Betty Peter­son is ahead by a cen­tury

Happy 100th birth­day to a sto­ried peace ac­tivist who’s never backed down.

The Coast - - THE CITY - BY MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE

This

is a trib­ute—a warm birth­day greet­ing—to a re­mark­able woman. Hal­i­fax ac­tivist Betty Peter­son, a so­cial jus­tice cru­sader who’s been a vet­eran of count­less protests, ral­lies, vig­ils, anti-war demon­stra­tions and hu­man-rights cam­paigns, will soon turn 100 years old.

Peter­son was born dur­ing the First World War. She grew to de­spise all wars, march for peace and ad­vo­cate tire­lessly for the un­der­dog.

Born in Penn­syl­va­nia in 1917, Peter­son and her late hus­band, Gun­nar, were ac­tive for years in the Civil Rights move­ment and other pro­gres­sive en­deav­ours in Chicago, where they also demon­strated against the Viet­nam War. Peter­son, an avowed paci­fist, and Gun­nar were con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. She once told a re­porter there are no just wars—none—but she did have some sym­pa­thy for “free­dom fight­ers” bat­tling a ruth­less despot.

She and her hus­band moved to this prov­ince decades ago. The cou­ple had a sum­mer place in Cape Bre­ton prior to re­set­tling in Nova Sco­tia. They’d be­come fed up with the way the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment was act­ing, the Water­gate scan­dal and other U.S. shenani­gans.

Gun­nar, as the pro­vin­cial co-or­di­na­tor of out­door recre­ation, helped lay the ground­work for na­ture trails in Nova Sco­tia. He’s been praised posthu­mously by the leg­is­la­ture for his work in out­door ed­u­ca­tion. Betty re­lo­cated to Hal­i­fax from Cape Bre­ton fol­low­ing Gun­nar’s death in 1976.

A role model to a large num­ber of women in Nova Sco­tia, Peter­son is a Quaker who has stead­fastly prac­ticed what she’s preached. Dur­ing her life­time, she’s been a fa­mil­iar sight at marches, sit-ins, anti-poverty protests, Indige­nous rights ac­tiv­i­ties and other events staged to shine a light on in­jus­tice. Those who know her are pre­sented with a diminu­tive, straight-shoot­ing woman who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Like her close friend and con­fi­dante, ac­tivist Muriel Duck­worth, Peter­son has al­ways tried to make the world a bet­ter place dur­ing her long life. House­mates at one point, both were ac­tive in the Nova Sco­tia chap­ter of the Cana­dian Voice of Women for Peace.

“I have faith so­ci­ety must be im­proved, that we’re here to help each other,” Peter­son said in an in­ter­view when she was 82 years old.

Some of Peter­son’s help ex­tended to causes fought in other re­gions of Canada, and a cou­ple of her cru­sades were chron­i­cled in na­tional me­dia re­ports. In 1988, she trav­elled to Lit­tle Buf­falo, Al­berta to sup­port an Indige­nous band’s land claim battle. Peter­son also went to Labrador to take part in an First Na­tions rights protest with the Innu.

The protest in Al­berta led to her ar­rest, with oth­ers, and tem­po­rary jail­ing. Back at home, she has demon­strated against the Hal­i­fax In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Fo­rum, an an­nual con­fer­ence that this year runs Novem­ber 17-19.

Fond of re­li­giously doc­u­ment­ing her long his­tory of so­cial ac­tivism, Peter­son do­nated files of per­sonal pa­pers dat­ing back to 1980 to the pub­lic archives.

“In Nova Sco­tia, Peter­son con­tin­ued her ad­vo­cacy, (ini­ti­ated in the U.S.), for the peace move­ment (es­pe­cially with the Voice of Women) and also sup­ported causes con­cern­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, fem­i­nism, ed­u­ca­tion, nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment and abo­rig­i­nal rights,” reads the Me­moryNS.ca web­site.

Pro­mot­ing peace in a mil­i­tary town has been chal­leng­ing for Peter­son and her fel­low ac­tivists. One group she joined in Hal­i­fax, to help push for jus­tice and equal­ity and to protest against war, was the funny-hat­ted Rag­ing Gran­nies. She told a jour­nal­ist when she was in her 80s that she wor­ried the colour­ful band of grey­ing protesters wouldn’t be taken se­ri­ously.

“We try to make our words re­ally mean­ing­ful and biting,” Peter­son said. “So you get up there and give peo­ple a poke in the ribs, a kick in the pants and get the mes­sage across.”

Her life, ap­proach­ing the centennial of her birth, has been in­spir­ing and not gone un­rec­og­nized. In 2000, Peter­son was awarded an honorary doc­tor­ate from Mount Saint Vin­cent Univer­sity for her ad­vo­cacy work. Ten years later, at age 93, she re­ceived the 2010 Peace Medal­lion from the YMCA of Greater Hal­i­fax/ Dart­mouth.

In 2012, she got the Queen Elizabeth II Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Medal for her decades of ac­tivism. In 2014, the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Im­mi­gra­tion at Pier 21 paid trib­ute to Peter­son with a dis­play con­tain­ing a favourite, protest but­ton-cov­ered shirt she wore to var­i­ous demon­stra­tions. She said in an in­ter­view with The Coast that the first time she used the mes­sage-boost­ing gar­ment was in 1982, at a mas­sive peace march in New York City.

Peter­son’s but­ton col­lec­tion has a per­ma­nent home at Mount Saint Vin­cent.

Although her com­mit­ment has never wa­vered and her spirit didn’t break, it bent a lit­tle when the rare dis­cour­age­ment arose due to a lack of progress in a pet cause.

“I’m the first to ad­mit that you just want to crawl in a hole and cover it up af­ter you,” Peter­son ac­knowl­edged years ago. “But you can­not do that.” And she hasn’t. In 2010, when in her early 90s, Peter­son was asked to speak to protesters in Hal­i­fax on mat­ters re­lated to Bri­tish colo­nial­ism, Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis and Indige­nous rights. Stand­ing in the rain, she urged ev­ery­one to sign a pe­ti­tion started by First Na­tions peo­ple and their sup­port­ers. Happy 100th birth­day to a great cam­paigner.

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