Muriel's century

Halifax prepares to celebrate peace and social justice activist Muriel Duckworth's hundredth birthday.

Timeless activist Halifax celebrates Muriel Duckworth's 100th birthday Saturday. photo Riley Smith.

God willing and the creek don't rise, Muriel Helena Ball Duckworth will spend this year's Halloween marking her 100th birthday, which begins a weekend of celebration, culminating Sunday afternoon with a party for 1,000 people.

On a recent Saturday morning, Duckworth is at home, ensconced in her favourite armchair, by the window. She can see the waters of Bedford Basin.

She is gorgeous, a tall woman, thick silver hair with bangs falling onto her Mary Tyler Moore-era glasses. Blue, blue eyes. On top of her burgundy trousers she wears a sweater of many colours, made by her biographer, Marion Douglas Kerans. The one piece of jewellery she has had since she was 15---a gold ring from the school in Whitby, Ontario, she attended for a year---comes courtesy of her Aunt Abbie, who worked there. "My daughter Eleanor came across it," says Muriel. "It's the only thing that fits me. I think my knuckles have gotten big."

Nearby: an iris in stained glass and a Christmas cactus from old friend and fellow activist Betty Peterson, which began blooming yesterday, an event viewed with immense enjoyment by Duckworth, apparently because it wouldn't bloom for Betty. The iconic "War is not healthy" poster. HOPE in big blue wood letters. A table absolutely jammed with birthday cards.

Under a box of Kleenex, her Pearson Peace Medal, received in 1991. Hanging from the thermostat is a peace symbol on a cord and her Persons Award, given in 1981 by the Governor General for a lifetime of achievement in advancing the cause of equality for girls and women. No doubt her 10 honorary doctorates are somewhere, possibly held down by a paperweight made of her Order of Canada. It is things more related to her core which surround her: flowers, paintings, things of beauty, hope and peace.

Muriel Duckworth is from Austin, Quebec, and today she remembers well her early life, something she'd like folks to know about.

"I went to a one-room school," she says, "and the toilet was outdoors and no running water. They brought in a pail of water with a cup attached to it and we all just dipped the cup and we all drank with it. I think that's why I am immune---I don't catch things."

The doorbell goes and in comes good friend (and organizer of Sunday's celebration) Pat Kipping, bringing bananas, rust-coloured potted mums and paperwork. Pat wants Muriel to put her feet up (better for the circulation) and Muriel pulls out the remote for her big armchair and it buzzes and shifts to elevate her feet. Kipping has known Muriel for more than 30 years. "I really got to know her in 1976," says Kipping, "when I joined Voice of Women and then she did her Muriel magic on me and roped me into all kinds of things with VOW." Voice of Women is the one achievement among the myriad that most people know Duckworth for.

Sunday's celebration will not feature much talk extolling the works of Muriel Duckworth. "There have been many, many speeches for Muriel," says Kipping, "and now let's just get the essence of her and let's experience the day and let's let her experience the day." Sunday will be about what Muriel loves: cake, women, song, beauty. One hundred cakes will be served at the reception in the Sculpture Court of the Dalhousie Arts Centre. Then, in the Cohn, voices will come onstage in an accumulative way, singing songs (some chosen by Duckworth) until 100 voices are singing for Muriel.

Kipping isn't surprised she is organizing the Sunday event but she is thrilled to be doing it as part of her work for Oxfam. Sunday is the launch of the Oxfam Canada Jack and Muriel Duckworth Fund for Active Global Citizenship.

Muriel Duckworth will be sitting in the centre of the fourth row, with three seats of the third row taken out so her feet can remain elevated.

"I'm very excited," she says. "I think its wonderful. And maybe there will be two short speeches---one about Jack (Muriel's husband who died in 1975) and one about the fund. And I feel I need to thank people." The feeling will be mutual.

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