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Believing many issues were connected, she fought for everything from Indigenous rights to peace and the environment
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, March 17, 2018 – Page B22

An unstoppable leader of the peace movement who became affectionately known as the "old lady with a hug" to the Innu of Labrador, Betty Peterson spent her life organizing and participating in petitions, sit-ins and protests, including an 88-day peace vigil outside a Halifax library during the Persian Gulf War.

Believing that without justice there could be no peace, Ms. Peterson - who died on Feb. 24 at Northwood Terrace retirement home in Halifax at the age of 100 - fought for everything from Indigenous and women's rights to peace and the environment, seeing them all as interconnected.

"She was just concerned about anyone who was suffering injustice. This was the whole focus of her life," said Sandy Greenberg, a member of the steering committee of the Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace. "Betty was unwavering in her dedication to making the world better."

Ms. Peterson solidified her pacifist beliefs during the Second World War when, along with her husband, Gunnar, she became a conscientious objector and later a Quaker. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the horrors of the extermination camps in Europe, she and Mr. Peterson made a pact.

"They vowed at that time that they were going to devote the rest of their lives to peace," her daughter Lisl Fuson said.

A highlight of Ms. Peterson's activism came in New York in 1982 when she marched with a million people against nuclear weapons, representing the non-governmental organization Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW). The shirt she wore at the march, one of the largest peace demonstrations in history, became part of Peace: The Exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax: It was completely covered in peace buttons.

At the time of the march, she also delivered the Women's International Peace Petition, with tens of thousands of Canadian signatures, to the United Nations second special session on disarmament.

"She had such a passion for doing the right thing. She was a house on fire. She was so busy working on so many different projects," Ms. Fuson said.

Born in Reading, Pa., on Nov. 27, 1917, Ms. Peterson was the eldest of two children born to Verna and William Farber. Her parents' unhappy marriage resulted in her father leaving the family. A shy girl, Betty found solace in the Girl Scouts and music. In high school and university, she often sang publicly. In 1939, she graduated from the fine arts program at Syracuse University and taught music and conducted choirs for a short time.

While at a dance at Syracuse University, she met Gunnar Peterson, a tall, energetic student who loved skiing, climbing and canoeing. They married in 1939 but were soon separated for long periods while he served at different camps for conscientious objectors. During the war, their first child, Larry, was born, but in 1949 he died tragically of complications from measles. That same year the couple became Quakers.

"Among other things, Quakers are against war and for anti-violence. The main thing is the belief that there's not much point in faith without work. You put into practice what you believe - you don't just go to church on Sunday," she told The Women's Almanac in 1994.

In 1950, the Petersons and their daughter, Lisl, who was born in 1946, moved to a Chicago suburb. Two years later, their son, Eric, was born. During the 1950s and 60s, Ms. Peterson participated in sit-ins and civil disobedience and was a community educator and organizer for voting equality. Later in life, she expressed regret for not having a close-knit family - her activism left her with little time for her children.

In 1975, in the fallout from the Vietnam War, the Petersons moved to Canada, to the summer home they had bought several years earlier in Janvrin Harbour on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Mr. Peterson worked in outdoor recreation. But in 1976, at 61, he died suddenly after suffering a heart attack.

Ms. Peterson decided to stay in Canada and a few years later moved to Halifax. For the next 35 years, she was active in organizing non-violent campaigns for peace and social justice, often teaming up with Muriel Duckworth, a legendary pacifist, feminist and founding member of the Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace.

"She felt so Canadian in her bones," Ms. Fuson said.

"She felt so overwhelmed by the goodness of the people."

Ms. Greenberg remembers meeting Ms. Peterson for the first time in the early 1980s at a public event she had organized along with Ms. Duckworth to draw attention to the famine in Ethiopia.

"They just embodied peace," Ms. Greenberg said. "You could feel the love, the care, the peacefulness in them."

Impressed by Ms. Peterson's people skills, Ms. Greenberg remembered seeing her grace in action at a peace vigil in front of a Halifax public library, where a man walked by and uttered something aggressive.

"Betty just walked up to him and she just put her hand on his arm and said, 'Let's talk.' And she walked off with him, and they talked for some time, and then he quietly walked away," Ms. Greenberg said.

A straightforward woman, who was always neatly dressed in public, Ms. Peterson was known for her dedication and organizational skills. Her desire for action and change meant she could be impatient and at times abrasive. "Let's get something done here," she was known to say.

"She had a dogged determination," Ms. Fuson said. "I don't think she ever felt her work was done. There was so much work that still had to be done."

Through her work with the Canadian Friends Service Committee, the peace and social justice organization of Canadian Quakers, she became involved with Indigenous people across the country. In the late 1980s, when Innu women blocked runways and camped near the airport in Goose Bay to protest the low-flying NATO planes that were disturbing their way of life, Ms. Peterson went to Labrador.

"She was a very special woman," said Elizabeth Penashue, an Innu elder and activist.

Staying in Ms. Penashue's tent close to the airport, they talked late into the night. Ms. Peterson took notes by candlelight, arming herself with information. When she returned to Halifax, she organized public events to raise awareness about the issue and pressure the government.

She later invited Ms. Penashue to Halifax to speak.

In 1988, Ms. Peterson was asked to join a protest with the Lubicon Lake Band of Little Buffalo, in northwestern Alberta, in their struggle against oil drilling on their land.

Well-connected, she played a crucial role in bringing local groups together for an alternative People's Summit (P7) during the G7 summit held in 1995 in Halifax.

"Betty was always very much action-oriented," said Linda Christiansen-Ruffman, professor emerita of sociology at Saint Mary's University. "She always wanted to write letters to people and to get people together. She was very much a grassroots activist."

She was also a member of the Raging Grannies, a group of activists who use street theatre to promote peace and women's rights.

"We try to make our words really meaningful and biting. So you get up there and give people a poke in the ribs, a kick in the pants, and get the message across," she told The Halifax Daily News in 1999.

For her activism, Ms. Peterson was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Saint Vincent University in 2000. When asked in 2014 if she had advice for the next generation of activist women, she told Halifax's The Coast: "Keep on keeping on. It helps you to keep your sanity, and it gives other people hope and calls them into action."

Ms. Peterson, who suffered from dementia at the end of her life, leaves her two surviving children, Lisl and Eric; two grandsons and one great-granddaughter. She was predeceased by her son Larry; husband, Gunnar; and brother, William.

To submit an I Remember:

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Peace activist Betty Peterson spent her life organizing petitions and protests - 'she was a house on fire,' her daughter says.


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