Remembering the Draft Evaders

Zoomer | January 21st, 2013

On this day in history Carter pardoned the draft evaders, the day after he was inaugurated.

About 40 years ago, thousands of draft age Americans came to Canada rather than serve in the Vietnam War. Their stories illuminate a remarkable time in our history.

By Hugh Brewster

“Yankee dodgers and deserters. Welcome to Canada. Don’t Crash in the office. See someone at the desk. You better dig it here. You’re stuck!”

The sign on the door of a Winnipeg youth agency in 1968 put it plainly. Young Americans who had crossed the border to avoid military service in Vietnam should be aware that Canada was now their country. This fact didn’t deter many of them, however. Canada was better than jail, better than possible death or dismemberment in a war they didn’t believe in. Between 1965 and 1973, more than 50,000 Vietnam War draft dodgers and deserters chose to come here, according to John Hagan, author of Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada. Hagan admits that this number is inexact; when wives and girlfriends are added to the tally, the number may be closer to 100,000. Northern Passage calls it “the largest politically motivated migration from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists.”

Hagan himself was part of it. He vividly remembers an evening in August of ’68 when he sat in Chicago’s Grant Park listening to Phil Ochs and other peace-minded performers. The next day, the Democratic National Convention began, and crowds of protesters in the same park were attacked by club-wielding police yelling “Kill! Kill!” The “police riot” in Chicago along with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. helped make 1968 the high-water mark in war resister immigrations to Canada. That same year, U.S. troop commitments in Vietnam reached 525,000, and 38 per cent of the soldiers were draftees. The casualty rate was the highest of any American war, but the Pentagon was insisting they were winning and had requested an additional 206,000 troops.

Hagan was planning on going to graduate school but was aware that draft deferments for grad students were tightening. Like many Americans, Hagan knew Canada mainly as the place cold weather came from. As a student at the diversity of Illinois, however, he had picked up a booklet called the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, which told him there was actually a civilized country north of the border. He made a trip to Toronto in the summer of ’68 that “opened a new window in my limited view of the world.” Pierre Trudeau had just been selected prime minister, Toronto seemed a city coming alive and “Canada looked just great to me.” After being accepted for graduate study at both the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta, he flipped a coin and opted for Edmonton. The same week that thousands flocked to the Woodstock Music Festival in August of ’69, he headed north, his father’s final warning that this was “the worst mistake I could ever make” still running in his brain.

The booklet that had been so helpful to Hagan had been compiled by another former University of Illinois student named Mark Satin. With his hair cut short “to look nice and square,” Satin had flown to Toronto in January of ’67. He quickly became a driving force in starting the Toronto Anti-Dra Program (TADP) and in opening a hostel for draft migrants. TADP’s offices in an old house on Spadina Avenue soon became the first point of call for arriving dodgers and deserters. Satin incorporated the TADP’s key information package, along with some facts about Canadian history, culture and even average snowfalls, into the 90-page Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada. When published by House of Anansi Press (recently launched in another old Spadina mansion by Dave Godfrey and poet Dennis Lee), the manual would sell more than 65,000 copies.

The book also made Satin the world’s most famous draft dodger. In a New York Times interview, he described America as “that godawful, sick, foul country.” To the Ladies Home Journal, his mother confided, “I cannot condone what he’s done” and added plaintively, “Oh Mark, my sweet little Mark, why don’t you grow up and become a big boy?” Sweet little Mark’s high profile soon rankled others within TADP and, after a bitter internal feud, he was red from the organization in mid-’68. Satin set off in search of his new country, hitchhiking across Canada 16 times and founding another hostel for war resisters in Vancouver called The Last Resort.

Laura Jones recalls reading about Satin in the 1967 Ladies Home Journal article. Her boyfriend, John Phillips, had just received his draft notice, and they were both considering a move to Canada. Jones was just 19 and a freshman at Friends World, a tiny Quaker college on Long Island. Phillips had transferred there for his senior year in ’67 after meeting one of its professors, Chuck Fager, in Selma, Ala. Fager had been an assistant to Martin Luther King during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Phillips had gone to Selma to take photographs as part of a college project. Fager had advised Phillips to register as a conscientious objector,but this status was rejected by the draft board in his hometown, the small farm community of Algona, Iowa. “I knew I was in trouble,” Phillips recalls of his meeting with the draft board, “when one of them said, ‘I knew your other, and I’m glad he’s not alive to see you here today.’

Phillips had been to Montreal for Expo 67, which showed him that, in his words, “Hey, there’s a country here. This is cool.” He went up to get established in Toronto in August of ’67 and came back for Jones in September. Jones’s mother was supportive, but her long-estranged husband threatened to have Phillips arrested under the Mann Act, which famously forbade transporting women across state lines “for any immoral purpose.” Phillips and Jones, therefore, chose to get married before packing their belongings and heading north in their Volkswagen Beetle.

After entering Canada on Aug. 6, 1967, the couple was euphoric — Phillips describes it as the happiest he has ever felt in his life. Their first home was in one of the Victorian houses just south of the University of Toronto campus that then housed Rochdale College, Canada’s first experiment with a “free university.” Rochdale offered no structured classes, courses or degrees, favouring seminars or informal discussion groups instead. Administrative policy was decided at open meetings where poet Dennis Lee was a leading light. The college moved to an 18-storey building on Bloor Street in 1968, which proved to be its undoing; by 1971, “Roachdale” had become an anarchic druggie haven patrolled by biker gangs. In the fall of ’67, however, the Rochdale dream was still intact, and Jones attended seminars while Phillips pursued his photography interests, taking pictures for a new alternative education journal called is Magazine Is About Schools.

One of the magazine’s founders told Phillips about the Company of Young Canadians, a recently launched, government-funded volunteer program inspired by the Peace Corps. The CYC was intended to harness the idealism of the young by giving them a chance to perform community service within Canada. Like Rochdale, however, it would soon evolve into something more radical. Negative press about hippies on the government payroll would put the future of the CYC in serious doubt, but this didn’t faze Phillips and Jones. By January of ’68, they were living as CYC volunteers in an old house that they had rented as a community drop-in centre on Baldwin Street.

For years, this street just north of the Art Gallery of Ontario had been part of a working-class, mainly Jewish, neighbourhood. By the mid-’60s, however, most of the Jews had moved out, and the empty stores on Baldwin Street had sheets hanging over the windows. Baldwin’s low rents attracted other war resisters, and soon counter-culture shops with names like the Yellow Ford Truck, Ragnarokr and The Cosmic Egg sprouted in the old storefronts. In 1969, Phillips and Jones opened the Baldwin Street Gallery of Photography, which displayed the work of fine-art photographers and gave free access to a collection of several thousand photography books.

As more and more war resisters became part of the hippie scene on Baldwin Street, some dubbed it “the American ghetto.” Jones considers this a misnomer. “We weren’t all Americans,” she maintains, “and it certainly wasn’t a ghetto. I didn’t even think we were hippies — hippies were what you had in Yorkville. And I was too busy to just hang out!” She recalls that the more politically minded war resisters scorned the Baldwin shop-owners as “hip capitalists.” Nonetheless, the street was where the anti-war demonstrations formed before marching to the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue. Michael Ormsby, a draft dodger from Berkeley, Calif., remembers elbowing a cop in a scrum outside the consulate and being sentenced to 30 days in the Don Jail — and very nearly deported.

These demonstrations didn’t get much attention south of the border. “Malingerers, opportunists, criminals and cowards” is how Pat Buchanan, then an aide to President Nixon, dismissed the draft exiles. Many in Canada agreed with him. Mayor Tom Campbell of Vancouver declared, “I don’t like draft dodgers, and I’ll do anything within the law that allows me to get rid of them.” Toronto’s mayor, William Dennison, claimed that “a few hippies and deserters are Toronto’s only problem.” His singling-out of deserters highlights the issue that would finally force Canada to clarify its position regarding Vietnam War émigrés.

“It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. Army deserters were shot,” remembers Andy Barrie, host of CBC Radio’s Metro Morning and a deserter himself. Barrie had been working in radio in Washington in April of ’68 when he was told to report for basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Since his draft board had granted him conscientious objector status, he trained there as a medic. But when his orders for Vietnam came through in the fall of ’69, he was faced with either going to a war he opposed or to military prison. Soon, a third option — Canada — seemed like the right one.

In late December of ’69, he covered up the Fort Sam Houston sticker on his Karmann Ghia and drove north with his girlfriend, Mary Cone, whom he later married. Despite their Ivy League educations, neither Barrie nor Cone knew much about Canada. They expected to and a Checkpoint Charlie at the border with American commercials demanding, “Your papers, please.” Instead, at the tiny border station in Derby Line, Vt., they had to rouse the lone Canadian customs official who accepted their skiing holiday story and waved them through. “I went five yards across that border, and I realized I was no longer a fugitive,” Barrie remembers.“I got out of the car, and I kissed the ground.”

Only eight months earlier, it could have been different. On May 22, 1969, Immigration Minister Allan MacEachen had stood in the House of Commons to announce that henceforth both American draft and military resisters (i.e., “dodgers” and “deserters”) would be admitted as landed immigrants to Canada. Before then, there had been no clear policy, and some deserters had been sent back. MacEachen’s announcement was a victory for the groups who had long campaigned for it, particularly the United Church and the New Democratic Party. NDP leader David Lewis had staked out the issue as one of Canadian sovereignty and, in his passionate speeches in Parliament, had stated that Canada was “acting in a servile way if it turned down U.S. deserters.”

Canadian nationalism would be further spurred by the American migrants themselves. After finding a job in radio in Montreal, Barrie quickly set about losing his American accent and becoming as Canadian as he could.

“When I came to Canada,” he says, “I’d never been here, but I thought I had arrived home. I think I was a Canadian trapped in the body of an American.”

A Canadian cliché during the 1970s was that if you scratched an ardent nationalist, you’d usually and an ex-American. You would often end U.S.-style social activism as well. Urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs and her husband moved to Toronto in 1968 because of their opposition to the Vietnam war and concern for their two draft-age sons. Her ideas on the dangers of urban renewal quickly became influential in Canada and aided in the cancellation of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway in 1971. That same year, Vancouver’s Don’t Make A Wave Committee, spearheaded by American expats Jim and Marie Bohlen, sent a converted fishing boat renamed Greenpeace to Alaska to protest U.S. nuclear testing. Eco-activist Robert Hunter begins his book about the voyage that launched the famed environmental group by stating, “Greenpeace was a product of the Vietnam War as much as anything.”

Mark Satin, too, would make environmentalism one of the causes he would champion a er his return home following President Carter’s amnesty for draft evaders in 1977. More than half of the war resisters in Canada, however, chose to stay here despite the Carter amnesty. John Hagan addressed a Toronto rally in 2007 for the War Resisters Campaign and was pleased to see many familiar faces and a large banner that read U.S Vietnam War Resisters Support Iraq War Resisters. John Phillips and Laura Jones, too, are involved in this campaign and have backed the case of Jeremy Hinzman, a U.S. deserter who fled to Canada in 2004 and is fighting deportation. Their old mentor, Quaker activist Chuck Fager, is also engaged in Hinzman’s cause.

Hagan saw more familiar faces at the first Our Way Home Reunion for war resisters held in Castlegar, B.C., in July of 2006. Many Vietnam War émigrés settled in the nearby Slocan Valley on rural communes and remain there still. The reunion featured such ’60s luminaries as Tom Hayden, George McGovern and Buffy Sainte-Marie as well as a sculpture depicting war resisters being welcomed by Canadians. A story that the sculpture was to become a permanent monument in neighbouring Nelson, B.C., was picked up by the Associated Press and ignited a minor firestorm south of the border. The mayor’s office in Nelson was deluged with boycott threats and nasty emails. ( The sculpture is now being kept in a private gallery in Nelson.)

The ruckus over the resister monument is yet another illustration of how deeply Vietnam still divides America. Many hot button issues in the U.S have their roots in the countercultural social revolution the war provoked. In Canada, however, there was no right-wing reaction to the ’60s, and hard-line positions on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and even marijuana use have gained relatively little traction here.

The counterculture would have come to Canada even without the war resisters, but somehow they usually seemed to be at the heart of it. Today, the no-longer-young Americans who fled to Canada because of the Vietnam War maintain, in Hagan’s words, “an enduring pride in their cause, in their adopted country and in their life decisions.”

Canada may have changed the war resisters, but Canada was changed by them, as well.