'Building Sanctuary' for war resisters, circa 1965

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"What happens when U.S. war resisters to the Vietnam war arrive here in Canada, which was undergoing a major political, economic and cultural shift during that time?" is the subject of the new historical work Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73 by independent scholar Jessica Squires.

Those of a certain age will fondly recall a Canada more receptive and friendly to foreigners fleeing unjust or simply dangerous wars. That was certainly the case during the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s when thousands of young American men -- and a considerable number of women accompanying them -- came north, primarily to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, as refugees. 

The new refugees wanted no part in what would turn out to be a fruitless and destructive effort by their country’s military machine to stamp out nationalist and communist forces in South Vietnam.

But one must not over romanticize that period or Canada, states Squires. For one thing, a "mythology" surrounds the man who was elected Liberal Prime Minister amidst much acclaim in 1968 and still idolized today, she writes. "The notion that the [Pierre] Trudeau government and, indeed, Trudeau himself unequivocally supported the war resisters of the Vietnam era is, therefore overstated."

Because of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its geographic proximity, Canada had built very close political and economic ties with the U.S. And so, a certain section of the Canadian population, as well as Canadian Department of Immigration and the RCMP viewed the American draft-evaders and military deserters as interlopers, deadbeats and worse traitors to the perceived head of the free world.

Squires relates how, until the spring of 1969, Canadian border authorities were regularly letting in Americans evading the U.S. military draft, but turning back other Americans who had come up as deserters after failing to report to their U.S. military commanders for combat duty in Vietnam.

What finally forced the Trudeau government to relent and open up to all of the U.S. war resisters in May 1969, including deserters, was an intense lobbying campaign that cut across traditional political party lines. At the forefront were the churches -- then an influential moral force and backer, financially and otherwise of the peace movement -- and high profile personalities, including academic Stephen Clarkson, a former Liberal mayoralty candidate in Toronto in 1969 and crusading journalist June Callwood.

Squires explores how sympathy for the war resisters originated with the same people in journalism, academe and arts who also got caught up in a flowering Canadian nationalism because they were also alarmed by the growing U.S. influence in the domestic economy, the universities and foreign policy.

Squires recounts the split among the U.S. resisters between those who became Canadian citizens seeking to contribute to their adopted country, versus others, particularly the deserters, who were temporary exiles ready to return home when the conditions were ripe.

What complicated matters were the negative vibes coming from major figures in the U.S. opposing the war. California based folk singer Joan Baez, for instance, once performed on Toronto Island where she scolded Americans in the audience who had not followed the path of her virtuous husband who chose a U.S. jail over coming to Canada.

Among the most aid organizations expertly explored by Squires is the Toronto-Anti-Draft Programme (TADP), which published the popular Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada and had counterparts in other cities. Eventually, the TADP turned to helping the larger number of incoming U.S. deserters (often both working class or black) who often required more counselling because they arrived broke, scared and often estranged from their families back home, according to one staffer, Naomi Binder Wall, who I spoke to recently.

Squires really demonstrates her research chops in Building Sanctuary by relying on media reports and accessed archived files to reveal how the RCMP Security Service (precursor to CSIS) monitored U.S. war resisters and harassed them -- leading sometimes to their deportation from Canada -- in collusion with local cops and the American FBI.

As an aside, another scholar and RCMP expert Steve Hewitt, also cited by Squires’ research, revealed that the Mounties’ relied on inside contacts (stool pigeons) within groups like the TADP, perhaps the person taking minutes, to get a full picture of what was viewed as subversive, even after the Canadian border became open to draft evaders and deserters from the U.S.

Building Sanctuary is offering what may be the best account so far of U.S. war resisters circa the 1960s. Squires is part of a younger collection of scholars who are seeking to gain a better understanding of a period where they have no personal knowledge. Squires is seeking to connect today’s activists to their counterparts in the past about the positive things and mistakes committed in the name of peace.


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Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelancer writer who has written for IPS since 1996. He is also a regular contributor to local weekly magazine NOW and specializes in Canadian politics, in particular foreign, security and defence policy. Paul is currently writing a book on the RCMP’s spying on academics in Canada during the 1960s.

The paperback version of this book noted here will be available from UBC Press in July and the hardcover version is currently available at a different price.

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