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Volume 11, No. 4—May/June 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Go North, Young Man

THE FIRST GEORGE BUSH COMPARED THEM to flag burners. The political activist Todd Gitlin accused them of narcissism. Disgruntled Canadians called them job stealers, layabouts, leftist revolutionaries, and American imperialists—until Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau extolled them as moral exemplars. They were the fifty thousand young Americans who fled to Canada to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. Their little-known story, as told in John Hagan's Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada (Harvard), deserves more than a footnote in the history of the antiwar movement. Indeed, according to Hagan, an American-born sociologist at the University of Toronto (who himself opted for graduate school in Alberta once student draft deferments were no longer forthcoming), the exiles of Toronto's "American Ghetto" changed Canada for the better. Not only did they become a distinct force in Canadian social and political life, but their plight spurred Canada to reassert its national sovereignty and resuscitate its national pride.

American war resisters began crossing the world's longest undefended border as early as 1964, presenting Canadian immigration authorities with a dilemma. On the one hand, the authorities wanted to appease the United States. (Being Canadian, as Trudeau liked to point out, is like sleeping with an elephant: "No matter how friendly and even-tempered the is affected by every twitch and grunt.") But turning away war resisters violated Canadian immigration law, which does not authorize deportations based solely on one's military status in a foreign country. So immigration officials enacted a covert policy, according to which draft dodgers were allowed to enter the country on the same terms as any other American but military deserters were discreetly turned away.

This end run around Canada's immigration laws was soon discovered, and the defenders of Canada's national integrity were outraged. Institutions like the United Church, the country's largest and most powerful Protestant denomination, argued that keeping out the deserting servicemen only perpetuated one of the signal injustices of the war: Those who served in the military before deserting tended to be poorer than draft dodgers, who were usually middle-class. More generally, protesters argued, caving in to American pressure was an affront to Canadian sovereignty.

Emboldened by swelling national confidence in the wake of Canada's 1967 centennial celebrations, liberal supporters of an open-border policy devastated their opponents with passionate appeals to national tradition, pointing out that Canada had harbored a hundred thousand "Empire Loyalists" during the American Revolution, as well as refugees from the 1956 Soviet crackdown in Hungary. (Rock music buffs should note that the opposition included the newspaper columnist Scott Young, rocker Neil's dad, who wrote a piece called "Draft Dodgers: A Passive Breed Doing Nothing and Going Nowhere.") In response to growing liberal pressure, Parliament opened the borders to both dodgers and deserters. After passage of the law, Hagan argues, Canadians felt less bullied by the United States and more secure in their national identity.

Meanwhile, the community of "New Canadians"—as the American war resisters proudly called themselves—faced its own identity crisis. In the 1970s, in a strained atmosphere of militant Quebecois separatism, New Left violence, and economic stagnation, residents of the American Ghetto became convenient scapegoats, and their national status was questioned and challenged. What were they, really? Traitors? Patriots? Canadians? Americans?

Despite these anxieties, the New Canadians worked hard to contribute as citizens. In the 1960s, for instance, they transformed their neighborhood, a gritty district formerly known for its decaying surplus-clothing warehouses, into a thriving commercial zone. (New businesses included The Cosmic Egg and The Yellow Ford Truck, which sold beaded clothing and other handicrafts along with the obligatory hash pipes.) In fact, many observers credit the exiles with helping to establish Toronto's present cosmopolitan reputation. Today, the exiles continue to influence their adopted home. Canada's best-known movie critic, a well-known radio announcer, and a large percentage of Toronto's social workers are New Canadians.

For some exiles, their former identity as Americans was partially restored by the political struggle for a general amnesty. In 1976, the Democratic National Committee invited a "Democrats Abroad" delegation from Canada to its national convention. In one of the antiwar movement's most spectacular, if belated, gambits, exiles nominated one of their own, Fritz Efaw, as a vice-presidential candidate. Efaw's televised nomination was fantastic advocacy for the amnesty issue. (The seconding speech by Ron Kovic was memorably captured in the film Born on the Fourth of July.)

On his first full day in office, President Jimmy Carter passed what many Americans recall as a general amnesty, though in fact it was a blanket pardon. As Hagan observes, the pardon was not an exoneration of guilt but a gesture of forgiveness. It was still punitive for deserters, whose less-than-honorable discharges limited their employment opportunities, and humiliating for dodgers, who believed they had no reason to feel guilty for their actions. This outcome, which Hagan deeply regrets, highlights a point that Northern Passage implicitly makes all along—and one that Americans observing Bill Clinton's post-presidency understand: You can tell a lot about a country's politics by the pardons it grants.

Rick Perlstein

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