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Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla (Book review)

Mike Bobbitt

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Directing Staff
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Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla
Book Review

Poorly written, self serving and preachy self indulgent drivel, but still worth reading because it actually did happen.

In the early morning hours of May 31, 1982 the residents of Dunsmuir British Colombia were awakened by a massive noise and the very earth shaking. At first they presumed that it was an earthquake. It was only later that this sleepy Vancouver Island community discovered the truth. Someone had detonated a large amount of explosives at the nearby Cheekeye- Dunsmuir hydro electric substation. The blast had completely destroyed it.

Five months later on the night of October 14, 1982 at the other end of the country there was another explosion. A van loaded with high explosives was detonated outside the Litton Systems electronics plant on the outskirts of Toronto. The entire outside wall of the factory simply disappeared. Worse dozens of people were injured, many of them seriously.

Communiqués by those who had detonated both bombs were almost immediately sent to the media in first Vancouver and then later Toronto. It would be sometime though before police investigators at either end of the country realised that both acts were related.

Most people do not really consider Canada as a hotbed of domestic terrorism. Sure there have numerous reports, both prior to and since the events of September 11, 2001, about terrorist cells fund-raising and even operating in the country, but these were foreign groups who chose to bring their activities to Canadian soil. The explosions that shattered the nights on May 31st and October 14th were something completely different. These were terrorist acts deliberately carried out on Canadian institutions by Canadians.

Canada does have some history of domestic rebellion, although no where near that of our neighbours to the south. There was the almost comic opera farce of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada. Here an ill trained rebel force and equally ill trained militia blazed at each other with muskets for a brief few minutes before both sides fled the field with equal haste. That little incident though would start the lengthy process from colony to an independent nation.

The rebellion in the province of Lower Canada otherwise known as Quebec in the same year was neither brief nor farcical. Here bitter memories of the swift and violent repression of the rebels by British soldiers would fester for more than 100 years. Adding to a long list of grievances both real and perceived.

They would then explode in a flurry of bombings and kidnapping in the late 1960‘s in the Province of Quebec. Finally during the October Crisis of 1970, Canadian citizens would see a sight most never expected. Armed troops patrolling the streets of Canadian cities and hundreds of their countrymen jailed without due process as civil liberties were suspended.

Canada had barely declared its independence from Great Britain. When it discovered, it had inherited an old problem. Not one but two Metis rebellions took place in the western part of the country and dominated events in the later half of the 19th Century. Both had to put down with military action.

Then in the 1990‘s the Canadian public was subjected again to the sight of their army on the streets of their own communities. More than a third of Canada‘s regular army was called in to defuse the situation when militant aboriginal groups took their problems with the Federal Government and that of the Province of Quebec to the barricades.

However, for sheer destruction of public property one group stands above the rest. During the early 1980‘s Canadians from coast to coast were shocked by the activities of the group known as Direct Action, or as the press and their supporters would later dub them The Squamish Five.

The five saw themselves as the agents of a form of social justice and protest against what they perceived as all that was wrong with Canadian society. Destruction of the environment, greedy big business, nuclear proliferation, and the degradation of woman, nothing was too big or too small for them to become involved in. They were anarchists, environmentalists, feminists, activists, or common criminals and terrorists dependent on whom you talked to.

In the fall of 1980 Ann Hansen moved from Ontario to British Colombia. Hansen was the daughter of a solid middle class family, educated and intelligent. She like many others before her had rejected the values and morals of her parents and plunged into the world of the activist. It really didn‘t matter what the cause was, Hansen became a supporter of it, feminism, prison reform, nuclear proliferation, third world exploitation, the environment, she became involved.

In the late 1970‘s Hansen had spent some time in Europe where she became an active participant in many of the various movements there. She even found her self on the fringes of such organisations as West Germany‘s Badher Meinhoff and France‘s Action Direct.

Hansen returned to Canada with delusions she was a true urban guerilla and determined to change all of society‘s ills at least as she saw them. She was also disappointed with the state of her fellow activists in Canada who were for the most part unwilling to go beyond the debate the issue stage.

In Vancouver Hansen met a kindred spirit in Brent Taylor. Taylor too was from an upper-middle class background. His parents were both University professors in Victoria. He like Hansen had abandoned all that to pursue his "dreams."

Taylor was brilliant, and had amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of files, books, and clippings on various issues around. He had also gained some notoriety and a criminal record by flinging a cream pie into the face of then Prime Minister Joe Clark in Vancouver. Taylor then joined the Canadian Army for over a year. Before his brief military career was ended with a dishonourable discharge, he obtained the weapons and tactics training that he had hoped to achieve there.

Taylor introduced Hansen to the third member of what would become their group, Doug Stewart. Stewart like the others was the product of a middle class background and also intelligent and well educated. He was also somewhat of an introvert.

The final two members of what would become the Squamish Five were Julie Belmas and Gerry Hannah. Belmas was a teenager who fancied herself an activist and seemed to be infatuated with the older Taylor and Hansen whom she looked up to as mentors. Hannah was a labourer and sometimes musician who mainly joined the group because of Belmas. He was her boyfriend.

The five decided that the various crimes they saw being committed against humanity by those in power could not be stopped by any legal means. Therefore, any and all means to oppose them including illegal ones were justified. They decided to conduct an urban guerilla campaign on behalf of various organisations and causes that they felt passionately about.

First came the preparatory stage. This included debating and deciding what actions they would undertake. What type of activity they would conduct and against whom? The list of "enemies" was a long and formidable one, The Canadian Government, The British Colombia Government, BC Hydro, the Military Industrial Complex etc. etc.

Next on the agenda was the procurement of the tools that they‘d need to do the job. It was Taylor who gave them the source material. Surprisingly this group of left wing "progressives" would use Soldier of Fortune magazine and similar publications to get the information and resources they needed to carry out their actions.

Several sets of "fake" identification were set up for each of the five. Birth Certificates, Social Insurance Cards and Drivers Licences were obtained from real people whose identities were stolen. Weapons were acquired, some purchased legally, most including pistols and assault rifles were stolen. The five also became accomplished car thieves.

A deserted canyon north of Vancouver became their training area. On weekends they‘d retreat here while Taylor ran them through weapons and small tactics training. It was on these trips that they came across caches of explosives used for road work in the region. The storage containers were quickly looted and the group found itself in possession of a staggering amount of explosives.

Each of the three main players, Taylor, Hansen and Stewart began to specialise in specific areas. Taylor was the weapons expert and also their intelligence expert. Stewart became the chief bomb maker. Hansen became an expert car thief. All though had a working knowledge of the other‘s skills and all participated.

Being a full time activist doesn‘t leave much time for such mundane activities as a job. To support themselves while they plotted and planned the five resorted to welfare fraud, shop lifting and other forms of petty theft. All of this was of course justified as they were engaged in an important struggle. Hansen added to this with an armed robbery to add to their war chest.

The first actions were rather simple ones. Acts of vandalism manly the throwing of paint at Government offices in protest of environmental policies. Not much removed from Taylor‘s symbolic pie throwing. Soon though they passed this point.

On May 30, 1982, Hansen and Stewart travelled to Vancouver Island and set the Cheekeye -Dunsmuir bomb. Soon after Hansen, Taylor and Belmas drove to Toronto with a van loaded with explosives. Here they rented a house and began to check out their next target, the Litton plant.

The action that would make them for a time some of the most wanted people in Canada went terribly wrong. Hansen and Taylor drove the stolen van loaded with explosives onto the plant grounds, parked it against a wall, and set the timer. Belmas then called the security desk and delivered a bomb threat.

The plan was for the warning to allow the plant time to be evacuated. They didn‘t really want to hurt anyone. Just destroy the plant which made the guidance systems for the cruise missile.

The timer was faulty. The bomb went off early. Several people including security guards and police trying to evacuate the building were severely injured. Only by the sheer luck was no one killed. Ironically while the whole front wall of one building was sheered off, production at the plant wasn‘t halted or even delayed more than a couple of days.

Direct Action struck one more time. On November 22, 1982, Hansen and Belmas acting on behalf of a radical feminist movement "The Wimmin‘s Fire Brigade" took part in the fire bombing of three Vancouver area adult video stores.

On January 20, 1983, all five members were driving up the coastal highway north of Vancouver. They were heading for their training area for another weekend of camping and weapon‘s practice before their next planned "action" which would take place the following week. Just shy of the town of Squamish their truck was stopped by what appeared to be road construction crew. The construction workers were in reality an RCMP tactical team. Within minutes all five were in police custody.

It had taken the various law enforcement and intelligence communities in Canada sometime to get a lead on the bombings at Cheekeye-Dunsmuir and Litton. Eventually though they did. This lead to the realisation the two were related. From there they focused their attention of the fringe elements of the Vancouver area activist and anarchists‘ communities. This lead them to Direct Action.

The group was placed under intensive surveillance including wire taps on their phones and bugging of the East Vancouver house the group rented. Evidence was slowly collated until there was enough to lay charges and then the police moved in.

They moved in just in time. The group‘s next action was to have been the armed robbery of a Brinks armoured car. This would net them the money needed to finance their next series of actions. These would make what had come before seem rather small by comparison.

Among future planned actions were more bombings of hydro sub stations and transformers to protest logging practices. Next on the agenda was the sabotage of a Canadian Coast Guard cutter then under construction in a North Vancouver dry dock. The last action though was the biggest.

The group had begun planning an attack on the Canadian military base at Cold Lake in northern Alberta. Their plan was to infiltrate the base and plant bombs on as many aircraft as they could. Cold Lake had been chosen because it was where the United States Air Force was testing the cruise missile.

All five were charged with various crimes including conspiracy to commit the armed robbery and other planned actions. The plans to turn their trials into a political statement were circumnavigated by the prosecution. The Squamish Five would be charged as common criminals for the planned robbery. After this was dealt with the other charges would be brought forth.

All of them then made deals and pleaded guilty. Their sentences ranged from ten years for Hannah and Stewart to twenty for Belmas and Taylor. Hansen was given a life sentence. Despite this none of them served more than seven years and by 1990 all five were out of jail and on parole.

There is some argument as to what effect the members of Direct Action had on the various movements they claimed to be fighting on behalf of. Some claim that their actions galvanised the various movements into further actions, none though as destructive as the bombings, and salvaged the flagging movements.

Others though claim that the actions had a negatory effect on the various peace and environmental movements. Many were shocked and outraged by the violent nature of the actions and made great pains to distance themselves from them.

There can be no doubt that the backlash the various movements received from police and intelligence agencies investigating the bombings had an effect on future demonstrations and activities, especially amongst the various peace and anti cruise missile groups in and around Toronto.

After their release all five members of Direct Action faded into obscurity. Only Ann Hansen has emerged from there with the publishing this volume of her memoirs in 2001.

The information on the cover that Hansen now makes her living as a freelance writer. This is the only example of her work I have been able to find. While the details of the activities of Direct Action and to a lesser extent the police actions against them are here they are not well presented.

Hansen‘s writing style could best be described as preachy and self serving. At no time in it does she ever express any bit of remorse for her actions. Rather there is this underlying theme that they and only they were right and therefore whatever they did was acceptable. There is no room for contradiction or an alternative opinion here.

Hansen, and the others through her words continually justify all their various crimes. They make no apologies for theft, fraud, armed robbery, and the destruction of property. It is only when she discusses the casualties at Litton that there is the slightest sign of regret.

Even this though is coloured. Like a bunch of petulant children they take the line that they didn‘t realise that anyone could get hurt. This from the same group that spent their weekends in the woods gleefully blowing holes in paper targets with caricatures of police officers drawn on them. training for the real thing.

The trio considered all sorts of actions immediately the bombing. Suicide was one option, as was fleeing to the US. Eventually they decided on an explanation to the press and public.

Taylor rewrote the communiqué to the press saying they were sorry but it wasn‘t their fault. They then proceeded to blame everyone else. This included the Police for not taking the threat seriously, and Litton for not evacuating the plant faster. This was followed by a rambling argument on how nuclear weapons and the US military industrial complex of which Canada was a mere lackey hurt far more people a year that they had.

Hansen may want to consider a new career with Harlequin. The sections of the book dealing with her "romance" with Taylor actually descend into the realm of a poorly written sappy romance paperback. This only becomes worse when she recounts her jealousy over belief that Belmas and Taylor were involved. A good working title could be "Young Terrorists in Love."

Hansen had full access to all the evidence amassed against her by the authorities when writing this. She admits to using the transcripts of the wiretaps to recreate the conversations among the five verbatim. We of course have only her word that this is true, and I believe that she has been selective here.

The various police involved naturally do not receive a sympathetic treatment by Hansen. She has created fictitious composite characters rather than those actually involved. For the most part they are presented as either thugs or bumblers. The fact that they were caught was only because the police "cheated" and used dirty tricks like bugs. I guess Hansen forgot that when you start to blow stuff up, then just maybe those tasked with protecting society may just make every effort to find and stop you.

A lot of reviews in various left wing, and anarchist magazines have noted that this book should serve to inspire the current generation of activists. I‘m sure that the new wave of "lets protest globalization and then go to Starbucks for a double creme latte after" group would find the antics of their predecessors truly inspiring.

It has been also suggested that the book makes an excellent "how to" source for any budding urban guerilla. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies across North America could only hope for this. While Hansen does provide plenty of details that could serve as a guide for potential terrorists, there is one problem.

These events all happened twenty years ago. Anyone using this as a template would find themselves quickly behind bars. The techniques the Squamish Five used to obtain fake identities and defraud welfare would not work in with the new advances in information sharing in the computer age.

Sure budding bomb throwers can now find on the Internet in minutes what took Hansen and Taylor weeks and months of perusing the classifieds at the back of Soldier of Fortune to get. That though is a two-edged sword. The speed with which various police agencies compare and collect information would have led to their discover much sooner. As would the advances in surveillance equipment.

Surprisingly Canada‘s new draconian gun control laws would not have made it harder for the members of Direct Action to amass their impressive arsenal. In fact the opposite may have been true. While they did purchase some of their weapons, most including the pistols used in the cineplex robbery were stolen from the registered collection of a law abiding citizen.

The book includes as appendices all three communiqués the members of Direct Action and the Wimmen‘s Fire Brigade sent to the press, and Hansen‘s rather rambling and self-serving statements at her sentencing hearing.

Overall though despite being poorly written and overtly biased Direct Action is worth a read. It does provide some insight into the minds of a group of people who in terms of our society "had it all" education, opportunity, family, and choose to toss it away for a cause that they believed in.

I‘m not saying that was a tragic waste, because it would be impossible to determine just how much an asset to the world Hansen, Taylor, Stewart, Belmas and Hannah would have been had they chosen another path. Probably based on what we learn about them here not much.

Besides it is at the moment the only account of this little foot note of Canadian and North American history now available. Flawed or not that does give it some significance.
"Five months later on the night of October 14, 1982 at the other end of the country there was another explosion. A van loaded with high explosives was detonated outside the Litton Systems electronics plant on the outskirts of Toronto. The entire outside wall of the factory simply disappeared. Worse dozens of people were injured, many of them seriously."

Sorry for posting to an ancient thread, but I remember this because I was there. I did not know much about the politics of it, but I enjoyed reading your review, Mike.
Actually I just reposted this review, which was written by Danjanou.