By Sue Tiffin
After Christmas dinner this past December, Valerie Hunnius read the first chapter of a book to her children about the life of Gerry Hunnius – her husband. The pair – married for 57 years – had been working on it because a caregiver visiting Gerry in his final years had suggested that the lifelong activist capture his fascinating lifetime of stories on paper.
“It wasn’t his idea,” Valerie told the Echo of the book. “He never really focused on himself at all, during his life. He was always focusing on one campaign or another, getting something fixed – and so, all of his energy was looking away from himself. On the other hand, he had all of these interesting stories because he’d had such an interesting life.”
Reading about the beginning of Gerry’s life helped incorporate him into the Hunnius holiday celebration after the loss of the family patriarch at the age of 94 this past October, and continuing to write his story in full – though it might stay within the family – is helping Valerie, too.
“I’m resolving things,” she said. “I’m resolving things that I’ve never bothered to articulate. It’s a very, very helpful process in that sense … It’s an incredible process, it really is.”
Within 24 hours of Gerry’s passing, Valerie said she sat down to write his obituary – three, as it would turn out, of varying sizes and focus, sending them to friends to help them reminisce and aid in supporting the memory of him, ensuring Gerry’s profoundly active life was chronicled.
Gerry was born Ferry Carl von Hunnius near Tallinn, Estonia, in 1926 and “lived across eras of social transformation,” according to one of her tributes.
“As first-born son, he was being groomed to manage the estate, within the loving embrace of his grandmother—his father and mother having left Estonia for a more exciting life in Europe,” it reads. “At 13 his extended family moved to occupied Poland under the good offices of Herr Hitler, in order to flee the impending Soviet occupation and its brutality. As a naval cadet in officer training, he escaped actual combat, but endured bombardments in Hamburg and the hospital city of Karlsbad. All this, while his father, Arthur was interned in a Nazi concentration camp for his active opposition to Hitler through brokering arms to Republican forces in Spain and arranging for Jews to escape on ships through Rotterdam. And at the same time, Gerry was ‘adopted’ by his Uncle Hans who was a member of the SS. All that before the age of 20.”
After the war, Gerry escaped from an interment camp “in bright daylight,” and bicycled through parts of Germany to locate his father.
“Like others, he lived by his wits, working farmers’ fields for an egg and a straw bed in the barn, a far cry from minor aristocracy,” wrote Valerie.
Through his father’s pre-war connections, Gerry was able to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. Then in 1949, after being given a choice to come to Australia or Canada, Gerry chose Canada, working as a servant and gardener in Quebec, then as an orderly in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.
“At this time, he dropped the ‘von’ from his name, as he did not want to be identified in Canada as heraldic or upper class,” wrote Valerie.
He sold encyclopedias and adding machines, and managed an assembly of women workers for Charles E. Frosst, enrolling in evening classes at university to complete a degree in political economics over eight years at Sir George Williams University, now known as Concordia University. There, he formed with like-minded friends the Asian Studies Group, which Valerie said “began his first radical step in critical thinking and political activism.”
“The group held lectures, spanning a broad range of political views and backgrounds,” she wrote. “This was during the McCarthy era in the States (Canada was not immune) and by inviting the third secretary of the Soviet Embassy to speak, Gerry first came to the attention of the RCMP. The principal of the university vindicated the Asian Studies Group, but the die was cast.”
“So began a life of political activism, ranging from anti-war activities and peace research, through worker solidarity campaigns introducing the concept of workers’ control, through campaigns to promote conservation and protect the environment,” said Valerie. “Gerry studied the Yugoslav experiment with workers’ control in small enterprises. He was interested in collectives, cooperatives and some kibbutzim. The contradictions in modern industrialization caused by class interests pushed him to study the mechanisms through which oppression occurred, and which, over time stymied the long-term success of labour union contracts. He was keenly interested in Marx’s concept of worker alienation but he never called himself a Marxist. Nor did he ever join a political party. His support for concepts such as Participatory Democracy and the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition were, in a good sense, left wing populism. A spur in the side of ordinary folk to get involved and yes, challenge the sclerosis of our antiquated parliamentary system.”
Valerie said Gerry was happiest at the head of campaigns, helping to form the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Montreal, working with the Canadian Campaign for the Control of Radiation Hazards, and as the Executive Secretary of the Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – while studying for his MA in political science at the University of Toronto. He and Valerie met each other at the school in 1961, meeting for coffee after class.
“He then toured both East and West European countries for one year on behalf of the Canadian Peace Research Institute to initiate dialogue between social scientists on both side of the Iron Curtain, and formed an organization modelled on the Canadian Pugwash Movement of nuclear physicists opposed to nuclear war,” wrote Valerie. “The International Peace Research Association was formed in Holland in 1965. From there, he became the first General Secretary of the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace, based in London, England. This organization brought together peace activists in 52 peace and anti-war organizations in 17 non-aligned countries, including Yugoslavia (in the Soviet sphere) ranging from Quaker organizations to those supporting non-violent direct action to achieve multilateral disarmament. The ICDP helped coordinate several international actions which helped bring a close to the war in Vietnam.”
In 1968, Gerry returned to Canada after working as an international ambassador for the Company of Young Canadians, and took a study year in Washington, co-editing a book called Workers’ Control.
Back in Toronto, he helped establish Praxis, which Valerie said was: “a non-ivory tower research institute which was mandated to promote community education and action as a component of its research into issues of poverty, housing, labour rights and democratic rights. Praxis was viewed with discomfort and disdain by establishment figures, and with the help of the right wing press, Gerry’s file with the RCMP was again activated.”
Gerry then became a member of the Faculty of the Social Science Department at Atkinson College, York University.
“Atkinson is an evening college for students who are involved in the work force during the day,” wrote Valerie. “He encouraged all of his students to study the social relations within their own workplaces, to determine the means by which they can exert influence to increase the rights of employees and other social objectives: a very direct exercise in critical thinking and action.”
In later years, Gerry and Valerie purchased a cottage on Paudash Lake, after driving through the area and finding it idyllic. The property made Gerry focus on the environmental movement in what is now known as Highlands East.
“He had been very much involved with labour issues, before he came here,” Valerie told the Echo. “Once we bought the property here, and he began to get involved with the Paudash Lake Conservation Association, and understand some of the problems, then he became very active very quickly. He had new energy, he had a new focus, and he applied that focus to just about everything he was doing.”
Gerry became chair of the Environment Committee of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers Association, and was president of the Paudash Lake Conservation Association for many years. He campaigned to successfully decommission local abandoned uranium mines, worked to oversee the designation of Paudash Lake’s provincially significant wetland complexes and initiated a shoreland restoration project. He also brought forth a Paudash Lake plan to guide future development on the lake.
“He was always finding things he wanted to be involved in, things he was trying to make better, and the last 20 years of his life, he was really concentrating on environmental issues,” said Valerie.
Gerry participated in the Lands for Life endeavour, which resulted in an increase in public land protection, from six per cent to 12 per cent of Ontario’s crown land. He helped to found Environment Haliburton and became co-chair of the Citizens’ Liaison Committee of the Ministry of Natural Resources, using his negotiation skills, research, ability to listen and compromise to reach agreement. Valerie said these skills and abilities helped him make great change happen.
“His best quality was his ability to work with people,” she told the Echo. “He could work with people in non-profit organizations and government departments and so on and so forth. He got along with everybody. I never, ever, saw him in a dispute with anybody because he was very calm and rational. Even when he was losing ground in a discussion, he would go away, think about it and come back and re-engage and keep working on it. He wouldn’t let it dissuade him. He would keep going. He would understand where the other party was coming from, and he was really good at persuading people.”
Valerie said Gerry could work with people even when they had interests the exact opposite of his own, or when his way of thinking was in the minority.
“He was a calm person – I mean he was a radical, but he was a calm radical,” she laughed. “He could find ways of working with people who had totally different goals in mind than he did, and he could be persuasive. He could bring them around to a point of view that they were just not paying any attention to whatsoever.”
Highlands East councillor Susanne Partridge said she met Gerry through the Paudash Lake Conservation Association, while they were both living in downtown Toronto in the ‘80s.
“I would describe him as very principled, passionate about the environment and social justice,” she said. “He seemed to have lots of energy – he was interested in so many things.”
Partridge said Gerry has created more of an awareness of the natural environment in Highlands East, and how important it is, leaving an essential legacy.
“He really loved this area,” said Valerie of his local contribution. “He had a mad passionate affair with this lake. He just adored it. That sounds like a trite answer in a way, but whenever he got involved in something, he gave it 120 per cent. That’s kind of like the nature of movement work, to do that. You do something, and then you do something more and then there’s always something more to do.”
In his last decade, Gerry faced numerous challenges including COPD, becoming legally blind, loss of hearing, advanced dementia and mobility issues.
“The toll of dementia, as it spiked downward over the past two years was devastating but he maintained a positive attitude throughout, until the moment a week ago when he announced ‘machine kaput’,” reads an obituary written by Valerie. “He knew he was ready to go.”
Gerry died on Oct. 23, 2020.
The lengthiest and most detailed obituary memorializing his life ends noting: “It has been a good and satisfying life. A life well spent. … He was a good man.”