Ain’t Gonna Study War No More – Conscientious Objectors & War Resisters

October, 2020

My husband Michael is a war resister who came to Canada in 1969. He refused to join the US military and all that entailed. He was one of about 100,000 (over normal immigration patterns) who came to Canada from the US during that time period. These principled young people, often well-educated, helped reverse the “brain drain” Canada had been experiencing, when the US held a strong lure of better jobs, more money, and more opportunity.

There have always been conscientious objectors (CO’s) to war, first showing up in the West with the “peace religions” who were forbidden the use of arms in war – the Quakers, Mennonites, Doukobours – and were guaranteed exemption from fighting for over 200 years pre-WWI in what became Canada. Also exempt in Canada were farmers, miners and others in essential services. In 1917, when voluntary enrollment wasn’t producing enough soldiers for WWI, the government enacted the Conscription Act. A stunning 93% of those conscripted claimed an exemption! That led to the removal of exemptions in 1918, fortunately just when that devastating war was ending.

During WWII, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Liberal government vetoed conscription for overseas service; only volunteers could be sent overseas. Others served by training and home guard duties. Those refusing service were required to perform 4 months’ alternative duty (same time as for military training), mostly infrastructure projects in such places as National Parks, where they lived in supervised work camps. In 1945, the government refused to let the last CO go home until the last soldier returned from overseas.

Canadian CO’s were sometimes put down as cowardly by the media, one Banff paper charging that “conchies” used pacifism “simply as a cute method of saving their yellow hides”. It doesn’t seem as if they endured the same levels of ridicule, hostility and abuse inflicted on their neighbor CO’s across the border during WWs I&II, but I haven’t researched it deeply.

Fast forward to Vietnam War, where the US Selective Service recognized 171,000 CO’s, and denied 300,000 applicants CO status. 600,000 illegally evaded the draft, 200,000 of whom were formally charged with draft evasion. (CO’s in America: Swarthmore College archive.) Canada at the time had another Liberal Government under PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau. War resisters in those days were called “draft dodgers”, but the fast-growing anti-war movement supported these young men. The derogatory name was worn by many as a badge of honour rather than a stigma. Trudeau had a fearless aspect to him which some saw as arrogance, others as refreshing honesty; he was the one who described Canada’s relationship to the US as “sleeping with an elephant”. While visiting the US on official business, he announced: “The status of being a draft dodger doesn’t enter at all into our immigration policy”. (March, 1968, speech to National Press Club, Washington, DC.) This immigration policy manifested as a prohibition on Canadian border guards’ asking American visitors about their draft status. And it resulted in tens of thousands of war resisters coming to Canada, most of whom stayed, “making up the largest, best-educated group this country ever received”. (Archived Government Report: Vietnam War Resisters in Canada)

Michael’s experience was one of personal transformation: from a mainstream point of view, involving unthinking loyalty to his country, to a realization of what war truly represented and a sense of personal choice about engaging with war. His influences were varied – from a young woman at a dinner party who got him thinking, to his time at University of Oregon in Eugene where “anti-war was not a bad thing”. Arriving on the coast from Iowa, he encountered a tumultuous political climate. There were hippies and yippies, John Birchers, Black Panthers, Hell’s Angels, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, rednecks – many of these people were armed. There was open talk of revolution and a strong anti-war, anti-draft movement. It was a very intense time. He easily found information about war resistance displayed on tables at the Student Union Building and draft counselling (where he learned he could come to Canada). Another powerful influence on his decision to resist was the sight of VW vets, relatively common in Eugene, “severely affected by PTSD, you could spot them, you could tell that this was a very damaged person”.

While many young men submitted to the rigorous process of trying to convince the Draft Board to grant them CO status, as another vet told me, “it was not an easy route for anyone. You had to have a religious spin”. The draft greatly helped to fuel the anti-war movement; “everyone was looking for his own angle [out].” Many others, like Michael, decided they didn’t want to cooperate with the war machine in any way. Some went to prison, some deserted and disappeared, many emigrated and went to Canada or Sweden – countries receptive to their plight.

When he made his decision to leave the country, Michael received a lot of support from friends, colleagues and his employer; his father was upset and didn’t understand. His father had not been to war, hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but like most “good Americans” of his generation, had a negative attitude about CO’s and draft dodgers. When the FBI visited him after Michael had left the country, it put his law-abiding father under even more pressure. He was mortified. Fortunately Michael’s uncle defended him, and his father came to understand and respect his decision. Michael left with no expectation of ever being allowed back in the country, even to visit. He thought he’d renounced his US citizenship. At that time, there was no amnesty, making his courageous decision even more momentous. After his move, he was visited at his downtown Vancouver apartment by the RCMP, who said they were checking up on him “as a courtesy service for the FBI”. They kept their eye on war resisters; those who were overtly political were escorted by police back to the border. It would be 8 full years until President Jimmy Carter declared amnesty, and war resisters were pardoned. Michael stayed on in Canada, never regretting his decision, and became a citizen as soon as he was eligible. Our gain.

In non-traditional cultures, young people often don’t have rites of initiation or other means of marking their passage to adulthood. For Michael and the many others who chose to resist the war machine, they experienced a powerful rite of passage that changed them forever and indelibly marked their having reached maturity. They took the road less taken. To quote Schopenhauer: “All truth passes through 3 stages. 1st it’s ridiculed. 2nd it’s violently opposed. 3rd it is accepted as being self-evident.”