Canada and the Vietnam War
Canada did not fight in the Vietnam War and diplomatically it was "officially non-belligerent". The country's troop deployments to Vietnam were limited to a small number of national forces in 1973 to help enforce the Paris Peace Accords. Nevertheless, the war had considerable effects on Canada, while Canada and Canadians affected the war, in return.
During the First Indochina War between France and the Indo-Chinese nationalist and communist parties, Canada remained militarily uninvolved but provided modest diplomatic and economic support to the French. Canada was, however, part of the International Control Commission (along with Poland and India) that oversaw the 1954 Geneva Agreements that divided Vietnam, provided for French withdrawal and would have instituted elections for reunification by 1956. Behind the scenes, Canadian diplomats tried to discourage both France and the United States from escalating the conflict in a part of the world Canadians had decided was not strategically vital.
Canada laid out six prerequisites to joining a war effort or Asian alliance like SEATO:
- It had to involve cultural and trade ties in addition to a military alliance.
- It had to demonstrably meet the will of the people in the countries involved.
- Other free Asian states had to support it directly or in principle.
- France had to refer the conflict to United Nations.
- Any multilateral action must conform to the UN charter.
- Any action had to be divorced from all elements of colonialism.
These criteria effectively guaranteed Canada would not participate in the Vietnam War.
Canadian involvement in the war
At the start of the Vietnam War, Canada was a member of the International Control Commission (ICC) overseeing the implementation of the Geneva Agreements, and thus attempted to maintain an air of neutrality. However, the Canadian negotiators were strongly on the side of the Americans. One representative (Blair Seaborn, younger brother of Robert Seaborn) was even involved in secretly exchanging messages between the U.S. and North Vietnam on behalf of the Americans, with the approval of the Canadian government. Canada also sent foreign aid to South Vietnam, which, while humanitarian, was directed by the Americans. Canada tried to mediate between the warring countries, aiming for a conclusion that could allow the U.S. to leave the conflict honorably, but also publicly (if mildly) criticized American war methods.
Meanwhile, Canadian industry exported military supplies and raw materials useful in their manufacture, including ammunition, napalm and Agent Orange, to the United States, as trade between the two countries carried on unhindered.
"500 firms sold $2.5 billion of war materials (ammunition, napalm, aircraft engines and explosives) to the Pentagon. Another $10 billion in food, beverages, berets and boots for the troops was exported to the U.S., as well as nickel, copper, lead, brass and oil for shell casings, wiring, plate armour and military transport. In Canada unemployment fell to record low levels of 3.9%"
Although these exports were sales by Canadian companies, not gifts from the Canadian government, they benefited the American war effort nonetheless. The first official response to the economic support being given to the United States military from the government was by Lester B. Pearson on March 10, 1967 that the embargo of goods to their southern ally was "necessary and logical" due to the extreme integration of both economies and in doing so would also be a notice of withdrawal from North American defense arrangements.
As the war escalated, relations between Canada and the United States deteriorated. On April 2, 1965, Pearson gave a speech at Temple University in the United States which, in the context of firm support for U.S. policy, called for a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam. In a perhaps apocryphal story, when a furious President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Pearson the next day, he grabbed the much smaller Canadian by his lapels and talked angrily with him for an hour. After this incident, the two men somehow found ways to resolve their differences over the war—in fact, they both had further contacts, including meeting together in Canada two times afterward.
American war resisters in Canada
American draft dodgers and military deserters who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War would ignite controversy among those seeking to immigrate to Canada, some of it provoked by the Canadian government’s initial refusal to admit those who could not prove that they had been discharged from [American] military service. This changed in 1968. On May 22, 1969, Ottawa announced that immigration officials would not and could not ask about immigration applicants’ military status if they showed up at the border seeking permanent residence in Canada. According to Valerie Knowles, draft dodgers were usually college-educated sons of the middle class who could no longer defer induction into the Selective Service System. Deserters, on the other hand, were predominantly sons of the lower-income and working classes who had been inducted into the armed services directly from high school or who had volunteered, hoping to obtain a skill and broaden their limited horizons.
Starting in 1965, Canada became a choice haven for American draft dodgers and deserters. Because they were not formally classified as refugees but were admitted as immigrants, there is no official estimate of how many draft dodgers and deserters were admitted to Canada during the Vietnam War. One informed estimate puts their number between 30,000 and 40,000. Whether or not this estimate is accurate, the fact remains that emigration from the United States was high as long as America was involved militarily in the war and maintained compulsory military service; in 1971 and 1972 Canada received more immigrants from the United States than from any other country.
Estimates vary greatly as to how many Americans settled in Canada for the specific reason of dodging the draft or "evading conscription," as opposed to desertion, or other reasons. Canadian immigration statistics show that 20,000 to 30,000 draft-eligible American men came to Canada as immigrants during the Vietnam era. The BBC stated that "as many as 60,000 young American men dodged the draft." Estimates of the total number of American citizens who moved to Canada due to their opposition to the war range from 50,000 to 125,000 This exodus was "the largest politically motivated migration from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists moved north to oppose the American Revolution." Major communities of war resisters formed in Montreal, the Slocan Valley, British Columbia, and on Baldwin Street in Toronto, Ontario.
They were at first assisted by the Student Union for Peace Action, a campus-based Canadian anti-war group with connections to Students for a Democratic Society. This was led by campus chair Matthieu Charette in the United States. Canadian immigration policy at the time made it easy for immigrants from all countries to obtain legal status in Canada. By late 1967, draft dodgers were being assisted primarily by several locally based anti-draft groups (over twenty of them), such as the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors and the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme. As a counselor for the Programme, Mark Satin wrote the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada in 1968. It sold nearly 100,000 copies overall.
The influx of these young men, who (as mentioned earlier) were often well educated and politically leftist, affected Canada's academic and cultural institutions, and Canadian society at large. These new arrivals tended to balance the "brain drain" that Canada had experienced. While some draft dodgers returned to the United States after a pardon was declared in 1977 during the administration of Jimmy Carter, roughly half of them stayed in Canada.
Prominent draft dodgers who stayed in Canada permanently, or for a significant amount of time include the below. (For a separate, distinct list of noteworthy deserters, see next section.)
- Jim Green – Vancouver city councillor and mayoral candidate
- Michael Wolfson – former assistant chief statistician at Statistics Canada
- Wayne Robinson – the father of Svend Robinson, former Member of Parliament
- Eric Nagler – Children's entertainer on The Elephant Show.
- Mike Fisher – A founding member of Heart – a popular rock/pop band
- Jesse Winchester Singer-songwriter.
- Jeffry House – Lawyer
- Bill King – musician and organizer of Toronto's Beaches Jazz Festival
- Michael Klein – physician, member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, spouse of Bonnie Sherr Klein, father of Naomi Klein and Seth Klein
- Michael Hendricks
Distinct from draft resisters, there were also deserters of the American forces who also made their way to Canada. There was pressure from the United States and Canada to have them arrested, or at least stopped at the border.
The deserters have not been pardoned and may still face pro forma arrest, as the case of Allen Abney demonstrated in March 2006. Another similar case was that of Richard Allen Shields: He had deserted the U.S. Army in Alaska in 1972 after serving a year in Vietnam. Twenty-eight years later, in March 22, 2000, while he attempted to drive a lumber truck across the US-Canadian border (in Metaline Falls, Washington) he was arrested by U.S. Customs agents and jailed at Fort Sill. He was discharged from the Army with an Other Than Honorable discharge in April 2000. Other noteworthy deserters from that era include the following:
- Andy Barrie- former host of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio's Metro Morning in Toronto (He later received a General Discharge from the United States Army, became a Canadian citizen, and is free to travel to the U.S.)
- Dick Cotterill
- Michael Shaffer: "After six months in the Army, my application for CO status was denied and I was told that I would be going to Vietnam. I refused to draw my weapon and was ordered court-martialed. On Labour Day 1970 I was able to escape and cross into Canada.... During President Ford’s Clemency Program in 1975, I went to Fort Dix seeking the “Undesirable Discharge” offered to deserters who turned themselves in. The Army decided that I wasn’t eligible and court-martial proceedings were resumed. With help from the ACLU, I was released and two years later a Federal Court ordered the Army to discharge me Honourably as a Conscientious Objector....I remained in Vancouver"
- Jack Todd – award-winning sports columnist for the Montreal Gazette
- Mike Tulley - Edmonton, Alberta area sound engineer and social activist
In February 2009, text on how both draft dodgers and resisters of the Vietnam War were ultimately allowed to stay in Canada suddenly vanished from the [ Government of Canada's] Citizenship and Immigration [web]site."
Originally, the Government of Canada website had contained the following statements:
..."Starting in 1965, Canada became a choice haven for American draft resisters and deserters, ...Although some of these transplanted Americans returned home after the Vietnam War, most of them put down roots in Canada, making up the largest, best-educated group this country had ever received."
The above statement (now gone from the website) was part of an extensive online chapter on draft resisters and deserters from the Vietnam war, which was found in the larger online document,"Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977" It was originally posted on the Government of Canada website in the year 2000, when the Liberal Party of Canada, led by Jean Chrétien, was in power and responsible for the content of that website. But "in 2009, the Harper government [took] a much dimmer view of dozens of U.S. soldiers who've come north after refusing to serve in the invasion of Iraq. Some had already been deported to face military jail terms ranging from about six to 15 months."
The removal from the Citizenship and Immigration website occurred in the same month that its multi-party counterpart, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration was debating that issue: On February 12, 2009, that multi-party committee passed, for the second time, a non-binding motion reaffirming Parliament's earlier (June 2008) vote which recommended that the government let Iraq War resisters stay in Canada. A month and a half later, on March 30, 2009, the House of Commons again voted in a non-binding motion 129 to 125 in favour of the committee's recommendation.
Canadians in the U.S. military
In counter-current to the movement of American draft-dodgers and deserters to Canada, about 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight in southeast Asia. Among the volunteers were fifty Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. One-hundred and ten (110) Canadians died in Vietnam, and seven remain listed as Missing in Action. U.S. Army Sergeant Peter C. Lemon, an American immigrant from Canada was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for his valour in the conflict. (This cross-border enlistment was not unprecedented: Both the First and the Second World War saw thousands of Americans join the Canadian Armed Forces before the U.S officially declared war on Germany)
In Windsor, Ontario, there is a privately funded monument to the Canadians killed in the Vietnam War. In Melocheville, Quebec, there is a monument site funded by the Association Québécoise des Vétérans du Vietnam. However, many Canadian veterans returned to a society that was strongly anti-war. Unlike the United States, there were no veterans organizations nor any help for them from the government, and many of them moved permanently to the United States. There has been ongoing pressure from Canadian Vietnam veterans to have their comrades' deaths formally acknowledged by the government, especially in times such as Remembrance Day.
Assistance to the Americans
Canada's official diplomatic position in relation to the Vietnam War was that of a non-belligerent, which imposed a ban on the export of war-related items to the combat areas. Nonetheless, Canadian industry was also a major supplier of equipment and supplies to the American forces, not sending these directly to South Vietnam but to the United States. Sold goods included relatively benign items like boots, but also aircraft, munitions, napalm and commercial defoliants, the use of which was fiercely opposed by anti-war protesters at the time. In accordance with the 1958 Defence Production Sharing Agreement, Canadian industry sold $2.47 billion in materiel to the United States between 1965 and 1973. Many of the companies were owned by US parent firms, but all export sales over $100,000 US (and thus, the majority of contracts) were arranged through the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a crown corporation which acted as an intermediary between the U.S. Department of Defence and Canadian industry. Furthermore, the Canadian and American Defense departments worked together to test chemical defoliants for use in Vietnam. Canada also allowed their NATO ally to use Canadian facilities and bases for training exercises and weapons testing as per existing treaties.
Between January 28, 1973 and July 31, 1973, Canada provided 240 peacekeeping troops to Operation Gallant, the peace keeping operation associated with the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS) Vietnam, along with Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland. Their role was to monitor the cease-fire in South Vietnam per the Paris Peace Accords. After Canada’s departure from the Commission, it was replaced by Iran.
After the war
After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, thousands of refugees, called boat people, fled Vietnam for both political and economic reasons. Canada agreed to accept many of them, in one of the largest single influxes of immigrants in Canadian history. This created a substantial Vietnamese community in Canada, concentrated especially in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto.
The Vietnam War was an important cultural turning point in Canada. Coupled with Canada's centenary in 1967 and the success of Expo 67, Canada became far more independent and nationalistic. The public, if not their representatives in parliament, became more willing to oppose the United States and to move in a different direction socially and politically.
In 1981, a government report revealed that Agent Orange, the controversial defoliant, had been tested at CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick. In June 1966, the chemical was sprayed over nearly 600 acres (2.4 km2) of forest inside the base. There are differing opinions about the level of toxicity of the site; but, in 2006, the Canadian government said it planned to compensate some of those who were exposed. As of 2011, some claims have been paid but the administration of the compensation program has been criticized.
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