Grannies Rage for Change

By Julie Middleton

Seven little old ladies dressed in long floral dresses, old wool shawls and floppy wide-brimmed straw hats full of buttons crowd into the bathroom of the Westin Hotel. They’re in the midst of practicing for this afternoon’s event. “We’re the Raging Grannies,” they proclaim as confused bathroom-seekers walk in.

Soon after, they are singing in front of activists gathered for a conference on reproductive rights. The crowd erupts in laughter from the instant they take the stage. Holding long staffs and illustrated songbooks, they move from singing “Les enfants, le choix est notre droit . . .” to “Couples here together, facing love and storm, living life together . . . What the hell could be the harm?” They finish off with the song Geriatric Sex-Pot— celebrating the joys of sex for all ages.

The Raging Grannies, or the “Parliament hill mob” are familiar voices on the activist scene. They are known for their satirical, witty and often shocking songs, their wild hats and their ages. They appear at rallies and protests on the environment, war toys, disarmament, pay equity, peace and many other social justice issues.

The original Raging Grannies group formed in Victoria, B.C. in 1987, in reaction to the dangers of nuclear powered and armed vessels coming into Canadian waters. Since then, other groups have sprung up across Canada and the US.

In 1989, the Ottawa group began as a project of the senior’s choir “The gloucester songsters.” “What a long time it took to get going,” says Virginia Cameron, one of the founders and, at 86, the oldest member of the group.

“We had [the first] little meeting right here in this room,” she says as she sits in her living room filled with pictures of her children and grandchildren and a well-used piano. “All is not perfect in our lovely country Canada and we wanted to get that across,” says Cameron.

After a lifetime of teaching, raising children and involvement in the Unitarian church, Cameron is still eager to live and learn. Magazines, newspapers and books are scattered across her coffee table around her Raging Grannies songbook. To the side are travel guides. Cameron is planning her honeymoon. A week from now she is marrying a long-time friend.

“She’s always been very concerned with social justice issues,” says her son John Cameron. “Rather than changing things by voting every four or eight or 12 years, she goes and protests about it and I think she opens some eyes in the process. I think [the Raging Grannies] are one of the things that have kept her going all these years.”

Alma Norman, 79, joined the group in the early 1990s. Like many of the Grannies, concern with social justice has propelled her into activism throughout her life.

In her junior year of high school her class planned a trip to Washington, but the “coloured girls” weren’t invited. At that time, the Jim Crow laws in the United States restricted the freedom of black Americans. “I said I wouldn’t go and caused quite a commotion,” says Norman.

She married her husband Wylie Norman, a Jamaican, at a time when inter-racial relationships were taboo. “People would stare at us. But now, it’s different. You see many mixed couples,” she says.

Norman says being older gives the women in the group a certain freedom.

As young women, they were reluctant to protest for fear it would endanger their jobs, or their husbands’ jobs.

“A lot of pressure on us to not rock the boat is gone. Now we can say, we don’t give a f*** what you say. I don’t care if you think I’m sexy, I don’t care if you think I’m a bit nutty,” says Norman.

Although the Grannies sing at pre-organized events for a small charge, “We like to sing where we’re not invited,” says Norman.

At the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas protest in Quebec City, some of the Grannies from other groups were affected by tear gas while singing at the police barrier, says Norman. “The Grannies are a non-violent group . . . we wouldn’t throw rocks,” says Norman. “But it depends on the individual. If something is important, I would be arrested, but some wouldn’t.”

Surprisingly, Norman’s two children and two grandchildren are “not at all involved” in social justice issues, she says. “I think they’re sort of proud of me, but at arm’s length.”

Kareen Jackson, 60, a mother of three and grandmother of three, is the newest member of the Grannies. Art in the form of singing, drama and painting, has always provided her with an outlet for her frustrations. But lately she has felt the need to act, she says.

In the basement of her Centretown house, Jackson shows her latest oil painting: figures of a woman and child both caught in a chaotic swirl of colour.

“[The painting] really freaked me out and I haven’t been able to paint since. I thought, it’s telling me something. . . I needed to focus all that energy. And that’s the Raging Grannies,” she says. “The Grannies are focusing me not to have as much despair.”

Safety-pinned on her backpack, Jackson has stenciled KYOTO in red ink across a photocopy of a newspaper article.

“Some people come up and ask me what’s it about. Others are afraid. I always get seats on the bus now,” she says smiling.

Jackson’s husband, John Jackson, says Kareen and the Grannies are a perfect match.

“Kareen has always been socially involved in a lot of different issues,” he says. “We have been composting for 29 years. And really, who was doing it in ‘73?”

The Ottawa group has now grown to 20 women, with about 12 very dedicated members, all over 55 years of age. They meet twice a month to write songs and choose venues.

Some of the Grannies’ events in Ottawa have included: protesting the sale of toy weapons at Toys R US during Christmas time, supporting the effort to ban pesticides and protesting military air shows, among many other causes.

Despite their saintly demeanor, these little old ladies are not taken lightly by the RCMP. Laughing, Cameron says the Vancouver Grannies were listed as a “low level threat” during the G8 Summit in June.

“So we have a song now — Grannies are a Low Level Threat.”