On Being Direct: An Interview with Ann Hansen, by Deanna Radford, HERIZONS WINTER 2018 | Left Wing Books


On Being Direct: An Interview with Ann Hansen (be Deanna Radford)

Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla

493 pages
$26.33 (CAD)

SUMMARY: In the early 1980s, Ann Hansen was a member of the militant group Direct Action, also known as the Squamish Five. Formed in an era of punk rock, radical countercultural politics and an active anarchist community, Direct Action was made up of Hansen, Julie Belmas, Brent Taylor, Doug Stewart and Gerry Hannah. Its members lived and worked as an underground cell.

Direct Action members were united by a desire to draw attention to the environmental impact of hydroelectric development, and they strongly opposed Canada's involvement in the arms race. Direct Action members stole dynamite and built a bomb that destroyed the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir substation in rural British Columbia. In 1982, three Direct Actionmembersbuilt a bomb that exploded outside the Litton Industries plant in Toronto, where guidance-system components for American cruise missiles were manufactured. Direct Action phoned authorities as a warning; however, the blast deto­ nated early. The blast caused millions of dollars in propertydamage and injuredthreebomb squad offi­ cers and several civilians. This article by Deanna Radford first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Herizons, it was also reprinted in the Winter 2018 issue.


After being sentenced to life in prison, Ann Hansen was released in 1991 after serving seven years at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario.

In 2001, she wrote Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerilla, published by Between the Lines Press. Based on her recollections, on newspaper articles and on court documents, it is a story that is impossibly true and unbelievable, simultaneously passionate and enthralling. A must-read for modern activists, Direct Action represents a glimpse into a controversial chapter in Canadian protest history. The first thing many  people want to  know is how Hansen became involved in Direct Action. "Throughout history," Hansen explains, "when people are young and are starting to develop a politi­ cal consciousness, it does occur to a lot of young people, things aren't right here. Why should we be obeying the laws? And [they] go through the same political analysis that I went through."

However, Hansen's group was more than analytical. Direct Action operated not only outside the law but outside the organized left political community as well. It was during a trip to Europe in her mid-20s that Hansen was inspired by the European urban guerilla movement of the '70s. She acquired an active hunger for praxis with her politics, and for taking action. Around this time, Hansen met a handful ofindividuals in Vancouver who were also interested in direct action-which she describes as "tactics that went beyond the legal boundar­ ies defined by the state."

Hansen was part of a Vancouver group that called itself the Wimmin's Fire Brigade, and claimed respon­ sibility for firebombing three video stores whose titles included violent pornography.

Hansen still believes in direct action. However, she says, "I would never advocate or advise anyone to put a bomb in a building that people are working at."

At the same time, "If there were people who were doing similar things today, I would not stand up and renounce them."

What would she say to them, then?

"I would wonder if they were prepared for the degree of sacrifice they'd be willing to make, or the degree of political change that they're going to effect. I think people who engage in serious, militant direct action have to be well-grounded-be able  to  get  fulfill­ ment personally from what they have done-because they may not get a lot of reinforcement from society. They have to be prepared with having  done  what they believed was right-even if there wasn't a mass movement in  the  next five years. We're not living in a revolutionary society."

What would a revolutionary society do?

"The problems that most radicals are trying to resolve­ poverty and racism, injustice-I don't think any of those problems are going to be resolved without a major revolution." Hansen believes that would entail "the replacement of capitalism with an alternative form of society or economics."

Neither repentant nor overly romantic, Direct Action describes the challenges and pitfalls of working in isolation. "There was no significant revolutionary movement at the time," she recalls. "We acted outside of any kind of mass revolutionary movement. There was no continuity. We were arrested, and basically that group ended."

Upon her release from prison, Hansen went on to co­ own and operate a cabinet-making business in Kingston, Ontario. Today she is active in the women's prison abolishment movement as a member of a Kingston group called Womyn 4 Justice.

"This group of women I lived with in prison are all active today in the prison abolition movement. Most of them were not political activists before," she says.

Helping women on the inside has another benefit. "It's also therapeutic work for us-a way for women who were in prison to deal with their frustration, and bitterness, and anger at the system and all the years of being in prison, in a positive way."

Hansen's time in prison convinced her that the prison system's punishment focus is all wrong.

Ultimately, Hansen believes people should be educated and given job opportunities to prevent them from turn­ ing to criminal acts. "Prison doesn't rehabilitate people or make them more balanced individuals," she says.

Hansen and Womyn 4 Justice are working on a long-term plan to build a co-operatively run transi­ tion apartment building and a cafe operated for and by women released from prison. Working with women in prison is Hansen's way to land the groundwork for larger transformation: "one struggle, many fronts," she says. "I think what we're trying to do is walk this fine line of creating the alternatives now, in our political groups­ developing kinds of organizations and structures we're aspiring to in this so-called ideal world.

"In my ideal world, it's as decentralized as possible. Power rests as much as possible in the hands of the people."


UPDATE: Anne Hansen's forthcoming book, Taking the Rap will be published by Between the Lines in May 2018. She continued to be involved in the prison reform movement in the Kingston, Ontario area until 2012, when her terms of parole were tightened. Julie Belmas, the other female member of the Squamish Five, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. On appeal, her sentence was reduced to an eight-year sentence, and she was released after six. Belmas attended Emily Carr University of Art and Design and completed a degree in filmmaking. She is working on a memoir. Squamish Five member Brent Taylor was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in the Litton bombing and related offences. He was released after eight years. Gerry Hannah served five years of an eight-year sentence. Doug Stewart served four years of a six-year sentence.