffin’s Pond – a large pond with willow trees, swans, ducks, geese, carp and eels. I left the technical school at 15, at my father’s urging, to enter Portsmouth Dockyard as a shipwright apprentice. My father had a saying that “everyone should have a trade.”

- Portsmouth Dockyard, five-year apprenticeship, 1949 entry. There were approximately 44 apprentice shipwrights. On graduation, I was listed as tenth. Although the apprenticeship covered all aspects of the shipwright trade in the dockyard, ranging from building 14-foot sailing dinghies, to working “afloat” on various naval vessels, and a stint in the drawing office, I never felt “competent” as a tradesperson. After finishing the apprenticeship, I worked for one year in the dockyard as a shipwright. From 1952-55, I studied in the evening at Portsmouth College of Technology, seeing this as a “way out” of the industrial life. I am not sure now how it happened, but in 1954 I passed “Ordinary Level English”. This would be most unusual for someone with my educational background at that time. I like to think it reflected my reading of writers like D.H Lawrence, as well as poetry, as a dockyard matey. Also, my best friend at that time, Alan Marshfield, not a dockyard matey, was a poet. I decided at some point to seek entry to Durham University, which was geared to teaching naval architecture, as a way out of my Portsmouth life. I used the College of Technology qualifications I had earned (basically rote learning) – Ordinary National Certificate and First Year Higher National Certificate – to gain entry to study in the first year at the then Newcastle-on-Tyne campus of Durham University, called King’s College.
- Southsea Rowing Club. My elder brother Harry, who had attended grammar school, and later Bristol University to study dentistry, became involved in rowing. Reading Rowing Club was one of the places where he rowed. He introduced me to the Southsea Rowing Club, a sea rowing club in Portsmouth, when I was a dockyard apprentice. This sport became a passion and a significant influence in my life. Club members at Southsea Rowing Club were not working class, and this is perhaps signified by my nickname in the club – “Matey”. Rowing introduced me to a love of the sea, camping in the Isle of Wight, and working with others in a collective sense, in order to become a successful racing crew. During training outings we explored extensive areas of the coast around Portsmouth Harbour. We often rowed over to the Isle of Wight in larger clinker boats, called “galleys.” In summer, we raced at regattas all along the South Coast. We usually travelled to the regattas in the back of a lorry, with the racing shells lashed to a wooden frame over our heads.

- Durham University. I attended the university for the academic year 1955-1956, in the first year of the course leading to a B.Sc. in Applied Science (Naval Architecture). I remember the university official who spoke to the large incoming class of students saying, “Look left and then look right, only one of the three of you will be here next year.” The government covered the course fees and living expenses. I lived with other students, some of whom were Norwegian, in a house off campus. I enjoyed rowing/sculling while in Newcastle and spent a lot of time hanging out with Arts students. I failed the first examination in all subjects in June 1956. When I took the exams for a second time in September 1956, as was then allowed, I passed in chemistry but failed again in mathematics and physics. This was the end of Durham University for me, as I was out of my depth in the science subjects, given my background and general lack of interest.

- Army Service, 1956 to August 1957. At that time, England had what was called National Service, for a two-year period, for males in the Army, Navy or Air force. Someone could get a “deferment” to complete something like an apprenticeship or university courses. But eventually, if one stayed in England, and one was assessed as medically fit, the National Service obligation had to be fulfilled. One option facing young men was to sign on for three years as a “regular.” This meant quite a lot more pay, and also being able to choose where one could be assigned, as long as the basic qualifications for the particular job of interest could be met. I stupidly signed on for three years with the Army and chose to enter the Royal Army Educational Core. According to the Army, I was theoretically qualified, by virtue of previous educational achievements. Before entering the Educational Core for their training program, I had to complete a “basic training” with the Middlesex Regiment. Because I was quite fit from my rowing experiences at the Southsea Rowing Club, I did well and easily passed through basic training. But this was not the situation at the Royal Army Educational Core. After a total of 269 days in the Army, I was discharged because, according to my Certificate of Discharge, “his services being no longer required for the purpose for which he enlisted.” Yet the character assessment provided by the Commanding Officer, written with a view to future employment, while noting my unsuitability for being an instructor in the Educational Core, was quite positive. About Private Orton the CO wrote: “He is intelligent and has a sound academic background. Although quiet and reserved he has sound principles and convictions. His appearance is neat and his manner good. He can be trusted to apply himself well at all times.”  I was told that, after discharge, I would be recalled by the Army, to complete the two-year National Service obligation. As I did not want this, I knew it meant leaving the country, if this could be financially arranged. Recalling this from today’s perspective, the reasons I did not make it in the Educational Core, had to do with my general educational inadequacy. I would misspell lesson plans, for example. I think that while this was the main factor, a secondary factor was my attitude toward army discipline generally, and also toward the way that lessons were conducted.

- Immigration to Canada, via the Empress of Scotland. My brother Harry raised the money for my ship voyage. I sailed from Liverpool, and landed on November 14, 1957, in Quebec City. I disembarked the ship in Montreal. Being a shipwright with apprenticeship papers made it easy for me to obtain immigration status. My first job was a white collar one, as a Freight Claims Clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway. My second job was working for Carlings Brewery, basically as a tank cleaner.

- Met Gunilla, who was Swedish and employed at the Swedish Consulate in Montreal. We eventually moved in together. This was probably in 1958.

- Became a student at Sir George Williams University in Montreal (later renamed Concordia University) in 1959. I was given credit for previous work done in England and obtained the BA in May of 1963. In school terms I did well. After graduating, I received the following letter, dated May 29, 1963, signed by the Vice Principal of the university.
Dear Mr. Orton:
Every year the Faculty Council has the pleasantly difficult job of selecting from our top scholars those who are to receive the highest academic awards in the university. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner, but we are lucky that a number of very good students every year also rank so highly in their academic achievement that they merit consideration for these awards.
I am writing to tell you that although you did not win the Birks Medal, you came very close to it, and your achievement is so fine that I felt that I ought to write to you and congratulate you upon the fine work that you have done here as a student, and to tell you how proud we are of you, whether you won this award or not. I am sure, by what you have demonstrated, that you will go far, and I wish you every success.
Yours sincerely,
Douglas Burns Clarke

I remember taking the exam for graduates to enter the civil service because I was interested in the Department of Northern Affairs. I passed the exam but then decided to go to graduate school. I became a Canadian citizen on January 7th, 1963.

- Attended the New School for Social Research, Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New York City, from fall of 1963 to 1966. (Gunilla joined me in New York City and we eventually married. Our son Karl [named after Karl Marx] was born in New York. Johanna was born later in Montreal. We lived close to the school, on the edge of Greenwich Village.) I had tuition scholarships at the Graduate Faculty. I was granted the MA degree in 1965 (thesis not required) and received the Gelgor Prize “for outstanding student in sociology.” In 1965, I passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam, and in 1966 passed the Ph.D. oral examination. But I never submitted a Ph.D. thesis. It was a very lively political time, and I was politically active on and off campus. On campus I was involved with other students in trying to get the faculty members who were teaching us to relinquish some of their power to decide course content. It was an uphill battle. I also worked in the office of an academic Marxist magazine, called Science and Society. I taught a course at the Brooklyn campus of the New York City Community College. In the graduate faculty, I was the teaching assistant to Dr. Carl Mayer and was responsible, under supervision, for marking student papers.

- Taught at Sir George Williams University, 1967-69. This university and its sociology department were initially keen to hire me as a lecturer in sociology. I was a ‘local boy’ who had done well academically, both at Sir George and the New School. But while in graduate school, I had been quite influenced by Left politics and by the huge and very active anti-Vietnam War movement in New York. I also had been imprinted by the culture of the Village – I had a beard and hippy beads around my neck, with the casual clothes to match. Sir George at that time had a number of faculty members who were characterized by me as “house Marxists” or “academic Marxists.” Some of them were high profile socialist scholars from the U.S. I believed in a pluralistic Left approach (many roads to socialism), but that for the Leftist academic, theory and practice had to find a place together in the classroom. The house Marxists did not seem to like this viewpoint. I remember being told by one of them, that I should stop trying to organize, and instead learn German and read Marx in the original language. The first clash within the sociology department took place before I even stepped into a classroom. It concerned the reading lists for my courses, which were definitely not orthodox. I also had tentative ideas on involving students in influencing what was to be taught, how the courses were to run, marking, etc. A full meeting of the sociology department was held. I was told that “I did not share the consensus of the discipline of sociology.” This was the first of a number of clashes during the two years I was at Sir George.

 I worked with a few other left wing faculty and students from Sir George and McGill University, to form a group called the Movement for Socialist Liberation. (Andre Gunder Frank, the left Latin American economist who was at Sir George, was part of this group.) We opposed the recruitment of students on campus for war-related industries. I remember being involved, in the name of this group, in disrupting a visit by a corporate spokesperson who was coming to campus to recruit engineering students. This disruption quite upset some of the movers and shakers in the university, who saw it as a violation of academic freedom.

When Che Guevara was murdered in 1967, after capture in Bolivia, with the involvement of the CIA, I wrote an article for the student newspaper The Georgian (October 20, 1967): “In Memoriam: Che Guevara, Communist Revolutionary.” This article landed me in considerable trouble in the university. I used Che as a revolutionary model for comparison purposes with the house Marxists. A sample quote from this article is given below:
“Che Guevara was no coffee-house revolutionary. He could not be classified as an academic Marxist. Many of these gentlemen – who may be spotted on university campuses in America and Canada, well salaried, well fed and well clothed – make absolute distinctions between revolutionary theory and revolutionary action. Academic Marxists often do not see any contradiction in such a position and apparently fail to realize the rationalization of interests involved in such a worldview. Che had an interest in revolutionary theory but he also believed in praxis. His message was brutally simple, yet profound: The revolution will be made by those who act, not by those who endlessly talk and contribute to left-wing journals, regarding strategy, tactics, objective versus subjective conditions, etc, etc. As Fidel says, ‘The duty of a revolutionary is to make the revolution.’ In Latin America there can be no peaceful transition to socialism…For Che, ‘the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love’ even if this must be balanced by a ‘cold intelligence.’ Bourgeois self-interest had no place in socialism. Moral incentives, said Guevara, were to be stressed against material incentives. It was this transformation of values in opposition to the corruption, privilege, alienation, racism and absence of meaningful democracy in bourgeois society that Che was so concerned with, that makes him a charismatic figure…”

Since writing the above, I have gained some ecological understanding. For all his positive contributions, Che still believed in “the domination of Nature”, expressing this in a letter left for his children, to be read after his death. The Marxist tradition has greatly contributed to a concern for social justice, but today, Earth preservation needs to be our guiding star.

- Sometime into teaching at Sir George, I came in contact with and started working with the “Internationalists”, who were later to become the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist. The university did not renew my teaching contract. Not working on, or showing any inclination to produce a Ph. D. thesis, was a legitimate issue in the non-renewal. But the general sentiment towards me among faculty members was perhaps conveyed in a comment by David Sheps who wrote an article called, “The Apocalyptic Fires at Sir George Williams University” after university computers were burned as a spin-off from an anti-racism struggle within the university.  His writing helped to create the material conditions such that I would never again obtain a full-time teaching position in Canada. (See Canadian Dimension, Volume 5, Number 8, February 1969.) Sheps was then Associate Editor of Canadian Dimension and an English professor at Sir George. Canadian Dimension, which is still around, is Canada’s leading left social democratic magazine. In the paragraph below, Sheps was writing about me as a member of the Internationalists, without mentioning my name specifically:
“One of their leaders happens to be a lecturer in the Sociology department. He is a self-proclaimed Marxist Leninist who, as far as anyone can tell, has read practically no Marx or Lenin. Since he also refuses on principle to read ‘bourgeois sociology’ (which he seems to interpret broadly enough to include most left-wing sociologists), many have wondered if he has read anything at all. The Sociology department had chosen not to renew his contract, a decision every left-wing faculty member regarded as eminently sensible.”

Another reactionary article in Canadian Dimension around my time at Sir George, giving the views of the house Marxists at the university, was by the American historian Eugene Genovese. (See “War On Two Fronts”, Volume 6, Number 1, April-May 1969.) People like me were part of one of the fronts that had to be combated! (After I became involved in the ecological movement, I wrote for Canadian Dimension. Starting in 1989 I wrote about 27 articles in all, including as a columnist for two years.)

- Organizer with the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) until 1975. I eventually resigned over the lack of internal democracy in the organization. When I directly experienced this lack of democracy myself, I knew it was time to go. I ran twice in Montreal in the federal elections as an M-L candidate. Gunilla, my then wife, was also a party member. We were both on the Central Committee, and for some time, I was Vice-Chairman of the Party. Gunilla left the organization soon after I left. While in the Party, I mainly organized in Regina and Montreal but also spent some time in Toronto. In Regina, I helped organize a protest against the visit of a military band from the U.S., as an example of cultural imperialism. I was arrested and charged, but the charges were eventually dropped. In 1972, I participated in a Toronto demonstration against the Western Guard, a Nazi group who had organized a “Keep Canada White” meeting. I was arrested and after the court trial, in which I defended myself, I was sentenced to forty days, or a four hundred dollar fine. I did the time. In 1978, a paperback book by Lorne and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, came out. The book used a house Marxist moralizing tone and said that the RCMP wanted “to prepare a case against one David Orton for sedition in February 1971.” Apparently this was based on a talk called “Revolt versus the Status Quo” that I had given at a University of Regina seminar. The university refused to turn over the tapes of the seminar to the RCMP or to testify if the case came to trial. So the sedition case was apparently dropped. (See pp. 122-124). The academics involved never let me know personally about the sedition issue, and I first found out about it in reading the Unauthorized History. After leaving the Marxist-Leninists, I worked on the Montreal waterfront as a shipwright carpenter for a couple of years, for two different companies – Montreal Ship Repairs and Canadian Vickers Limited.

- Moved to British Columbia in 1977, to the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii, Islands of the People) – a place of which Dave Ellis, a non-aboriginal fisherman on the Charlottes said, “this country is meant for seals, Sitka spruce and people.”

- I obtained a job with British Columbia Packers in June of 1977, as a temporary camp help. The “camp” was a floating barge, with ice facilities where trawlers unloaded and sold their catch. The camp closed down in the middle of October. My job was to see that the fish were iced sufficiently, so they remained in good condition. My family lived with me on the camp. The work brought me, an outsider, in contact with an important section of the fishing community. I also became interested in the position of the Haida towards environmental issues, and particularly when these issues clashed with their land claims. Moving to the Charlottes greatly stoked my interest in environmental issues. I decided to re-focus my organizing work on environmental issues and not social justice politics. I took part in whatever environmental meetings I became aware of. I made organizational contact with the British Columbia Federation of Naturalists and agreed to do some theoretical work for them. One very hot issue was around seeking park status for South Moresby. I eventually wrote a 30-page report for the B.C. Federation of Naturalists, presenting various contradictions in the position that the environmentalists were advocating on the Queen Charlottes for their wilderness proposal. My report was called “The Case against the Southern Moresby Wilderness Proposal”. While in the Charlottes, Gunilla and I decided to go our separate ways. It was a difficult, although friendly, parting. (She eventually took our children, Karl and Johanna, back to Sweden.) I had met Helga earlier, while in CPC-ML. When I broke up with Gunilla, Helga and I decided to get together. Helga brought a two-person kayak up to the Charlottes and we took it into the Southern Moresby Wilderness Proposal area. We mainly lived off edible plants and the fish we caught from the kayak. It was a pretty unplanned trip, with no life jackets or signalling gear, just a compass and a map. This forced us to confront and adjust to some extreme weather, plus the natural rhythms of the oceans. I believe this trip was important in developing my environmental consciousness. It was also a bonding trip for Helga and I.

- Moved to Victoria in the fall of 1977 to join Helga. In Victoria, I did environmental work and joined the local naturalists club. I also worked with a fisherman, Scotty Neish, who was on the Executive of the British Columbia United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union. I went fishing with him once. Scotty was a social activist and an environmentalist, and a member of the Communist Party of Canada. We took on the Tsitika Watershed issue in Northern Vancouver Island. We went to a number of meetings, clashing with the loggers and logging industry representatives, and trying to defend the ecological integrity of this watershed.  I tried to mobilize the Federation of Naturalists around this issue and wrote an article about the Tsitika for their newsletter. I had come to really oppose the land tenure system, exploited by the logging companies in British Columbia, who used their forest land “crown leases” to demand millions of dollars in compensation when a park or protected area was proposed. I also wrote a number of letters on wildlife and forest issues in local newspapers. When we left for Nova Scotia in September 1979, I was the regional vice-president for the Federation of Naturalists, responsible for the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands clubs. I found the naturalists generally quite conservative on environmental issues. They liked observing nature, but did not want to fight in its defence.

Closing Thoughts

The evolution of my environmental consciousness speeded up in British Columbia, even though I had not yet come in contact with deep ecology. This did not happen until the mid-1980s in Nova Scotia. But, in B.C., I was starting to see the natural world through a non-human focused lens. Why was this? The South Moresby kayak trip showed me that, for survival on that trip, it was necessary to understand Nature’s rhythms and to adjust to them. I also came to understand, through involvement in forest issues, that the forest companies’ mantra of “forests for the primary production of timber” made it hopeless to try to engage with them, unless we had extensive social support and an alternative set of values in defence of wild nature. This particularly came home to me when one logging company, in its literature, proposed putting up nesting boxes in its clearcuts.

My experiences at Sir George Williams University and at the New School, gave me the confidence that I could analyze and make up my own mind about various issues, even if I had to stand alone.

I had to leave Portsmouth and the dockyard on an unknown personal journey, to change my consciousness and to have different opportunities for some life choices. All the various events that happened to me, helped to shape who I finally came to be. My two long-term personal relationships in Canada, with Gunilla and Helga, made it possible for me “to do my thing.” They have both been a crucially important part of my life. Both supported and contributed to the values I struggled to articulate.

End of Part I


  1. Dear David - i found this account of your life, and your life changes, very interesting and i thank you for it, and for all your committed efort over these many years. I wish your much peace in your continued journey,

    Delores Broten

  2. Dear David,
    I am fascinated by all these intriguing circumstances and experiences that have shaped your life. There are more connections between our lives than I was aware of. When we met at your farm in 1996 I had no idea you had lived in the Queen Charlottes, or that you knew Gunder Frank. I used to live in Prince Rupert and visited the Charlottes in 1968, and Gunder Frank was a good friend. I think Gunder, you and I have shared a similar indignation about the state of the world - the makings of an activist?
    All best wishes,

  3. David,

    I have always admired you for actually trying to live your ideals. "Walk the Talk" which is sometimes used in an over generalized , glib manner. I decided to check out the phrase a little more and I believe in a sincere -non glib manner that it applys to you: :
    "To walk the walk and talk the talk"
    'To talk the talk' means that you are able to talk theoretically about how something is/should be done; but if one has 'walked the walk', the person has had first hand, practical experience of putting the theory into practice (and so learning that what happens in practice is not always 'according to the book', and so the person has had to adjust, to solve some problem that has occurred in the practical situation.

    So, if a person is said to be able to 'talk the talk' only, it means he can spout all the theory but has no real practical experience of putting the theory into action."

    Bob Diamond

  4. David, I was lucky enough to have had you as a teacher at Sir George during those turbulent times and it was a result of that experience that all those left leaning nebulous thoughts I had inherited from my parents coalesced into a coherent ever evolving ideology that has guided me through my life to date and I believe will continue to serve me, and hopefully the world, well. Since Sir George, so long ago, our lives have come close to intersecting again as I also spent time in the Charlottes and have done survival kayak trips in the pacific northwest. I am very sorry we didn't meet again but I am so pleased that I did find you again recently. In spite of our short contact you have remained, a guiding spirit to me, an example of how life can be lived, honestly, for the good of all living things, and the earth, to the exclusion of personal gain if required. I aspire to be more like you every day. With utmost respect, best wishes in your journey, and gratitude, lorne

  5. Hi David -- many thanks for part one of what has been a varied and very full life!
    The blend of experiences that you have had makes for a truly unique life, each part of which I am sure has impacted your later years of Deep Ecology work.
    I look forward to what follows, and hope that your health situation is stablized right now.
    Al Farthing