Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada

by John Hagan
269 pages,
ISBN: 067400471X

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Some Didn't Want to Fight
by Fred A. Reed

The war waged by the United States against Vietnam from 1963 until 1974 has all but faded from memory, overtaken by genocides and other cataclysms. But the widespread civil disobedience it touched off still haunts the American civil conscience and obsesses the War Party which has seized control of the regime. Near forgotten as well is the Canadian dimension to the Vietnam war: the flight northward of an estimated 60,000 men and women who had come to see participation in the conflict as morally intolerable and potentially deadly.

Against forgetfulness and mindful of the past, a niche market of writing on the largest migratory movement from the U.S. since the United Empire Loyalists travelled north during the American Revolutionary War, has developed in Canada. After a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles and several books during the years of crisis, a spate of academic papers and at least two reflective volumes have appeared. First, Alan Haig-Brown's Hell No, We Won't Go (Raincoast Books, 1996) and now Northern Passage, by John Hagan, a law and sociology professor at Northwestern University and the University of Toronto. Is it too soon to speak of a mini-trend?

While Haig-Brown presents concise narrative histories of a small sampling of American war resisters speaking in their own words, Hagan is much more ambitious. He boldly claims to bring the analytical tools of social science to bear on the war resistance movement.

He asks, "Were the American draft and military resisters who came to Canada marginal, or were they instead marginalized by an American culture that did not appreciate the form of their war resistance and continuing activism?"

A good question, but arguably the wrong one. Here I must declare an interest. I am one of the one hundred or more former Americans interviewed by Hagan, and was one of the first to seek refuge in Canada, in 1963, at a time when Canadian immigration policy made no provision for American draft resisters, and when no support structures had yet been established by the exiles themselves. My reading of Northern Passage is anything but disinterested. Yet my own experience, of having chosen to cast my lot with the other nation that shares the Canadian state¨QuTbec¨moves me to comment on the merits and small weaknesses of Professor Hagan's book.

Paradoxically, the most attractive aspect of Northern Passage is its author's inability to restrict his purview to a dry analysis of "variables for activism analysis" or "life course determinants of social and political activism" with its accompanying and, to the non-specialist, incomprehensible bivariate and multiple correlations, and proliferating bs and flow charts.

Despite the urge to codify and quantify, however, the personalities of the persons interviewed and the tumult and turmoil of the Vietnam war era hardly lend themselves to such an approach. In fact, they resist it as stubbornly as these ex-Yanks resisted the war. Still, they did share a common experience that, like all others, is amenable to examination and investigation.

Happily, Hagan is a lively narrator of events, and finds himself quickly caught up in a story to which he, as a war evader, was a witness and a marginal participant. Northern Passage is restrained yet incisive when it grapples with the difficulties faced by successive Canadian governments in reconciling what Pierre Eliott Trudeau described as sleeping beside the elephant with Canada's immigration policy. Deftly, he shows that a policy that had once restricted entry to Canada along racial lines, in the sixties was transformed into a vehicle for the promotion of Canadian sovereignty.

This it did, after several years of sharp internal debate, by opening the country's borders to American war resisters. He describes with touching clarity the efforts of anti-war Americans on both sides of the border to bring about a general amnesty for all war resisters. His account of the 1976 Democratic Convention, in which a war resister was placed in nomination for the vice-presidential candidacy, is riveting. Thorough as well is his description of the generosity of Canadian writers and journalists, from Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton to Stephen Clarkson and Ron Haggart, in their public support of a group whose public behavior startled and even dismayed many Canadians.

After the military victory of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and its North Vietnamese allies over the mighty American expeditionary force, and the incomplete Carter amnesty, Americans in Canada were faced, writes Hagan, with two choices: return from exile, or stay on and assimilate. Not surprisingly, most stayed on, and have contributed richly to Canadian society.

"The evidence presented in this book," concludes Professor Hagan, "indicates that the decision of American war resisters to come to Canada was, in the political-process terms, a rational and productive response to the opportunity that immigration to Canada provided." It was, I submit, far more than that. Ill-articulated at first, increasingly clear over time, was the conviction among American war resisters that their country's involvement in Vietnam was nothing less than a criminal enterprise from which they were prohibited in participating by their conscience, and by the provisions of the Nuremburg Tribunal.

In retrospect, one is tempted to conclude that Canada's acceptance of them speaks volumes about the differences between the two countries. That temptation must be resisted in this age of hemispheric convergence and the erosion of national sovereignty. The issues of conscience raised by the migration of tens of thousands of Americans to Canada may return to the public agenda in the chilling climate of George W. Bush's "endless war on terrorism." Those issues can be expected to resurface in unexpected ways that strike closer to home. ˛


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