When peace activist and family counselor Issac Romano moved to Nelson, B.C. from Seattle five years ago, he did not plan to create conflict. But as he became friends with Vietnam war resisters in the community, he started to get ideas. And when the United States declared war on Iraq, Romano decided to act.
He suggested a public sculpture called The Welcoming be erected to honor an estimated 100,000 draft-age Americans who fled to Canada between 1965 and 1973. Forty percent came to B.C. More than half remain, many in the Kootenay region. American veteran groups were outraged at the proposal of a monument to war resisters and threatened to boycott Nelson. Because the town relies on tourist dollars, council turned down the project.
But Romano wasn't finished. He began organizing a reunion for war resisters called "Our Way Home," taking place July 6 to 9 at the Brilliant Cultural Center in Castlegar.
"The reunion will recognize the great contribution made by these men and women who came to Canada, Romano said. They have contributed in fields such as medicine, education, the sciences and as entrepreneurs. They raised families and now their children are contributing in major ways. They are leaders in peace work."
The reunion will also honour those who helped the war resisters escape and re-settle, many of them Doukhobours and Quakers. "It will be an opportunity to thank thousands of Canadians," Romano said.
There appear to be no enemies at this conference: Canadian veterans of the Vietnam war are also invited. About 3,000 Canadian men travelled to the US to enlist and 103 died in Vietnam. Their names are among the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who are remembered on the Washington memorial. The veterans will participate alongside war resisters in a workshop entitled "Two Roads Taken."
During the Vietnam war Romano had a military deferment. "We will look at how violence affected all of us," Romano said, "regardless of the path we choose."
Romano doesn't fear the tension this conference may create on both sides of the border. In fact, he thinks it would be good. "Many Americans can be educated and reflect further on the Vietnam war, he said. This processing was never finished."
"The reality is many of the architects of the Vietnam war have since said it was a tremendous mistake."
Canadians will also benefit from the tensions, Romano believes.
"We need to understand our history to help us know how to respond in the future," he said.
"It is important to remember Prime Minister Trudeau said Canada should be a refuge from militarism."
Romano says the US government should have given all war resisters a blanket rather than conditional amnesty. This would stop surprise arrests of Canadians such as Allen Abney who was detained in the US this March on a warrant for desertion in 1968. Prior to the arrest, he had crossed the border many times without mishap.
"The government is trying to intimidate those who become deserters of the Iraq war," Romano said. But he predicts larger numbers will desert and come to Canada. "They won't be deterred," he said. "It is a matter of conscience."
Besides workshops, there will be cultural events and guest speakers, including George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 who opposed the war, Tom Hayden, a US anti-war activist of the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, and Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Canadian activist Maude Barlow and former MP Svend Robinson are also on the roster.
As for the controversial sculpture? Romano isn't too concerned. He said interest has been shown across Canada. It may yet find a welcoming home.
More information about the upcoming conference can be found at www.ourwayhomereunion.com.
Janet Nicol is a teacher and writer in British Columbia.