Don't let the grey hair fool you

By Linda Rogers, July/August 2012

Founding member Fran Thoburn represents Raging Grannies everywhere on the eve of their 25th anniversary.

“Where does the trickster gene come from?” I ask my subject. Eighty-years young, the woman who has had two knee replacements locks her bike in front of Green Cuisine before she answers, as we sit down for tea at a bench in Market Square. 

Except for one aberrant moment when her mother voted for FDR and the New Deal, causing a paternal meltdown, Fran Thoburn reports that her Cleveland, Ohio, antecedents were upper middle-class Republicans, neither dust-eaters nor dust-disturbers.

“As a kid growing up on my grandmother’s 12 acres along Lake Erie, my happiest times were running across her huge lawns with my dogs, climbing trees, early morning raids on her raspberry bushes, playing hide and seek in her barn—all beyond the reach of my parents. Being free has always been important for me.”

She shared some university classes with Anton Kuerti who helped her make radical changes in her thinking. “For instance, he told me how socially destructive corporations like United Fruit really are,” she relates. Even then, the legendary pianist was an environmental and antiwar activist, affecting others with his sensitivity to planetary rhythms.

Fran majored in zoology and premed, but ended up getting married when med school turned her down because they were prioritizing male applicants who would serve in the Korean War. That must have been a Gloria Steinem “click moment” that continued to resonate.

While her former husband did his military service in Germany in the early 50s, Fran observed the inhumanity of the conquerors over the conquered and became committed to the notion that war solves nothing and human behaviour requires monitoring and guidance. “No one wins wars,” she says.

“I was mainly a stay-at-home mom till the youngest was in school, then went back to school in Dayton, Ohio, got a BS in psychology, then a teaching certificate.”

Fran had a history of participation in antiwar and civil rights movements when she, her husband and four children immigrated to Canada (Toronto, to be precise) in 1970 at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. The marriage ended and she worked as paramedic in a women’s health centre serving street women and teens, went through personal therapy and intense training courses, and worked as psychotherapist. “Quite an adjustment having four kids, and limited money, but I enjoyed the challenge of those years,” recalls Fran.

It was the birth of her first grandchild that motivated her to become a door-to-door activist, protesting the cruise missiles at Cold Lake. “I am dedicated to leaving a healthy planet for our grandchildren,” she says simply.

After moving to Victoria in 1985, Fran worked as a counsellor, especially for adult survivors of childhood sexual traumas. But she also got politically engaged. “I became very active with the Greater Victoria Disarmament Group. A small activist wing of this group, called Extenuating Circumstances, evolved into Raging Grannies in 1987 when we realized the EC group was made up of all women, most of us middle age or older.” 

In fact, the Raging Grannies movement began in Fran’s James Bay living room when Doran Doyle suggested they change their image. Armed to disarm and act on their convictions, they would use the stereotype of the needle-wielding eccentric grandmother to attract attention to injustice. 

The first order of business was the threat posed by US nuclear warships in local waters. On Valentine’s Day, the Grannies delivered a broken heart to the chairman of the Canadian Defense Committee. This metaphor, along with the turkey-basters they used to test groundwater for radioactivity and the “briefs” they hung on clotheslines, started their creative roll and the movement that has spread across America, influencing awareness and legislation.

Humour—through street theatre and imaginatively rewritten song lyrics—has become the Granny signature, laughter being the threshold to intelligent response. The Grannies jammed their orthopaedic shoes in the doors of power. “We followed Mulroney right into the Parliament Buildings.”  

You never know where they might turn up, voices raised in protest. Says Fran, “We sang wherever there was a crowd: at movie line- ups, on downtown streets during lunch hour, crowds getting off the Port Angeles ferry, and so on.” During one of the regular tourist season street sweeps, a gaggle of Grannies and worthy citizens put down their loads at the corner of Yates and Douglas and waited for Victoria’s finest to enforce a law that prohibits the parking of possessions in public places. Street people had been targeted and fined, their belongings confiscated. But the gendarmes chose not to bust the middle-class activists. There were no scuffles, but the Granny presence did attract media attention and public dialogue. Chalk up another Granny point for action translating into social justice.

In an article she wrote about Bishop Remi de Roo for Peace Magazine, Fran described the relationship between science and spirituality and the necessary consortium of liberation theologians, secular social activists and environmental groups to create a fusion theology for the safety of the world we share, demonstrating that “We are all one,” in what de Roo called “the mystery behind relationships,” the great matrix of all living things.

Grandmothers, mothers emeritus, women of all ages, have a special sensitivity to relationship. Everything is connected to the survival of their children, and that is the special mandate of the Raging Grannies, whose responsibility for the human family, the justice of moderate needs, is the motivation for their cosmic foolishness.

With an impressive checklist for opposition to violence, pollution, poverty, homophobia, ageism, sexism—and most recently to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline—the Grannies are proud of their radical RCMP dossier and about to celebrate their 25th anniversary by hosting an “UNconvention” in Victoria, August 8-11 at the University of Victoria for Grannies from all over North America. There will be a variety of members-only workshops, including one on militarism and the environment and another describing the development of the Salt Spring Island Grannies’ solar-powered oven. If there is an ad hoc choral workshop, the founding chapter will probably not attend. They are devoted to singing out of tune, their definition of inclusive protest.

Fran Thoburn, whose health and vigour flourish with her caring, is the only active founder, but all founding Grannies will be honoured at Founder’s Night, August 8. 

Whether it is an atonal group of Raging Grannies or a Greek chorus, singing together is critical to the health of our hive and that is the intonation for Fran Thoburn’s valuable life on Earth.


The UNconvention will include a public event at the Kinsmen-Gorge Park at 7 pm, August 9, when lanterns commemorating Nagasaki Day will be assembled and floated on the Selkirk Waters. Everyone is invited to come early and make a floating lantern, all materials provided. There will be a performance by Pearson College summer students; flautist Austin Scott and a Japanese children’s choir will accompany the lights on their peaceful journey. 

Linda Rogers has written and edited numerous books including most recently Framing the Garden: Reflections of Victoria (Ekstasis), a tapestry of contemporary Victoria, composed of images, poetry and prose by its many acclaimed authors and artists.