Past Meets Present at "Our Way Home" Reunion

By Janet Nicol | 2006-10-01 12:00:00

The generation gap disappeared at the "Our Way Home" reunion as US military deserter Kyle Snyder told Vietnam war resisters, "Soldiers will end this war in Iraq." Snyder, 22, was speaking in Castlegar, BC at a July event to honor war resisters who came to Canada during the Vietnam war. About 100,000 Americans crossed the border to avoid the draft in the 1960s and 1970s and about half stayed in Canada, despite the amnesty in 1977. The reunion provided a slice of North American history, along with current events, for about 800 people participating over four days.

Jeff House, a Toronto lawyer, told participants that when he came to Canada in 1970, "my identity as a draft dodger went under the waves." Now House has a caseload of 20 American military deserters requesting refugee status in Canada and has talked to many more.

Robert Bell, a Californa teacher, fled from war along a different path. In 1969 he stopped co-operating with the US draft board and in 1971 was given a two-year prison sentence. He spent half a year in prison and the rest on probation. He said he hadn't talked about his experience for 30 years, except to his wife. "When I read about the reunion in the New York Times," Bell said, "I was weeping." Bell also said he was influenced by Malcolm X as a young man and identified with black Americans -- which at the time, he said, was "class suicide."

Bonnie Klein, a documentary filmmaker in Montreal, came to Canada with her husband Michael soon after he was called up by the draft board in 1967. Though her parents did not disown her, they did warn her she was "throwing her life away" and warned that her husband would be unable to practice medicine. The Kleins settled in Montreal, raising two children, Seth (who attended the reunion) and well-known writer, Naomi. The neglect of women in the "new left" gave impetus to feminism, Klein said, noting that many panels at the reunion were male-dominated. "We have to keep noticing," she said. Klein said she feels pride, not shame, for leaving the US.

Bonnie's husband, Dr. Michael Klein, refused to join the military as a physician. He remembers going for an army physical in New York. Unlike black and Puerto Rican Americans, "white medical people were given special treatment by the military," Klein said. But he was told he would never practice medicine again unless he cooperated with the draft board. Klein considers doctors complicit in war by forcing injured soldiers back into battle, even when they are not recovered. Klein realizes his is a story of privilege because his decision to move to Canada was supported by his parents. With a job waiting for him at a Montreal hospital, it took only 20 minutes to get through customs.

Keynote speaker Tom Hayden blamed war on "a crisis of the elders," not youth. He was a Vietnam anti-war activist, then a US senator, and now active against the war in Iraq. Hayden remembers going before the draft board in 1961 with other young men, 19 and 20 years old. "We were so young," he said, "and still vulnerable and not yet formed in personality." He now practices "constructive non-conformity" and cautioned elders against alienating young people rather than guiding them.

George McGovern, 83, Democratic presidential candidate in the 1972 election against Richard Nixon, brought another generation's perspective. A veteran of World War II, McGovern believed in the fight against fascism, but he condemned both the Vietnam and Iraq War. "I am sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying," McGovern said.

Many war resisters made their home around Castlegar, the site of the reunion, in the mountainous Kootenay region. Doukhobors had settled in the area after fleeing conscription in Czarist Russia more than a century ago and Quakers, also pacifists, came up from the United States during the McCarthyite 1950s. Both groups participated in organizing the reunion. About 50 Vietnam veterans and resisters met in a successful two-day workshop entitled "Two Paths Taken."

Reunion organizer Isaac Romero had an uphill battle organizing the event. The '"welcoming" sculpture (now displayed in an art gallery in Nelson) created controversy from American war veterans when it was first proposed to Nelson town council two years ago. But the reunion occurred peacefully with positive media attention on both sides of the border. In fact, Romero hopes to organize a similar event in the future.

Janet Nicol is a teacher and activist in British Columbia.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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