My Experiences Canvassing for Greenpeace in 1989

When I landed at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on January 3, 1988, I realized that for several years during my graduate studies in the Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto, I would have to live in a culture which is different from my own of Mainland China. Just like a plant that needs nutrition from the soil in order to grow, man needs cultural nutrition from society to develop normally. The desire to understand Canadian culture and adsorb nutrition from it was one of the main reasons I applied to canvass for Greenpeace in September, 1989.

Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in 1969 by three Canadians. It was originally known as “The Don’t Make a Wave Committee”. In 1971, its name was changed to the Greenpeace Foundation. Now it has members all over the world. It is a source of pride for all Canadians. Greenpeace is well-known for its attempts to prevent nuclear weapons testing, environmental pollution and the gratuitous killing of wild animals(especially whales). It is also a pro-justice organization, something that is probably unknown to many people. I found this out by reading one of its fact sheets which calls on the industrialized countries to prohibit the exportation of toxic pesticides to the Third World. It informs people of a report written in 1979 which states that one-quarter of the chemicals sent abroad from the U.S. were banned, restricted or unregistered domestically.

Greenpeace is a self-sustaining organization which operates on the donations from people in all walks of life. The money it raises is poured into a media campaign aimed at enhancing public awareness and is also used to lobby the government to establish policies protecting the environment. A Greenpeace canvasser goes door-to-door to educate people, distribute fact sheets, ask for signatures on petitions, collect donations and recruit members (a member of Greenpeace contributes a substantial amount of money and receives Greenpeace magazines regularly). Canvassing is interesting work which requires enthusiasm and the ability to deal with people of different backgrounds. For me, it was also good to be associated with canvassers who are not university students.

About half of the Greenpeace canvassers are not university students. They are young and friendly dressed which could be seen from their pony tails, leather clothes, cowboy boots, earrings worn by males and hair styles. They enjoy their work which is aimed at saving the planet even though it’s low-paid. On Fridays after canvassing was over, they often went to a bar to have a chat. Environmental, political and social issues were always included in their conversation. They also talked about music, for some of them were talented at the piano, violin, guitar and so on. One of them had his own multi-sound track record. He composed music, played it on different instruments and then synthesized recordings of it to make an album. A few of them were amateur actors. They were quite open. When a canvasser had a party, he/she invited all canvassers to come although some of them weren’t known to him/her. Many canvassers worked part-time and there were constantly new people joining and people who had been there for a while moved on.

In a normal evening of canvassing I had to visit at least 50 houses. My working area changed each time I went out. I talked with all kinds of people: whites, Asians, blacks and other ethnics; poor people, middle-class people, nouveau riches and rich people; well-educated people and illiterate people; Canadians born in Canada and new immigrants. I found that there were three types of attitudes toward Greenpeace among all kinds of people: (a) a pro-environment attitude. People in this category are environmentalists. They are very nice to Greenpeace canvassers, and I was warmly received by them on many occasions. They usually bought memberships and had a chat with me about environmental issues. Once on a cold evening I was invited into a house by a young couple to have a glass of wine. They had both graduated from University of Toronto, which made our conversation more pleasant. I was also invited to have a coffee by a young environmentalist. He had a plan to launch a long-distance cycling event to spark public attention for recycling. I told him that Greenpeacers would be happy to join in this kind of activity and asked him to inform Greenpeace as soon as his plan was definite. It was nice to meet these people who made me feel that my enthusiastic canvassing had been rewarded; (b) a conservative attitude. People in this group believe in the importance of saving the environment, but they didn’t donate to Greenpeace because they think it is a radical, or even fanatic, organization. They maintain that climbing a high building and hanging out a pro-environmental banner without taking proper safety measures, a common Greenpeace strategy, is an ignorant gesture. They also say that the government is solving pollution problems, but Greenpeace is demanding that change take place too fast. I told them that an agreement on “Zero discharge of toxic substances” into the Great Lakes was reached in 1987, but no effective action had been taken to date. I also explained the food chain to them: PCBs, pesticides, dioxins and heavy metals in our lakes are concentrated in fish and then accumulate in our bodies. Some children are born with brain damage as a result. They then relented a bit. It is important to tell people the truth to help them to make a rational judgement; (c) an indifferent attitude. Some people acknowledged that there was a problem about the environment, but they didn’t think that they could do anything about it. They were pessimistic. I told them that Greenpeace had achieved a great deal in its campaign to protect the environment. For instance in 1988, a decade of intense protest by Greenpeace and other organizations against the Hanford plutonium production reactor in Washington State finally resulted in its complete shutdown. This was the first victory in the world-wide campaign to cut off supplies of nuclear materials for weapons. Regardless of their attitudes, it was encouraging that all the people I talked with agreed that the environment had been polluted.

The first member I recruited was a Chinese lady. She was very nice to me. But the other day, in contrast, a Chinese man who didn’t have any interest on the Greenpeace issues was impolite to me. Similar contrasting situations I  have experienced with Whites and Blacks. What made people react to Greenpeace differently was their economic backgrounds, educational levels and social experience. All canvassers learn from experience that they might not collect the most money in the richest neighbourhoods. In fact, the amount of money I collected in downtown Chinatown was almost the same as that which I collected in the nouveau riche area of Markham. The reason was that many people living in the shabby houses of Chinatown gave me a few dollars while fewer people living in the luxurious houses of Markham donated. The most money I collected was in the middle-class areas. People there were well-educated, financially secure and expected some change in society. In addition, university, college and high school students are usually more concerned about the environment than any other group of people. I see them as a generation who will make Canada a green leader in the world in the near future.

Greenpeace deals with issues that are not purely environmental issues which are closely related to industrial policies. The pulp and paper industry is an important contributor to Canada’s economic base. However, it is also the country’s greatest polluter. It generates more than half of all the toxins dumped into Canadian waters. Greenpeace canvassers found it hard to talk about this with people working in the pulp and paper industry. Environmental protection needs cooperation from industry. Companies and plants might have to sacrifice profits temporarily if they adopt new production processes to reduce toxic waste emissions. It is not difficult to understand that someone who has greatly benefited from the present production system doesn’t want a dramatic change. Poor people support Greenpeace out of a genuine hope for the future; students support Greenpeace out of knowledge; businessmen have to consider environmental protection in a way which involves not only hope and knowledge but also taking into account the effect it will have on their financial status.

I noticed a difference between new immigrants and Canadians born in Canada. Many canvassers were discouraged by some new immigrants. Most of them simply didn’t understand the English word, “Greenpeace”. I visited a rich Italian family. The mother knew little English and asked her small son to translate. After several minutes, she still looked bewildered, but her son emptied his piggy bank into my envelope. I was moved but didn’t take his money. One can’t know what is going on in Canadian society if he/she doesn’t have English or French proficiency.  I visited some poor families in the downtown Chinatown.  Quite often, there was only one senior lady at home; all the young adults were out at work. This lady probably didn’t know more English than “No”, “I don’t know” or “I don’t speak English”. She usually hadn’t mastered the Canadian courtesy. So her refusal to cooperate with Greenpeace made a different impression on a canvasser from that of a lady born in Canada.

I used to feel that Chinese people in North America had been discriminated against since they came here to build the railways. This sometimes made me misunderstand North American whites. There was a handsome young man and a beautiful young lady in Greenpeace. In the beginning, I thought that they would not be interested in talking to me and therefore avoided them.  But later on, after they told me that both his first girlfriend and her first boy friend bad been Chinese, I found it comfortable to talk with them, and we had more conversations. From this, I learned not to pigeonhole people before getting to know them. All these experiences taught me how necessary it is for people in different ethnic groups to communicate with each other.

In conclusion, canvassing for Greenpeace was an invaluable experience for me. In less than 10 working days, which had been carried out of weekends, I gained knowledge about the organization of Greenpeace which is completely different from that of any agency in Mainland China. I hope that someday, in my motherland, there will be an organization like Greenpeace, which is founded by the public and represents the public in its fight to protect the endangered ecological system.

December 28, 1989
Toronto, Canada   


The fact that many Chinese students, having been in Canada for a few years, didn’t know about Greenpeace gave me the idea that, in addition to the cultural gap, there existed an information gap for the Chinese students living in North American society.  I learned about Greenpeace when I was in China.  There I had no difficulty in acquiring information from the media or my social environment.  Those who lived in North America and felt uncomfortable with the media and their social environment might become disinterested in issues other than science or engineering due to various excuses such as language difficulty, heavy workload or a sense of being outsider.  Thus they would inevitably miss much information about current events in North America and other parts of the world.  A Chinese student newly arrived in Canada echoed my opinion which, he said, might be an explanation as to why certain American trained Chinese graduate students in China were extremely good at their specified field but ignorant on many other ordinary subjects.  Many people know that knowledge can be gained through formal or informal communication channels.  An inability to access these channels could leave a gap in a person’s knowledge as a whole.                     

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