Jennifer Allen Simons




What’s the Simons Foundation working on at the moment?

The time-related elimination of nuclear weapons. People talk about the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, the eventual elimination. But this group that I’m with, Global Zero, wants a time—my time is 2020.


Is this achievable?

I semi-retired during the Bush years. But with the election of Obama, so many people were talking about eliminating nuclear weapons that I had to get back to work. Because it’s not going to happen unless people get out there and talk about it and it becomes conventional wisdom. I’ve been working on this since the early ’80s, when I was at Simon Fraser and my 11-year-old daughter was having nightmares about nuclear war. 


Can Barack Obama change international attitudes to nuclear arsenals?

At the Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, where I spoke in May, the U.S. was very resistant and wouldn’t even consider a convention banning nuclear weapons or a time-bound framework to get rid of them. I think Obama wants to, but he can’t always get his way, as we’ve seen. Congress, for one, seems to feel that nuclear weapons are absolutely essential to the country’s security and doesn’t see them as a danger.


Yet they are a danger?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, makes the point again and again that there is a nuclear-weapons club, and if some people can belong to it, then everyone deserves to. I can understand his point: when Israel has them, all the Middle Eastern countries want them. North Korea, by contrast, may have one or two, but a lot of their threats are rhetoric. They have the technology—they’ve exported it—but I don’t see them as a terrible threat. Pakistan has the weapon, and that’s a real danger. They’re a sort of failed state. The Taliban has moved in there, al-Qaeda has moved in there—it is the most dangerous state, not because of India anymore, just because of terrorism.


These are complicated waters for a three-person Vancouver office to navigate. Anything else you’re working on?

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. I became involved in that when the UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament put out a call for a commission on the elimination of nuclear weapons. I went to Ottawa to see if Canada would take it up; I lobbied there for a while and said I would put up a million dollars. But Canada wanted to promote its own report, which I was also involved in; they didn’t want to take on another commission. So I went to the UN and said I would keep the money on the table to tempt some other country—Sweden took the bait. I’ve helped them to organize it all the way through and plan the meetings.


You’ve contributed tremendous financial resources to your work.

I don’t believe in inherited wealth—my poor children! My mother used to say that when I was young, I would give away all my candy. I don’t believe in tithing, like the church or anything; I just wish people would do more on their own. For myself, I decided I wanted to give money to causes that didn’t get very much. I will close the foundation down at some point and give away any of the money we’ve been building. Because I don’t think things stay the same—a champion has to be behind it. I’ve seen other foundations where somebody else takes over and there’s never the drive and the energy.


What keeps you going?

It’s an uphill task all the time. Jack Blaney told me that the life of family foundations is eight years; we’ve been going since 1985. The work, I can’t call it a success so I can’t stop. Maybe it’s tunnel vision. Maybe it’s single-mindedness, that you’re going to prevail at some point. Maybe it’s part character, the way you were brought up. I was a Girl Guide in Australia, and every Saturday morning I had to go up to the hospital and work, so public commitment probably starts in your early life. I always liked Albert Schweitzer. He talked about responsibility, and I feel we all have a responsibility to act. You can’t sit back and just let things happen.


Does it sometimes feel perilously slow?

The UN really is slow. But that’s all you can hope for: if you get a word in a document that wasn’t there before, a positive word, then you have achieved something.


How much time do you devote to your activism?

I’d say that two-thirds of my waking life is devoted to this. I’m writing a speech now and I’m up till midnight. Was it Flaubert who spent hours finding just the right word for everything he wrote? I spend two days each week at the office dealing with all the administrative proposals that come in—requests, meetings with people—and I’m always writing and reading and travelling and speaking… 


Since the time of Lester Pearson, Canada has been seen as a peacemaker. Is it still?

We were the good guy and trusted by other countries, seen as having influence on the U.S. but not being of the U.S. But that has definitely changed with Stephen Harper’s government. These days, we’re warmongering. Our foreign policy is Afghanistan. I thought maybe Harper would mellow a little with Obama in, that he would follow the U.S. But he’s an ideologue, rather than as pragmatic as one would hope.


Is there a role for a city like Vancouver in such a broad international issue as weapons reduction?

I’ve been focusing on that because cities are targeted for nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia still have their weapons targeted on each other’s cities. In New York, I just presented a paper, where I said: “The design and purpose for nuclear weapons is to target the most densely populated areas, to kill the maximum number of civilians to destroy their habitats in what would constitute a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.” The world is city-states now. We think too often in terms of “enemy.” We should decide we’re a community and help each other. It’s not Magellan’s 16th century, when he discovered the world was round and big and vast and unexplored and unexploited. It’s small and it’s troubled and we made it that way. So we have to do something. VM


To learn more about potential threats to the environment, check out these other articles:


Mark Jaccard Talks Climate Change: Earth Hour, energy-efficient light bulbs, and our capacity for self-delusion. By James Glave


What Is Killing North Shore Forests: The doubling mortality rate of our trees. By Brian Payton


Sturgeons And The Fraser River’s Conservation: Measuring the river’s health. By Tyee Bridge


Tzeporah Berman’s Green Idea: Meet Canada’s next-generation climate change warrior. By James Glave