Being Direct – An Interview With Ann Hansen by Deanna Radford (published first in Herizons magazine)

Ann Hansen was a member of the militant group Direct Action, also known as The Squamish Five. Formed in the early 1980s during an era of punk rock, radical counter-cultural politics and an active anarchist community. Direct Action was made up of Hansen, Julie Belmas, Brent Taylor, Doug Stewart and Gerry Hannah. They lived and worked as an underground cell.


Belonging to a radical group, Direct Action’s members were united in their desire to draw attention to the environmental impact of hydro development, and to Canada’s contribution to the arms race. Some Direct Action members stole dynamite and built a bomb that destroyed the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir Hydro substation in rural BC. Later, members built a bomb that exploded outside of the Litton Industries plant in Toronto, where guidance system components for cruise missiles were manufactured. The blast caused millions of dollars in property damage. While no one was killed, there were several injuries. Ann Hansen was also part of the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, which claimed responsibility for firebombing three locations of Red Hot Video in Vancouver and won the tacit approval of many women’s organizations.Sentenced to life in prison, Hansen was released in 1991 after serving seven years at the Prison for Women in Kingston. In 2001, she wrote Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerilla. 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 Actionrepresents 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 political 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 drip to Europe in her mid-twenties 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 of individuals in Vancouver who were also interested in direct action – which she describes as “tactics that went beyond the legal boundaries defined by the state.”

Hansen still believe 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 fulfillment 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 fro prison, Hansen went on to co-own and operate a cabinet-making business in Kingston. Today she is active in the women’s prison abolishment movement as a member of Kingston group called Womyn 4 Justice.

“This group of women I lived with in prison are [mostly] 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. The alternative is, not surprisingly, revolutionary.

“Our society has to address the question of Native sovereignty of their own territory,” she explains. “There is a need for more treatment centres for drug and alcohol addictions.”

Ultimately, Hansen believes people should be educated and given job opportunities to prevent them from turning to criminal acts. “Prison doesn’t rehabilitate people or make them more balanced individuals, “ she adds.

Hansen and Womyn 4 Justice are working on a long-term plan to build a co-operatively-run transition apartment building and a cafe operated for and by women released from prison. Working with women in prison is Hansen’s way to lay the groundwork for a larger transformation: “one struggle, many fronts,” she says.

“I think what we’re trying to do is walk this fine line of creating alternatives now, in our political groups – developing the kinds of organizations and structures that 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.”

Direct Action: Memoirs of An Urban Guerilla
was published by Between the Lines Press. You can listen to Ann Hansen’s talk One Struggle, Many Fronts excerpted from the CD Direct Action: Reflections on Armed Resistance and the Squamish Five released by G7 Welcoming Committee Records in 2003, on their website.

By Deanna Radford. Interview originally published in Herizons magazine, Summer 2004.


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