Robert Fulford's column about Vietnam war resisters in Canada

(The National Post, June 26, 2001)

John Hagan, a sociologist who has become an expert on draft dodgers, thinks that about half of the 50,000 Americans who came to Canada in the Vietnam-war era have, like him, remained here. But whatever happened to them? After three decades, where have all the dodgers gone?

Few of them actually hide their background, but few advertise it. As Hagan writes, in his mannerly way, "Canadian national identity is formed in counterpoint to American culture, making American immigrants, including war resisters, disinclined to identify with their American past." To put it more bluntly: A nasty anti-Americanism lurks behind the bland smile worn by many Canadians, and an American who encounters it a few times may decide that discussing where you came from isn't the wisest policy.

Others, of course, identified with Canada and tried to forget their native land. The late Jay Scott, who became the most admired film critic in Canada, was one: He wrote in 1990 that "dodgers simply vanished, virtually as a point of honour, into the Canadian context." Today there's no Amero-Canadian cultural piece in the Canadian mosaic, no Amero-Canadian Cultural Association. An unfortunate result, Hagan thinks, is that the unique experience of those immigrants is fading into obscurity. That's one reason he's written Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada (Harvard University Press).

A University of Illinois graduate who moved to Edmonton and earned his doctorate at the University of Alberta, Hagan begins his generous-spirited book by recalling that when he and his fellow immigrants crossed the U.S.-Canada border, "our lives stretched before us along paths as uncertain as the uncharted Canadian land mass that capped the Amerocentric television weather maps of our youth."

They were glad to be here, but "nonetheless, we were in foreign territory." How they made their way through this alien land, and in many cases made it their own, is Hagan's concern. He inserts brief biographies of certain individuals, such as leaders of the draft resistance movement, but as a sociologist he's most interested in charting the development of the dodgers as a group, and learning how Canadian institutions, notably the law, affected them. He focuses most of his attention on those who settled in Toronto.

On both sides of the border, the dodgers generated waves of ambivalent feeling. Hagan writes particularly well about the development of Ottawa's policy under then immigration minister Allan MacEachen and his deputy minister, Tom Kent. Canada was at first reluctant to receive the dodgers, then mildly enthusiastic, eventually rather proud.

Deserters from the U.S. armed forces (who came a little later) were a separate problem; border officials sometimes considered them criminals and Ottawa wasn't sure what to think. But the deserters, too, were eventually welcomed, after their problems were exposed in a particularly effective series of columns by Ron Haggart of the Toronto Telegram.

In the U.S., the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) argued in the early days that the dodgers should return home and fight the government. In Canada, Robin Mathews, an English professor and famous anti-American, held a similar opinion. He claimed that accepting them helped Washington by taking pressure off American institutions, such as the jails; besides, he said, Canadians should be confronting Canadian problems rather than helping Americans. Local politicians believed the newcomers were swelling the ranks of the already vexatious hippies, and Mayor Tom Campbell of Vancouver promised to do anything within the law to get rid of them.

It was a vivid, eventful period, and Northern Passage captures it deftly. John Hagan, now 55 and attached to the University of Toronto law school, has written on subjects such as the lives of lawyers, relations between the law and the Chinese in Canada, sentencing procedures and homelessness. At the moment he's studying the procedures of the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. Last week he and I had lunch at a window table at Cafe la Gaffe, one of the 22 restaurants that today fill Baldwin Street, the little block south of the University of Toronto where dodgers roosted in the early 1970s.

We surveyed the Indonesian and Chinese restaurants across the street and tried to figure out precisely where the dodgers' famous photography gallery (long dead) was located -- was it next to the crafts store (also long dead), or farther along? This story has engaged Hagan for many years. He decided when he first arrived in Canada that he would someday tell it, and in the 1990s he conducted sociological interviews with the war resisters. He spent two arduous years in the editing process with Harvard University Press, because he wanted an account of these people (who are mostly forgotten in the U.S. as well as Canada) to have a place on the top rung of American academic publishing.

The Toronto dodgers found their geographical focus, by a process no one remembers, on a downtrodden street that was mostly abandoned by the old Jewish community and not yet taken up by the Chinese. Dozens of dodgers settled around Baldwin, then scores, then a few hundred. Many newcomers went there to find their feet and quickly moved on. Over five years, one house contained roughly 100 different dodgers for brief periods. Baldwin Street acquired co-operative craft stores (the Yellow Ford Truck and Ragnarokr), a cheap clothing store (the Cosmic Egg), the Whole Earth Natural Foods Store, and the Baldwin Street Gallery, a pioneering photography centre. One of the gallery's owners, John Phillips, turned out to be an especially enthusiastic new Canadian. Many years later he recalled the day he drove into Canada as a moment of ecstasy, one of the happiest times of his life.

Baldwin Street developed a communal atmosphere, what one deserter (originally from Vermont) later recalled as a small-town feeling. It was a place where people knew their neighbours and enjoyed the consolations of familiarity and acceptance. It was a community built around a political issue, however, and the issue was resolved when the Carter administration forgave the dodgers and invited them home. The Baldwin Street ghetto lost its reason for being, and before the 1970s were over it vanished. Some of the people who had needed it were by then back home, being Americans again, and many of the others had turned into Canadians.

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