Canadian Refuge #1: Canada and the Vietnam War

This is the first in a series of posts that will look at the long history of Americans seeking refuge and opportunity in Canada.  Upcoming posts will examine Native Americans who fled to Canada, Rum runners who used it as a supply station, slaves who fled there in the decade before the Civil War, and Loyalists who found sanctuary there during and after the American Revolution.

Isaac Romano’s proposed “The Welcoming Peace
Sculpture” honoring Vietnam draft dodgers
Nelson, BC

In late 2004, the small town of Nelson, British Columbia – just over the Canadian border from Washington state – announced plans to create a bronze memorial to the Vietnam War. That in itself would have been significant: though the American landscape is littered with Civil War, World War II, and even Spanish American War monuments, you’ll find very few honoring Vietnam, a testament to the still-divisive legacy of the conflict. What would have made the Nelson memorial even more striking, however, is that it was not a monument to the war itself, or even to those who fought in it; it was instead a memorial to those who didn’t fight. It was to be a memorial for the draft dodgers.

Of course, there were protests.  Fox News ran breathless pieces about Canada honoring the cowards who fled their country in its hour of need, and American conservatives huffed and puffed until they blew the house down; not long after the announcement, the plans were shut down. It was, after all, in the politically heated period of the first Bush presidency, in the home stretch of an election that already had plenty of Vietnam controversy as John Kerry’s legacy was tarnished by the swift boat smear campaign. The incident, however, shines a light on the very different ways Canada and the United States view the Vietnam War, and the very specific role Canada played in it.

The massive impact Vietnam had on the collective memory of the United States sometimes serves to shroud a few things.  First, though we tend to associate the massive peace movement against American involvement in Vietnam to the 1960s, a significant portion – and in many ways the most dramatic and difficult portion – occurred in the early 1970s during Nixon’s presidency. Second, we tend to think of the draft that provided so many of Vietnam’s soldiers only in its final form: a lottery, with randomized numbers that meant the difference, in many cases, between living and dying. Third, that the majority of protesters against the war were the young, white college kids who were suddenly afraid of being pulled into a war they did not agree with, when in reality the anti-war movement was in large part a movement of the working class and poor, who had been disproportionately selected for service in the earlier, non-lottery version of the draft.

The real history of the selective service in the Vietnam conflict – and the history of Americans fleeing it in a variety of ways – is more complex. It begins with the mobilization of troops after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Resolution of 1965 (a resolution that is about to have its 50th anniversary). At that time, the Vietnam draft was essentially the province of local draft boards, made up generally of prominent citizens with near-total influence on who stayed and who went. College deferments were easy to obtain as well, which pushed families and children who could afford it to move toward higher education even more than before. The result of this was that, between 1965 and 1969, the vast majority of draftees in Vietnam came from the poor and politically unconnected portion of the population; disproportionately working class and minority, they could not get a deferment because they could not afford college, or their parents didn’t know someone on the draft board, or they simply didn’t have the means to flee where some were already starting to go: Canada.

In the ten years before the Tonkin resolution, American emigration to Canada held reasonably steady: around 11,000 a year, give or take. But then, in 1965, things began to shift: 15,000, then 17, 19, 20,000 by 1968. That was the year that anti-war protests hit a fever pitch in the United States; it was the year that Lyndon Johnson declined to seek re-election, the year Bobby Kennedy was killed while running for President on an anti-war platform, the year Vietnam protesters invaded the Chicago Democratic Convention… and the year Richard Nixon, campaigning largely against those protesters, was elected President of the United States.

In an attempt to address criticism of the draft process, Nixon reworked it: instead of an arbitrary and decentralized process, it would be made random and, at least theoretically, egalitarian. Each day of the year would be placed randomly in a set order. Those whose birthdays received the number 001 would be called first, followed by another day, and another. September 14th was picked that year as the first to go; the luckiest were those born on June 8th, the last to be picked. The effect of this was severalfold. First, it put everyone in jeopardy, especially those affluent white college kids who had largely breathed easy beforehand. Their participation in anti-war protests rose dramatically, as did their emigration. Second, it did in fact cause an equalization in Vietnam; by the end of the war, for example, formerly disproportionate racial representation had fallen more in line with national percentages. Third: emigration actually increased, dramatically.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
Grand Rapids, MI

Between 1969 and 1974, the US averaged over 24,000 emigrants per year, more than double the standing rate before Tonkin. While some of those emigrants were not fleeing the draft, and others returned, it is estimated that by 1975 there were anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 draft dodgers living in Canada. They were largely welcomed, as Canada’s Prime Ministers of the era stood firm against American pressure for extradition. As the war wound down – Nixon, after significantly escalating and expanding the war, finally gave up and signed a withdrawal in 1973 – these emigrants posed an image problem for the United States. Once Nixon had resigned, making Gerald Ford President, Ford opted to offer amnesty to these families: provided they work for a set period in community service, they would not be prosecuted for their violation of selective service. Once Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford, he went a step further, issuing a blanket pardon. Still, it’s estimated that nearly half of those who fled remained – and still remain – in Canada, the legacy of the country’s second most divisive war.

Since Vietnam, Canada has served as the go-to destination for political dissent. During the second Bush presidency, as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stirred up new anti-war movements, threats of mass emigration re-emerged (though more often just as talk rather than action). President Obama’s election resulted in similar threats, this time from the right (who, fearing a socialist nightmare in the US, might have been a bit disappointed arriving in Canada’s far more socially-oriented state). Most recently, at least a small number of Americans had their frustrated Twitter posts highlighted in the aftermath of the Obergefell ruling on gay marriage, threatening to move north (where they, too, would have been disappointed – gay marriage has been legal in Canada for over a decade). This identity for Canada – as a place where American political dissenters might find safe harbor – has a history that goes well beyond the modern era. The rest of this series will look at a few other instances of Canada’s role in American political dissent, starting with a look at the Underground Railroad on Friday.

Sources:
“Placing American Emigration to Canada in Context”, Migration Policy Institute
Grand Expectations, James Patterson
“Draft Dodger Memorial to be Built in BC”, CBC.ca
“What’s Your Number?” History.net
“Our Way Home Peace Event & Reunion”

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