From Deserters' Oasis to Deportation Orders

During the Vietnam war, Canadian immigration officials enforced US military law and ignored the Immigration Act

By Dave Perri | 2009-04-01 12:00:00

"Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war... have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism."

I wanted to use these oft-quoted words, credited to Pierre Trudeau, to help explain how Canada went from serving as a haven for Vietnam War resisters to serving deportation orders to those from Iraq, but I couldn't confirm the quotation.

Joseph Jones, a Vietnam draft dodger and Librarian Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, could not verify Trudeau's words either. After coming to Canada in 1970 he worked with the prominent Vietnam-era magazine, AMEX, published by and for American exiles living in Canada, and later spent 23 years at UBC as a reference librarian and cataloguer.

His research into Canada's relationship with Vietnam War resisters led him to a scarcely-heard conclusion. "The previous nature of Canada was not one that was officially kind and welcoming to [Vietnam] war resisters. I'm sorry, it wasn't," he said.

To understand Canada's relationship with Iraq War resisters today it helps to take an honest look at how things unfolded in the Vietnam era.

Jones spent three years, on-and-off, researching Canada's treatment of Vietnam War resisters. He was prompted after being unable to confirm the "refuge from militarism" quotation around the time that American soldier Jeremy Hinzman came north in 2004.

His study has just been published, titled Happenstance and Misquotation, which is how he characterizes Canada's acceptance of Vietnam War resisters, and the credit for it given to Trudeau, respectively. From his home office in Vancouver, he explained to me why a flood of American soldiers was allowed to cross the border during the Vietnam War.

"It really had nothing to do with US war resisters. It was a particular period in Canadian immigration policy which happened to be advantageous for them. It's a remarkable coincidence. You could even call it a miracle," Jones said.

In the mid-1960s Canada's immigration policy was in flux, a situation that predated the wave of Vietnam War resisters, Jones said. The policy was aimed at giving legal immigrant status to thousands of undocumented residents in Canada at the time. A lot of Vietnam War resisters benefited from this relatively lax immigration policy but they had nothing to do with its creation, he said.

Even so, moving to Canada was still no easy task for many Vietnam War resisters, Jones said.

Canadian immigration authorities and border officials were practicing covert discrimination, contrary to Canada's Immigration Act, by asking Americans about their draft status and demanding proof that they were free of military obligations. Resisters "were being identified at the border and summarily turned back," he said.

Reluctantly, Trudeau's immigration minister ended the illegal discrimination only after five York University students exposed it, Jones said. In Feb. 1969 the students posed as deserters at different border crossings and were denied entrance into Canada. This led to increased pressure, notably from the United Church and the NDP in parliament, which prompted the Trudeau government to comply with the Immigration Act in May 1969.

While the discrimination at the border was stopped, Jones' work stresses that life in Canada was still difficult for many who came north.

A lot of resisters in Canada feared they would not qualify for legal status under the point system that was in place. Some were compelled to dangerously cross back into the US and reapply at the border to exploit arbitrary advantages and loopholes that were not available for applicants within Canada, Jones said. Many others lived here without legal status. In fact, Jones dedicated his study to "the thousands of US citizens who lived underground in Canada during the Vietnam War."

The praise given to Trudeau for making Canada a "refuge from militarism" is the product of inaccurate journalism parroting slipshod academic research, Jones said. "A lot of people have gotten it wrong, including people at the New York Times, at Time Magazine, the Guardian in the UK and so on."

Jones searched through archives to find out what was actually said. After looking at transcripts he found that Trudeau never made such a declaration. The quote was manufactured, through a combination of conflation, misquotation and disregard for context, to be used as an epigraph by sociology professor John Hagan in his highly regarded 2001 book, Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada.

This is "the kind of process where folklore is generated," Jones said. "It's something that everyone `knows' is true. Until someone digs in, goes back, and does the work, everybody buys into a fabrication."

Trudeau hardly made any public statements about the Vietnam War resisters and distanced himself from the controversial subject, instead saddling his foot-dragging immigration minister with the issue, maintaining the covert border discrimination for as long as possible, Jones said.

While many Vietnam War resisters still faced a struggle living without legal status in Canada, the end of discrimination at the border did allow thousands of Americans to enter the country more easily.

A Vietnam-Era Resister

Jeffry House was one of those Americans. Now a lawyer in Toronto who has represented around 110 Iraq War resisters in some capacity, he came to Canada in 1970 to avoid the US military draft. He doesn't look like a typical lawyer with round-framed glasses and sporting Doc Martens footwear.

He leaned back in his office chair, hands behind his head and gazed upwards as he recalled his perception of his chances of moving to Canada, while he prepared to graduate from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.

"Among my circles, among anti-war students, it was known that you could go to Canada," he said, specifically after May 1969 when border officials ceased rejecting soldiers' entry.

For House, going to Canada in 1970 "was exceedingly simple." After typing up an application at the border, he received his landed immigrant status in two months' time.

House embraced Canada once he arrived and over time many of his friends and colleagues in Canada didn't even know he was a Vietnam draft dodger.

That was until American soldier Jeremy Hinzman arrived in his office in 2004 after fleeing America to avoid deployment to Iraq. He recalls Hinzman coming into his office and saying, "I can't fight in Iraq because the war is bogus," House said. "I related very strongly to that." House felt he had to help the soldiers who, as he sees it, are facing the same issues he faced as a young man. "The whole legal basis for the war in Vietnam was a sham," he said, "and the causes of war [in Iraq] were a lie."

Canada's immigration policy has changed drastically since the Vietnam era. No longer focused on documenting unofficial residents, the policy is oriented more toward limiting and/or filtering immigrants. Resisters have to make refugee claims in order to stay in Canada, and are not having much success. Several resisters have been ordered out of Canada to face punishment in the US. Many others live here underground or remain in legal limbo, awaiting court decisions and fighting deportation orders while trying to earn a living in Canada.

House said that the hostility greeting Iraq War resisters in Canada today is the result of both the principles of the governing Conservatives and cowardice of the judiciary.

The Harper government rejects Iraq War resisters because it is ideologically in sync with the now departed Bush administration, House said. "The fact that the government isn't willing to accommodate people who would make good citizens in Canada, to me, suggests that there is an ideological motive behind it."

Furthermore some of the blame has to be placed on Canada's courts, he said. "The judicial branch has not been very brave either. They have been unwilling to take a principled position." Here he is referring to the courts' reluctance to consider the legality of the Iraq War when deciding on the refugee claims of Iraq War resisters.

"No court decides on the same basis. As you go up, each one says, `Oh the guy below me was wrong, but there is another reason,' or, `We're not going to decide whether the guy below me was wrong, but I've got another reason,'" House said.

While today it seems that there is a lack of will to offend the US as it wages war in Iraq, Canada was similarly subservient during the Vietnam War when Canadian immigration officials enforced US military law and ignored the Immigration Act. Activists used the fact that Canadian officials were acting illegally as leverage to pressure the government to be more hospitable. Today such circumstances do not exist, and even with the parliamentary motion passed in June 2008 exhorting the government to give amnesty to the resisters, the Conservative government has not budged.

Many American soldiers have been discouraged from coming north because of the government's stance, House said. He cautions US soldiers who regularly contact him about coming to Canada. "Many of the people still come, but many of them don't."

An Iraq-Era Resister

Jeremy Hinzman, one of the first Iraq War resisters to come to Canada, anticipated some resistance from authorities. "We knew it would be difficult, we didn't expect to just be allowed to stay right away," he said from his Toronto home.

However he was hopeful because of Canada's refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq, "We were aware of Canada's history during Vietnam, but what was more influential was that Canada refused to participate in the Iraq War. That said a lot to us," Hinzman said.

He has been encouraged by the support for resisters given by the opposition parties in parliament and the general acceptance of him and his family by Canadian society, he said. "We've been really welcomed by a lot of Canadians, we're thankful for that."

But like the other Iraq War resisters in Canada, Hinzman lives with the fear that he may be taken away from his young family if he is deported and sent to jail in the U.S. "Canada is our home. We've been here for five years and we intend to stay if we're allowed to," he said. Hinzman remains unsure if he will be allowed to stay, "I hope so, but I don't know," he said, sighing deeply.

House expressed similar uncertainty regarding the fate of the Iraq War resisters but with some hope for the future, "Once there is a change in government, they'll all stay," House said.

On the surface it seems that Canada has fundamentally changed from the haven it was in the Vietnam era. But deeper analysis shows that Trudeau's government was reluctant to accept the Vietnam War resisters, and only did so unintentionally because of pre-existing immigration laws. Today, in contrast, opposition to Iraq War resisters is a minority view. The expressed support for them by a majority in parliament is unprecedented. With continued support for the resisters and pressure on the government, Canada is closer than ever to actively becoming a refuge from militarism for the first time.

Dave Perri is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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