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Vancouver tosses Greenpeace a 40th birthday party

Environmental activists return to their birthplace with a public party -- on their own "official" day.

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Canada.

Talk about your happy homecomings. Greenpeace turns 40 today in the city that launched the famed environmental group's first voyage. A big party is planned and a good time is expected to be had by all.

The Canadian Press has the story:

VANCOUVER -- Four decades ago, a group of environmentalists boarded a former fishing vessel in Vancouver and set off toward Alaska, sailing up the West Coast to protest planned nuclear weapons testing by the United States.

The ship, which was christened the Greenpeace, was intercepted by the U.S. navy and never reached the Alaskan island of Amchitka.

But the stunt generated a barrage of media attention for a group of activists calling themselves the Don't Make the Wave Committee, who were happy to take credit the following year when the U.S. officially banned testing on the island.

It marked the birth of an international movement that has a long and controversial history fighting against issues such as climate change, nuclear waste and whaling, often staging grand stunts that end in arrests, criticism and, most importantly, headlines.

The group, which long ago adopted the name Greenpeace, is returning to Vancouver this week to mark its 40th anniversary.

"The remarkable thing about 40 years is that the organization is still standing -- and not only is it standing, it's thriving,'' says Greenpeace International's executive director, Kumi Naidoo, who will be on hand for the anniversary.

Vancouver's mayor will proclaim a "Greenpeace Day'' on Thursday. A so-called "Rainbow Warrior Festival'' is planned this weekend at a local beach.

After its birth as an anti-nuke group, Greenpeace quickly expanded its focus and reach.

By the late 1970s, the group became Greenpeace International, with its head office now located in Amsterdam, and branches have opened in dozens of countries around the world.

Soon the group was staging dramatic high-seas confrontations to protest seal and whale hunting, the dumping of radioactive waste and driftnet fishing. Then came campaigns to protect the Antarctic, fight climate change and oppose the forestry industry, among other causes.

Naidoo says Greenpeace's tactics of grabbing headlines with elaborate stunts was borrowed from the civil disobedience of the U.S. civil rights era.

In Canada, Greenpeace has staged events to protest Alberta's oilsands and this country's record on climate change. In 2009, nearly two dozen people were arrested during a protest in Ottawa when activists draped banners on Parliament opposing the government's climate change policies.

Greenpeace is among several groups planning what's been described as a civil disobedience campaign on Parliament Hill later this month to protest TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport oilsands crude from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Naidoo, a South African-born former anti-apartheid activist, stresses that Greenpeace's campaigns, while often controversial, are peaceful.

He describes Greenpeace's tactics as "non-violent direct action,'' which use provocative messages that stick in the memories of the public and politicians.

"Often, it's not just speaking out against injustice but also exposing that injustice,'' he says.

"The reality of the world we live in is you cannot try to successfully communicate to people in jargonistic language, in scientific language. So as long as we do what we do peacefully, so long as we stay true to the principles of active non-violence, then I think it is not only legitimate, but it is the right thing to do.''

They are tactics that have earned Greenpeace criticism, and while the stunts may start peacefully, they haven't always ended that way.

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