Ian Mulgrew: Former terrorist goes from bombing to film

Juliet Belmas was sentenced to 20 years for her role in the Squamish Five after leading a violent campaign in the early 1980s that included the bombing of an Ontario factory making parts for American missiles.

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Juliet Belmas contemplated the trajectory of her life – teenage-turned-terrorist, imprisonment, film career, a film about the opioid crisis in the works, and now the invasion of Ukraine.

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“I am Ukrainian-Austrian on my father’s side and Ukrainian-Romanian on my mother’s side,” she said.

“I wake up and I’m afraid that the (Ukrainian) leader is dead. I am very upset. This is genocide, genocide. The fact that Western countries do not intervene with their armies… The Third World War has already started as far as I am concerned.

Belmas once did a lot of bad things, but that was another life – though still present.

Sentenced to 20 years for her role in the ‘urban guerrilla’ group the Squamish Five – she, Ann Hansen, Brent Taylor, Doug Stewart and Gerry Hannah waged a violent campaign in the early 1980s that included the bombing of a factory Ontario manufacturer of US missile parts.

“I met Brent Taylor when I was only 18,” she said, still in disbelief to his naivety.

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“My radicalization was really about impressing my boyfriend, Gerry. What turned Gerry on was that I was a militant urban guerrilla. … He wasn’t my boyfriend, he had no feelings for me.

Postmedia file photo dated June 11, 1984 of Julie Belmas.
Postmedia file photo dated June 11, 1984 of Julie Belmas. handout

It took him a lot of time and meditation to realize this.

“My experience in the Squamish Five left me severely bulimic and felt deeply misrepresented by the media,” she explained.

“During my time in prison, I was traumatized to see guards use lethal force with impunity…If the guards suspected that a prisoner was intoxicated, they would call the ‘goons squad’ to violently cut the woman’s clothes, then she would be hog-tied and transported to solitary confinement in the basement.

She studied by correspondence as “MJ Belmas” because university prison programs were only available to men.

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“In prison, I learned that I couldn’t fight other people’s battles, believe it or not. I had to fight for myself to survive. …I came out very rude, very rude, with no compassion for myself. Very few… What I also learned is that women are disposable, and often they can die. I didn’t know that before I went to prison.

Changing the world through incendiary films rather than Molotov cocktails had never occurred to him.

While on a temporary absence to attend group therapy, she visited Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and it was a moment on the road to Damascus that began her journey into filmmaking.

Released in 1989 on parole, Belmas made art shorts that brought awards and invitations to international festivals. She realized that pleasing Gerry was just a symptom of a deeper frustration and a desire to change the world she lived in.

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Her ambition was to give voice to the untold stories of women trapped in what she saw as an invisible underclass, but her first job in the industry, as a camera assistant in Halifax, didn’t come until in 1998.

“And I didn’t expect it to take 20 years,” laughed Belmas. “I was very proud to have a meaningful career in the camera department and my life stabilized emotionally as a result.

Juliet Belmas, a former member of the Squamish Five terrorist group who bombed a Hydro substation and the Litton systems factory involved in making US missiles, traded violence for making movies.  Photo: Lisa Lloyd.
Juliet Belmas, a former member of the Squamish Five terrorist group who bombed a Hydro substation and the Litton systems factory involved in making US missiles, traded violence for making movies. Photo: Lisa Lloyd. .jpg

In 2009, she returned to Vancouver to write her memoirs.

“I encountered roadblocks and felt overwhelming trigger symptoms of PTSD due to unresolved wiretap evidence issues during my pursuit. I turned to opioids to self -medicated and I overdosed on Fentanyl several times, but luckily I was revived.

Her parents were dead and she felt at sea.

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People in the film industry who she asked for help recommended that she call me for advice. I had covered the Squamish Five, and she knew my work, so she knew it. I helped break the mental block.

In 2018, she moved to the southern Gulf Islands and began working on a screenplay based on an old movie, Peter Watkins’ 1971 cult classic Punishment Park.

Set in the United States against the backdrop of Vietnam, the burgeoning anti-war movement and social upheaval, Watkins envisioned the suppression of dissidents morphing into a system where the accused to gain freedom must cross a desert, without water or food while being chased by a malicious group. .

“It had a tangible impact on me when I left the theater the night I saw it,” Belmas recalls. “In place of Watkin’s radical Vietnam War protesters, I saw drug addicts and activists protesting the War on Drugs amid the pandemic being victimized.”

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She has seen drug users and their families face the same persecution.

“My mother grew up poor in the Downtown Eastside, my grandfather suffered from untreated mental illness and committed suicide.”

Her uncle, Steve Maxymuik, was a constant presence at the extended family’s traditional Ukrainian get-togethers and picnics, often nodding, because of his addiction — but always included.

“His death destroyed the family,” Belmas said. “Nobody talked about it. They didn’t know how, it was so complicated. I was 12 years old. It dawned on me that my family had experienced the same degree of criminal brutality and stigma in the 1970s as drug addicts do today.

As a teenager her own disillusionment and radicalization followed, this time she wrote a screenplay.

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It has obtained funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and from Creative BC, the provincial film development agency. To support her, I agreed to edit the script, with all compensation going to the Overdose Prevention Society.

“If I succeed with Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program, I should be ready to shoot in the fall,” she hastened to cross her fingers. “The budget amounts to half a million.”

Believe it or not, “I have this Ukrainian farmer thing in me that keeps me going. I am really strong. Really strong. I had this great dad, he would go out and have breakfast with me. Give me the pep talk – I just had to keep going. And I would continue. … Them too. I can’t wait for the guerrillas, then the Ukrainians will have the advantage.

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twitter.com/ianmulgrew

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