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Can You Make the World a Better Place?

Liz Laidlaw

Author: Liz Laidlaw

Article:

According to Al & Marjorie Stewart, the answer is

YES…

What does the word activist mean today? The predictable definition is of someone who protests, carries placards and challenges authority in an effort to bring about social change. But the idea of activist is not quite that straightforward anymore; it’s far more diverse than ever before. The word derives from the Latin word activus, where act means ‘done’, and implies participation and energetic engagement. The interpretation can be expanded to include those who believe in sharing, being generous, cooperating, protecting public spaces and growing and buying local. Al and Marjorie Stewart fit all of these definitions quite comfortably, like the second skin of a perfect gardening glove, and they’ve been practicing activists for over forty years.

I was lucky enough to speak with them both recently at their lovely home overlooking the Winchelsea Islands. They have a beautiful energy and have encouraging ideas about how to live more consciously and with more connection to our daily lives and communities.

Al, the son of a butcher, was born in 1929 and is fourth generation Vancouver Island, raised in Cowichan Station. He was the twelfth of thirteen children, learning to make butter, stoke a fire and weed a garden growing up, the latter which he still does on a regular basis. Al started his professional life as a Chemical Engineer because a teacher told him what a great career it was. He found after a few years that he liked the people he worked with, but wasn’t too keen on the actual work, so he tried teaching. At that time it meant he could choose where he wanted to work.

Marjorie calls herself an “accidental Canadian”. Born in 1939, she grew up in Glasgow, was a city girl, and went to the University of Glasgow where she had a “wonderful education”. Through an arrangement with Commonwealth countries at the time, students involved in education could travel for two years tax free, and after her time teaching in Montreal and Vancouver in 1964, she had a job lined up in Hong Kong. Instead, she met Al when they were both teaching at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver, and they were married in 1965.

The best advice they received from friends who already had children was, “don’t get addicted to two salaries.” They credit having managed on one income with having a successful family life and allowing them more time to be involved in their community. Marjorie was able to stay home with the kids (two girls and a boy) and devote any spare time to “community shit disturbing”, which she still enjoys to this day. They moved to Nanaimo in 1970 and Al started teaching at John Barsby Secondary, where he taught math and science until 1989. They grew their own vegetables and had space to spread out on five acres in the East Wellington Valley on Jingle Pot Road. Al helped start a forum for child poverty to provide housing to low-income families, and has been involved for many years with the Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society. “There’s always something coming up that we want to get involved in”, he says.

Marjorie wasn’t interested in activism until she was a young mother in Vancouver. Al showed her letters written to the Vancouver Sun by a neighbour across the street, Mrs. Chalmers, who was a member of the Voice of Women, a non-partisan peace organization established in 1960. Marjorie became involved with the group, editing their newsletter, becoming a member of their BC executive and eventually becoming their national Vice President for four years. She probably announced quite clearly that she “wasn’t going to stay home and be a Stepford Wife,” remembers Al. “We were both people against war,” says Marjorie.

When they moved to Nanaimo, they both became engaged in the environmental movement. They protested against a project to dredge the Nanaimo River estuary and put in berths for container ships. They also fought against the Chamber and Harbour Commission, who wanted to fill in the estuary and establish a nuclear power plant. Both these battles were won by a coalition of groups, including the Concerned Citizens Coalition, who joined together to fight the establishment. Both Al and Marjorie quickly gained experience in dealing with the media, publicity and how to get the best bang for their buck. “Along the way you learn there’s no point in being against something unless you can provide an alternative,” says Marjorie of their expanding expertise.

Marjorie was on the Nanaimo School Board for five years from 1977 to 1982. When she was elected she felt that she no longer had just three children, but 12,000. The current climate where people are set against each other is detrimental to kids learning, she believes. She regrets the cuts to music programs in the elementary schools as well as the cuts to other basic funding. Still an advocate for a variety of causes, Marjorie was excited to be present on February 22nd when the BC Government announced the purchase of Moorecroft Camp. She has fond memories of taking her children, school kids and Girl Guides to camp at the beautiful Nanoose ocean front location.

They believe that we all have jobs to do. “Your children are little, their job is to stay out of mischief, be a good kid, do the best they can, have fun… for me it means being the best you can be, loyalty to the species”, says Marjorie. “After you’ve dumped religion,” she continues, “you have to come up with your own consistent philosophy. (Our) job is to help raise other people’s self-esteem, and that works for us. We happen to have buckets of it.” They espouse the Girl Guides’ fundament to raise the self-esteem and confidence of kids. Marjorie, who was involved with the Girl Guides of Canada for over 20 years, says, “If you take people out in nature, they suddenly gain confidence, they see how simple everything is.”

As for their choice to become activists, they really felt there was no alternative. Playing bridge, golfing or joining a book club seemed “silly”. They’re not interested in competitive card playing or gambling or going to Las Vegas. Instead, they got involved in community organizations and both are active members, board members and/or founding members of Nanaimo Foodshare, Global Village Nanaimo and the Nanaimo Global Film Festival among other organizations. “The Global Film Festival (is a) marvelous way to exchange information,” says Al. “If you’re going to be an activist, you have to have reliable information and you have to analyze it and act upon it.” Adds Marjorie, “If you don’t, you get depressed. But if you do act upon it – they say peace activists live ten years longer than other people, and you meet such interesting, like-minded people.”

When asked about goals, they both respond that they don’t like the idea of having goals. Marjorie thinks goal setting can set people up for failure. Trying to achieve goals takes away from trying to do the best you can in the moment, and she lives in the moment, is admittedly quite bad at forward planning. Marjorie sees goals simply – basically, what’s the next step. “Usually the steps come pushing at you and you choose which direction you’ll go in,” she says. Al says goals are short term, like “what can we do to forestall something, or get people aware of something, what can be done to make sure Moorecroft is not clear cut, that kind of thing.”

As parents, Al and Marjorie describe themselves as “quirky”. They both believe that parents should not “foist” their own beliefs onto their children, “not religion or any undertaking,” asserts Marjorie, adding that includes deciding that your child needs to be a world-renowned pianist or

top scoring soccer star. They always taught their children to talk back to the television and not regard it as one-way information – children should always be analyzing and considering the brainwashing they are getting. “Kids have to know that you’re not a sucker, that you won’t let them get away with anything and that you’ll stand up for them if needed.” And don’t be afraid to make tough, unpopular decisions like staying away from junk food – then you have money for other things. She vividly remembers standing in the supermarket holding packets of Kool-Aid and thinking, “wait a minute, I’m the mother here, it’s not my job to let them drink gallons of this disgusting stuff.”

Al and Marjorie are anti-hierarchy, and are opposed to people competing against each other. “We wanted our children to compete with themselves to be the most excellent people they could be. (There’s) no place in education for competition. Then you have losers, (which is) devastating to self esteem,” says Marjorie. As for the future and our children, she says, “It’s all about respect and not talking down to children. Stretch them, let them grow.” One of the most important jobs of the parent, she adds, “is to help the children become whoever they were meant to be.”

They both agree that debating and drama are immensely important for kids in high school, allowing children the opportunity to think on their feet and stand up for what they believe in. Marjorie and Al always put up a united front and their kids couldn’t pit mother against father. Their mantra for their children was “you are who you are, not what you have.” They would ask their kids, “if you had to walk away from everything you have, would you still know who you are?” Too many young people get brainwashed and hide behind their possessions, “(they need to) get outside and do things together, the sky’s the limit.” Try to make each day count, and sometimes, suggests Marjorie, it’s about the things you try not to do, like “be on the phone for an hour while your two year old is howling.” They both agree that it is a great feeling when your children, as adults, become your close friends, and “instead of you always rescuing them from something, they can rescue you.”

For both Al and Marjorie, what inspires them is to make the best of themselves. They are kindred spirits, share a similar sense of humour, and enjoy a consistent philosophy of life and the world, and try to make all of their decisions in tune with that philosophy, “because you can’t make progress towards (anything) unless your decisions work towards it,” says Marjorie. She adds that, “every decision is a political one.” The question they suggest you ask yourself is, “Can I make the world a better place?” If you see something happening that you are opposed to, advises Marjorie, “instead of just complaining about it, try and get involved and do something. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. At least you try.” With these motivating words, these wise and inspirational people make it sound so simple, and maybe, with a little conscious effort and the right perspective, it is.


Marjorie recommends “Reviving Ophelia” by Mary Pipher, Ph.D., for all mothers of daughters. “The metaphor is that Ophelia couldn’t please her lover Hamlet, and couldn’t please her father, so she got dressed up and drowned herself,” explains Marjorie. The author, a clinical psychologist, asserts that at adolescence, girls are faced with a “girl poisoning culture” where society, with corrupt input from media, is forcing them into a twisted definition of what it means to be a woman, where it’s difficult to maintain a true sense of themselves and reality. The only recipe that works is “high love and high expectations.” According to Marjorie, “Girls (are) under terrible pressure at puberty to fulfill some strange social agenda that is not in their best interest. They need to be who they were meant to be, not hot-housed” to become sexualized before they are ready.


Liz Laidlaw is a writer and mother who lives in Nanaimo.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 5th, 2011 at 12:25 am and is filed under FEATURE. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Synergy Magazine: Vancouver Island, BC, Canada