The Reverend Maggie Helwig, photographed disrupting a NATO event in 1990, talks about activism
Non-violent protests, such as those that have been happening at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow over the past two weeks, are nothing new to the Reverend Maggie Helwig of Kensington Market’s Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields.
In this 1990 photo by the Star’s Ron Bull, Helwig is being thrown out of Toronto’s Empire Club during a speech by NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner. She was protesting NATO conducting low-level flight testing over the traditional lands of the Innu people in Labrador, which Helwig says, “was creating significant environmental damage and psychological distress.”
She was there as a member of Innu Rights Now, a small group of young activists who had developed close relationships with Innu leaders. They held protests regularly, but this one took a little extra ingenuity, because of tight security at the tony and exclusive Empire Club.
“We had to get one of our older and more affluent members to purchase a ticket,” Helwig says, “and I had to dress up as respectably as I could manage, which as you can see from the picture, was still a bit dubious.”
Helwig was ready to be removed. “When I began my activist work, it was assumed that you would be trained for nonviolent civil disobedience actions,” she says, “including preparation for arrest, for possibly long periods of isolation in holding cells, and so on.”
Mother Maggie, as she’s known in her community, helps train others in these tactics. “Some of it is about body protection techniques and practical skills,” she says, “and some of it is just knowing what to expect. But a lot of it is about understanding your responses to danger … and being able to maintain emotional and psychological control over your own reactions.”
The daughter of renowned Canadian writer David Helwig, she says her activism stems from her upbringing. “My parents weren’t activists as such, but they were very politically aware, and talked about political and social issues with us,” she says. “I also had free access to their bookshelves, which included many books about the opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, as well as political philosophy, from Gandhi to Susan Sontag.”
After living in England during the ’90s to advocate for East Timor’s independence, Helwig returned to Canada. “I became more involved in anti-poverty work in Toronto, especially through church networks,” she says. “That’s probably still my primary focus, though I’ve also worked with groups protesting pipelines on Indigenous land, and climate action groups. My friend Andrea and I have become mildly famous for locking our necks to things, (such as) a handrail in a TD Bank in solidarity with the Standing Rock protestors.”
To the Torontonians who might be shocked to see Mother Maggie in her vestments at an anti-hate rally or chained to a front-end loader to protest the Line 9 pipeline, Helwig says, “If people are surprised by priests getting arrested for political reasons, they have not been paying attention. There is a radical Christian tradition which goes way back. As for community service, that’s a huge part of what most clergypeople do.
“If we’re not doing community service,” she adds, “we’re not doing our jobs.”