4.16.2010

northern passage: "canada should be a refuge from militarism"

I'm reading John Hagan's Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada. The book is famous within the war resisters movement; John is a stalwart supporter of our Campaign.

The book is out of print, but Allan found a used copy online and included in my birthday haul last year. It's wonderful to read about the movement that preceded our current fight for war resisters. It's also fun for me because I know and work with many of the people Hagan interviewed for the book.

As soon as I started reading, I was overwhelmed with sadness at how Canada has changed, and a fierce desire to see the country once again reflect the values of the majority of its people. The Canada that welcomed between 50,000 and 100,000 Vietnam War resisters still exists somewhere. So does the Canada that wants to disassociate itself from US foreign policy and chart its own independent, Canadian course. But the ruling class does not reflect the will of the people.

I'm sure I'll post several times about Northern Passage, but for now, one important note, made many times in this blog. We must never accept the commonly-heard canard that draws a distinction between the Iraq war resisters and their Vietnam-era predecessors: that supposedly the Iraq resisters volunteered and the Vietnam resisters were escaping conscription. Leaving aside whether a military based on stop-loss, recruiter lies and the poverty draft can rightly be called volunteer, this oft-repeated lie betrays a blatant misunderstanding of Canadian history. The Vietnam resisters were both draft resisters and military deserters. Tens of thousands of Americans who had volunteered for military service, then saw what was happening in Vietnam, deserted and came to Canada. (The man who is arguably Canada's most famous war resister, Andy Barrie, is one of them.)

The exact number of Vietnam War resisters who came to Canada is not known. Hagan combed through census and immigration records for the best possible estimate. He found that about 50,000 draft-age American men and another 50,000 American women came to Canada between the years 1964 and 1975. It was, he writes, "the largest politically motivated migration from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists moved north to oppose the American Revolution." My own brother might have been among them, had he not found another way out of the draft. My father always said that if it came to that, they would go to Canada together. There is no doubt in my mind that my family would have done whatever was necessary to keep my brother out of that terrible, useless war.

Hagan's book starts with this epigram.
Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war . . . have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaking to Mennonite and United Church leaders, 1970 and 1971


He served honorably. True, he didn't go to Vietnam, but his unit wasn't sent. But there's another truth: He did not go to Canada. He did not burn his draft card. And he damn sure didn't burn the American flag.

Presidential candidate George Bush introducing Dan Quayle, 1988


In earlier immigrant booms we welcomed farmers, artisans, railways builders and construction workers. During the Vietnam war we also benefited from actors, poets, educators, writers, social workers, musicians, publishers, and urban planners. Most of all we got people who had social consciences that they refused to betray. Canada is immeasurably in their debt.

Historian Pierre Berton on American Vietnam war resisters, 1996

You know I am not one to indulge in nostalgia, which usually involves a misreading of the past. Still, I cannot help but ask, Where is our Pierre Elliott Trudeau today?

And lest my brief indulgence in nostalgia be misinterpreted... I am not implying that in those days, the impetus to allow US Vietnam War resisters to stay in Canada came from the government. It most certainly did not. It came from a people's movement. But the government eventually responded - and took credit. It's that response that we need now. A show of leadership from above, following the real leadership from the people.

3 comments:

Cornelia said...

Great stuff, wow, thanks for sharing!

Mike said...

Of course the problem with that is a wanna be Bush and the home grown militarism he's trying to push through, but well said anyway. Some day I'd like to see this country live up to it's reputation.

L-girl said...

Of course the problem with that is a wanna be Bush and the home grown militarism he's trying to push through

Yes indeed. I was thinking leadership from opposition - strong, principled, Canadian-focused leadership that wanted to steer a course away from Harper/US concerns.

What a crazy idea, eh?