The Grim Reaper Society

Keeping the human population down for over 600 years

Jun 2001
The Reaper honours a tobacco industry bedfellow
Posted in Tobacco by admin at 4:02 pm | No Comments »

This story begins on March 16, 2001, when former AIRSPACE President Jerry Steinberg brought to our attention an article that was published in that day’s Vancouver Sun. Briefly, the article stated that, among others, Theodor (‘Ted’) Sterling — the tobacco industry’s $6 million dollar (US) Marlboro Man — would be receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Simon Fraser University at the convocation (graduation) ceremonies, to be held at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 7.

And yet another very successful AIRSPACE protest was born.

In the weeks leading up to the protest, we gave SFU ample opportunity to reverse its decision to honor a man who can best be described as a murderer….a Pusher in Pinstripes….a Merchant of Death….or, at the very least, a high-priced puppet of the multinational nicotine cartel.

Several Directors and Members of Airspace — as well as Neil Collishaw, Research Director with Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada, Ottawa sent letters to Dr. Michael Stevenson, the President of SFU. Those letters provided him with more than enough information to justify reversing SFU’s decision to honor Sterling, but he wasn’t interested. A couple of articles (including quotes from Airspace President Heather Mackenzie) and an excellent letter (from Airspace Director Marc Ander) appeared in issues of The Peak, the SFU student newspaper, prior to Convocation Day. They were about the award….and about Sterling’s less-than-stellar background.

convocation4.jpgThursday, June 7 arrived. All of the Directors of Airspace have (unrelated-to-tobacco) full-time jobs so, while it’s difficult to get people out to protests at the best of times, it’s especially difficult when they occur “Mon to Fri, 9 to 5.” Fortunately, 3 of us are shift workers….and just happened to be off at that time.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m. — start time for the afternoon ceremonies, during which Sterling was to receive his award — The Grim Reaper and his entourage commenced a very unique and different protest.

For starters, we’d never done a Convocation Ceremony before. And, as much as we were offended by what was happening with Sterling, we tried to be sensitive about the fact that, for most of the young men and women at that ceremony, that was the biggest day of their life….and we didn’t want to disrupt that or offend anyone. We did, however, feel a very strong need to ‘educate’ everyone there — to make a point, get our message out there, raise awareness, etc.

That said, the one and only negative comment the Reaper heard — and he spoke with many students, parents, etc. — was, “I agree with you guys, but this is disrespectful to the students.” The Reaper, temporarily forgetting about who provides him with most of his “business/clients”, said, “No, what SFU is doing — honoring scum like Sterling — is disrespectful to the students.”

There were well over 2,500 people in attendance, including the students….and if there was any risk that any of them might not notice us, one student certainly did his part to eliminate that risk. This student — one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, who were very upset about SFU rejecting the appointment of David Noble (who is an outspoken critic of corporate sponsorship and any other involvement of corporations in universities) to chair the Humanities Department of SFU — stood up on his chair during a relatively quiet moment in the proceedings and yelled something that was inaudible from our vantage point (on a ‘balcony’ that surrounds Convocation Mall), while pointing at the Reaper’s placard, which said, “SLAMMING THE DOOR ON NOBLE” on one side and “ROLLING OUT THE RED CARPET FOR STERLING” on the other. Anybody who hadn’t seen us til that point certainly noticed us then. While the balcony area was definitely the best area for high visibility, we wandered around — on both levels — quite freely, with a SFU security escort.

As I alluded to earlier, the vast majority of people who expressed any opinion at all about our protest were supportive, with many of them chatting with us, thanking us for saying — and doing — something that needed to be said….and done, taking pictures of us, smiling, giving us thumbs up, etc.

Then the moment we’d all been waiting for arrived.

After what seemed like a 5-minute introduction, Sterling was introduced….and nobody clapped! His name was mentioned throughout the introduction. I think most people fully understood why we were there but, for those few who didn’t, it was as if light bulbs were going on all over the place: People would hear the name Sterling, remember that they’d seen it somewhere before, look at our signs, for confirmation….and voila, the pieces of the puzzle all started to fit together nicely.

Sterling’s son Elia — who is very proudly following in his ‘tobacco whore’ father’s footsteps — wheeled Sterling up a red carpeted ramp onto the stage. The elder Sterling looked like death warmed over, sitting in his wheelchair, toes-a-twitchin’, staring somewhat blankly out into space. One university official or another (the Dean?) bestowed the honor upon Sterling (putting something on a “necklace” around his neck, shaking his hand, etc.), then Elia launched into the speech that Ted had supposedly drafted.

Most of the speech dealt with the tobacco issue, not with computer sciences….or whatever the hell it was that Sterling was being honored for!

Wearing his mask, Grim couldn’t hear all of the speech very clearly. Furthermore, he was too busy looking for strategic locations in
which to make himself most visible to both Ted and Elia. They both saw Grim and his entourage — and managed to remain really quite composed. One can only imagine the intensity of the urge to kill that must have been running through both of their minds. That said, one of the highlights of the speech was something like, “Smoking doesn’t kill workers, working kills smokers.” I suspect the vast majority of the audience reacted to that the same way we did, like, “Huh? What the hell have you Sterlings been smoking?”

At the end of the speech, there was some clapping, but it seemed to me that it was very restrained, almost as if it was more out sympathy for the two idiots than anything else. Shortly after that, the convocation ceremonies wrapped up.

By that point, after about 2 hours of protesting on a very nice, sunny day, the three of us were really quite exhausted….and started heading off on our individual ways home, when we realized that there was one minor detail we had overlooked….presenting SFU President Dr. Michael Stevenson with Airspace’s coveted “Bedfellows Award.”

convocation11.jpgWith former SFU student Marc Ander leading the way, we headed for the President’s office. None of us seriously believed that Grim would actually present the award directly to the President himself but would instead, as has been the case with previous presentations, give it to someone else, to pass it along later, etc. In any case, while Hugh and Grim hung around outside the building, Marc went inside, to find out exactly where the President’s office was. Marc came back outside, Grim got into his costume, Hugh armed his camera, then Marc once again lead the way. We went upstairs and followed the signs, going through a doorway that lead into a large ‘reception’ area, off of which there were several offices. There was no receptionist, but there was a young man sitting on a couch, reading a magazine. Grim asked the student if he knew where the President was — and the student said, “Yeah, right in there,”, pointing to one of the offices.

Grim (carrying his SICKARET and the “Rolling out the red carpet for Sterling” placard) and his entourage entered the office — and saw a woman sitting at a desk (facing the door), talking with a man who was sitting across the desk from her, facing away from the door. Needless to say, they were both a little startled. The man jumped to his feet — and Grim asked him if he was the President. He said yes. Maybe it was rude, but Grim saw no need to introduce himself. Instead, he said something like, “On behalf of Airspace Action on Smoking and Health, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to present you with this Bedfellows Award.” Again, while introductions weren’t necessary, Grim gave Dr. Stevenson the names of the two fellows he’s clearly enjoying a little ‘menage a trois’ with. Then Grim said, “I’m a big fan of Ted Sterling’s — and I really like you and SFU too, for all your wonderful support of the tobacco industry.” Meanwhile, Hugh snapped pictures, one of which was published in the SFU student newspaper, The Peak.

Bedfellows Award presented to SFU by AIRSPACE

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