‘Canada has lost one of its great intellectuals and humanitarians’
By Fiona McMurran
Posted August 3rd, 2016 on Niagara At Large
On July 22, 2016, Canada lost one of its great public intellectuals. Ursula Franklin was not only a renowned scientist; she was also a feminist, peace activist, and philosopher—and an extraordinary Canadian.
Franklin came to wide public attention in Canada with her 1989 CBC Massey Lectures, entitled “The Real World of Technology”, in which she told her listeners that technology shouldn’t be regarded as “the icing” on the cake of culture; it is part of the cake itself.
Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Ursula Franklin, I was lucky enough to hear her speak on a few occasions. I found her way of looking at the world deeply compelling—she always inspired me to make connections I’d never seen before. The biggest inspiration was the way she lived her life, integrating heart and mind and understanding through action in the world.
Franklin’s scientific field was practical rather than theoretical. Perhaps that is why the wisdom she learned over a lifetime has always been so particularly relevant to the way we live now, in a very materialist culture. Franklin understood the material part from the inside, as it were, but she was not captured by it. Hers has always been a voice to be heeded, and she never ceased to remind us of the hard lessons of the twentieth century that we would do well to take to heart in the twenty-first.
Born in 1921 in Munich, Ursula grew up in an academic household. Her Jewish mother saw early on the dangers of the rise of fascism in Germany. Ursula never forgot her mother’s warnings that the German people were being seduced into anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, the glorification of violence, and a virulent nationalism.
Although Ursula’s whole family was interned by the Nazis in different concentration camps, miraculously they survived; she herself was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.
She came to Canada in 1949 to continue her education in physics, becoming a specialist in archaeometry, the study of ancient materials. Franklin taught in the University of Toronto’s Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, rising to the rank of Professor Emerita.
Franklin’s research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. The baby teeth for that research were donated not by dentists, but by mothers, through a campaign by the newly-established Voice of Women [for Peace}, formed in 1960 to fight for nuclear disarmament.
If one wanted to demonstrate anything from nuclear fallout, one had to go to the mother and not the dentist to get the research material. The mothers gave us the teeth with the information needed. It was an incredible linking between science and the women’s community.
And pacifism and feminism were, for Ursula Franklin, a logical correlation.
I don’t think I was ever anything but a feminist. Feminism isn’t an employment agency for women; it’s an alternative way of ordering the social space in which women are the prototype rather than the men. It is based on collaboration rather than competition. As a youngster I still remember my feeling of joy that one can look at the earth differently. Everything is differently oriented and that’s feminism. Seeing the same world through different eyes.”
Franklin’s feminism was also fuelled by her passion for social justice and genuine equality. As the first woman appointed to the rank of University Professor at the University of Toronto (in 1984), Franklin led the way for more participation of women in the sciences and in top teaching positions.
Ursula, who retired in 1989, was one of 88 University of Toronto women faculty who had retired prior to the imposition of equal pay legislation in 1991.
In 2001, Franklin and several other female professors spearheaded a legal challenge against the University on the grounds that years of wage discrimination had left some of them living on the edge of poverty with pensions that were markedly less than those of male colleagues. (At the time, I was one of the University of Toronto’s small army of underpaid contingent faculty, the majority of us female; this fight, despite not achieving all its aims, was encouraging because it drew public attention to the unjust and inequitable treatment of female professors and teaching staff.)
Ursula remained involved in life on the University long after her retirement. To protest the war in Iraq, she led a parade of professors in full academic attire out of Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when then-U.S.-President George W. Bush was honored with a doctor of law degree.
It was Franklin’s pacifism that brought her to the Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) where she and her husband found a congenial spiritual home at Toronto Monthly Meeting. Ursula’s remarkable insights came from many places, including of course her own ceaseless quest for understanding; but her experience of Quaker silent worship certainly had a profound effect on the development of her philosophy.
The nature of silent worship led her to perceive how rare silence is in our society; she then drew a connection between silence and the commons. The very air around us, the “soundscape”, according to Ursula, is no longer a commons, but has been privatized, in the same manner in which the enclosure laws in Britain destroyed the commons of old.
From the time she came to Canada, Ursula had made it her mission to point out and warn people in her new home about the signs of creeping fascism. She came to believe that “occupation” (such as the Nazi occupation of Norway and France during the war) can take different guises, some of them non-military: we are “occupied” by “an army of marketers”.
Franklin felt that the preoccupation with growth at any cost has led governments to be captured by corporations, to the detriment of people and the environment. These governments unwittingly act as “collaborators” in supporting the global hegemony of the neoliberal agenda that smothers real democracy and benefits only the very few.
First and foremost, I believe, Ursula Franklin was a concerned, informed and engaged citizen whose entire adult life exemplified what it means to actively participate in and contribute to a democratic society.
“You don’t stop being a citizen because you are a highway engineer or a professor of metallurgy, but you also don’t leave all your scientific knowledge when you are a resident in the district that is suddenly heavily influence by pollution from another plant; or, globally, from fallout or chemical pollution.
When you object to things like that, you bring the skills that you have to have professionally to it, as do all the others who may provide citizen input or position. The whole fabric of the democratic process comes from citizens who are competent in various ways, and my competency happens to be science.” – Amazing Structure: A Conversation With Ursula Franklin, Citizen, scientist, feminist. Robinson Meyer, Atlantic Monthly, Mar. 11, 2014.
Those interested in learning more about the thought of this remarkable Canadian can find out more in the 2006 collection, The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map and in Ursula Franklin Speaks.Thought and Afterthoughts, published in 2014.
Fiona McMurran is a Welland resident and a Canadian Quaker. A former lecturer in Classics and Ancient Studies at Brock and the University of Toronto, she has spent the past ten years as an activist with the Council of Canadians.
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