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A peace profile: Ursula Franklin

                                Franklin in 2006

She might not fit your vision of a revolutionary, but long-time Toronto activist Ursula Franklin has spent decades “fighting” for peace and social justice.


Now 89, this emeritus professor and author of The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map, defines peace as “the presence of justice and the absence of fear.” She likes to quote the late A. J. Muste, the well known American peace activist: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”


Franklin was interviewed May 6 by Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC’s The Current. Her carefully chosen words reflected her active, conscientious mind and commitment to progressive causes, from prison reform to women’s rights. Her many honors include the Order of Canada, Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, which legally declared girls and women in Canada “persons” for the first time, and the Pearson Medal of Peace for her dedication to advancing human rights.


During her CBC interview, Franklin advocated the practice of “scrupling,” rather than today’s cyber-obsession with “Googling.” In her view, people need to get together to air their scruples and make their opinions public; they can’t rely on experts and  publicists to suggest solutions. Too often, we hear that the problems facing society today are too complex to be left to the layperson. But the minds, especially of youth, need to be activated to address these issues, from globalization and environmental concerns to health and education.  


When Tremonti asked Franklin about the lack of interest in politics in today’s Canadian youth, she responded that apathy sets in when individuals, especially young people, feel that no one is listening to their concerns. Why bother to vote if no one cares about their opinions and the government will do as it pleases once it receives their votes?


Franklin is not willing to rest with the phrase “sustainable development“; she demands to know: “Sustainable of what, develop what, and for whom?” She continues to be an outspoken critic of policies of Canada’s federal government, especially its plan to build more and bigger prisons. Her husband Fred was much involved in the rehabilitation and support of prisoners.


Besides becoming a brilliant academic in a discipline where women were remarkably scarce, she had a keen interest in politics and, of course, feminism,” says Reverend Hanns Skoutajan, one of her Toronto mentees. “She fought for salary equality among the sexes especially in her university.”


 He adds: “‘Revolutionary,’ I would call her, but why is it revolutionary to be deeply concerned about the kind of country and world that our grandchildren will inherit?”


Skoutajan met Franklin when she was a professor teaching metallurgy at the University of Toronto. He remembers: “Besides teaching, I first encountered her on an anti-war demonstration in Toronto back in the 60s. She became my mentor as she was for many others who were concerned about fascist trends evidenced in many countries as well as our own.”


Franklin was born in Berlin to a Jewish mother and Gentile father, a troublesome heritage in Hitler’s Germany. The Nazis arrested the whole family and sent them to different concentration camps; however, they somehow managed to survive the Holocaust and were reunited after the war. She came to Canada in 1949 to continue her career.


Franklin recalls, as a teenager, hearing her mother admonish her neighbours in Berlin: “Don’t you see what’s coming?” She saw first-hand the seduction of the German people to anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, the glorification of violence, and a virulent nationalism. She decided to make it her mission to point out and warn people in her new home, Canada, of similar trends.


To protest the war in Iraq, Franklin led a parade of professors in full academic attire out of Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when then-U.S.-President George W. Bush was honored with a doctor of law degree.


Franklin and her husband Fred have found a spiritual home in the Quaker religion, known as a Peace Church. However, Quaker meetings are considerably different from other religious services: they are silent. Only when moved by spirit is a member encouraged to speak and express their view. Every person’s opinion is seen as important as the next.


“Having attended Quaker meetings, I was always made aware of a spiritual presence but quite unlike what I had encountered in mainline or evangelical worship services where the word of God comes from the Bible and the preacher,” says Skoutajan. “While silence is powerful and scarce in our time, when that silence is broken by some deep concern it takes on a special authenticity.”


In his words: “There is a Spirit alive. One need not become a Quaker to experience it, but learn to listen deeply, dare to live mindfully, and seek peace and justice for all humankind.”


Many thanks to Hanns Skoutajan for providing the core of this content and giving me permission to put it on my blog.

May 17, 2010 at 11:23 am
1 comment »
  • May 18, 2010 at 12:17 pmStephanie

    Heather, I love the quote that there is not a way to peace but peace is the way and it fit into an email for some friends who are in Thailand at present who are trying to understand the issues there.
    I too have sat in a Quaker time of silence and then heard the speaking afterwards and it was beautiful. I love the quote “dare to live mindfully” which I believe is how we should live. Really enjoyed this article. Thanks

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