Canada and the World

Hello no, they won't go

Many draft dodgers found a home in Canada—and stayed

Tom Fennell April 24 2000
Canada and the World

Hello no, they won't go

Many draft dodgers found a home in Canada—and stayed

Tom Fennell April 24 2000
After 30 years of playing the bar circuit, blues singer Morgan Davis has seen more of the country than most Canadians ever will. And more and more of what he sees disturbs him. Davis crossed the border as a draft dodger on July 4, 1968, at Osoyoos, B.C. “It was,” says Morgan, “my independence day.” He travelled east in a Volkswagen van to Toronto, a city that struck him as far quieter and safer than Detroit, where he grew up. Nearly 25 years have passed since Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. And like many of the young men who came north to escape the Vietnam War, Morgan says the cultural lines between Canada and the United States have blurred during that time. “I loved the differences when I came up,” says Morgan, “but Canada is being sucked into Americas celebrity-laden, dog-eat-dog thing.”

Davis, now 52, lives with his Canadian-born wife, Victoria, and 11-year-old daughter, Rosalee, in Toronto. He was one of some 80,000 American draft dodgers and deserters who sought sanctuary in Canada. As they approached the border, many would cut their long hair and replace their colorful tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans with cheap business suits. That new middle-class image sometimes helped convince suspicious border guards not to turn them back to the United States. The new arrivals found Canada in a far more buoyant and confident mood than today—in 1967, the country celebrated its 100th birthday with the contagious excitement of Montreal’s Expo 67. “We were celebrating nation-building while Americans were tearing themselves apart,” says history professor Jonathan Vance, who teaches a course on culture and war at the University of Western Ontario in London. “That gave people a sense of smugness.”

Although only about 20,000 draft dodgers and deserters remained in Canada after receiving full amnesty in 1977 from president Jimmy Carter, they have had an enduring impact. “We were quite happy to have the Americans come here,” says Pierre Berton, the author of 1967: The Last Good Year. “Those who stayed helped the country—we needed people who were gutsy enough not to fight that stupid war.” Their refusal to go, adds Vance, changed the Canadian perception of military conflict, reinforcing the growing belief in Ottawa that Canada should deploy peacekeepers in foreign lands—but never combat forces. “The presence of the draft dodgers,” says Vance, “forced us to think about our involvement in a potentially unjust war.”

By the time the Vietnam War was over in 1975, nearly 1.9 million people had died and nine million were left as refugees. The United States alone would count 58,022 dead and another 300,000 wounded. During the initial stages of the conflict, Americans supported the war effort, but television, which for the first time broadcast images of the carnage during dinner-hour newscasts, slowly changed public opinion. Soon, thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the war as the protest slogan “Hell no we wont go” became emblematic of a generation. “These were desperate days,” recalls Davis. “By the time I was in my senior year in high school in 1965, president Kennedy had been assassinated and this Vietnam thing made no sense to me.”

By the spring of 1968, Davis was majoring in history at college in Long Beach, Calif. He knew he would be drafted as soon as he graduated. It was at that point that Davis, and about 15 friends who were by then veterans of the antiwar movement, decided they had to leave the United States or risk being sent to prison or the jungles of Vietnam. Some went to Israel and others to Amsterdam. Davis and his wife, Mary— they later divorced—decided to go to Canada.

Before reaching the border at Osoyoos on July 4, Davis cut his long dark hair and donned a suit and tie. There was little drama—perhaps because of his earnest appearance. Border officials allowed the couple to apply for landed-immigrant status, and after just three hours of answering questions and filling out forms the pair found themselves in Canada. “There was a great sense of relief,” recalled Davis. “We found a hotel and just flopped.”

Davis spent the next 30 years developing his career as a blues singer and guitarist. Along the way he played with a number of bands in Toronto, among them the Rhythm Rockets, which included well-known Toronto guitarist David Wilcox. Davis did return briefly to Long Beach after Carters 1977 amnesty, but soon returned to Toronto. “Some guys tried to rob my place, so I bought a gun,” recalled Davis. “It was then that I knew I wanted to return to Canada.”

As the Vietnam War raged, Henry Lehmann found the conflict increasingly repugnant. His fellow students at the University of Illinois could talk of nothing else. “It tended to divert attention from everything,” says Lehmann, 54, who now teaches art history at Montreal’s Vanier College. “We ended up basically worrying about the draft.” Lehmann went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and, while there, fell in love with a woman from Montreal. He decided to move to Canada. “In one fell swoop,” he says, “I got on an airplane and changed my life.” While the decision to stay or leave the United States often divided families, Lehmann left with the full support of his parents in Chicago. “They thought the war was a mess,” he said, “from the word go.” Their opposition increased when FBI agents showed up at his father’s law office and demanded to know where his son was. U.S. authorities then bungled a chance to capture Lehmann, who received his draft notice in 1967, when he took the train from Montreal to Saint John, N.B., without knowing it cut through Maine. “I was on the day coach in the middle of the night,” recalls Lehmann. “Suddenly, to my horror, the American customs officers were on the train.” Fortunately, they were only interested in talking to people who were getting off in Maine.

The first draft dodgers to arrive in Canada were regularly confronted by the RCMP. Fred Reed, now an award-winning literary translator living in Montreal, was studying in Athens in 1963 when he was ordered to report to a U.S. military base near the city. He came to Canada, where the 23-year-old became well-known to RCMP officers who repeatedly demanded to know when he was going back to the United States. “I was one of the first,” says Reed, now 60, a Los Angeles native. “The RCMP had not devised a way of dealing with us. It was not clear what was going to happen.”

That kind of harassment ended following the election of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968. He quickly rejected U.S. demands to close the border to draft dodgers. By then, Reed, who now lives with his Canadian-born wife in an Outremont condominium, had resumed his Greek studies at Montreal’s McGill University and taught himself French. In 1992, he won the Governor General’s Literary Translation Award for his version of Quebec author Thierry Hentsch’s nonfiction work Imagining the Middle East.

Some draft dodgers and deserters who fled the politically charged atmosphere of the United States became involved in Canadian politics. After arriving in Canada, Reed supported Quebec’s emerging separatist movement—which he has continued to do to this day. Quebec sovereigntists also enjoyed the support of other draft dodgers who ended up in Montreal. Reed believes most of his fellow former Americans made significant contributions to Canada. “Many of them were people of exceptional qualities,” says Reed, “who had a sense of social commitment.”

One of them is Conrad (Corky) Evans, 52. Like a number of Americans who came north in the late 1960s, Evans, originally from Tucson, Ariz., was not a draft dodger. But he felt he had to leave to make a statement. In 1969, he moved to Vancouver Island with his wife, Bonnie, who was seven months pregnant. He found work as a longshoreman, then as a logger. “I don’t think the immigrant people will ever pay back what Canada gave us,” he says. “It gave us a life.” And he has given back— in public service. In 1991, Evans won election to the B.C. legislature as the NDP member for Nelson/Creston. He served as minister of agriculture and transportation in the cabinets of premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark. And in February’s NDP leadership convention, he came in second to another immigrant to Canada: Premier Ujjal Dosanjh.

Leaving the States ripped many families apart. Ray Brassard, managing editor of Montreal’s The Gazette, says that during his youth he rarely saw his father, Raymond, cry. But on the day in 1969 that Brassard told him he was deserting from the air force and heading to Montreal, his dad broke down in tears. “He wanted to tell my mother himself,” recalls Brassard, “because I was leaving the next day.”

The transition to life in Montreal was easier for Brassard than for many others. As a Franco-American with Quebec roots, Brassard had learned French at home in his native Lowell, a blue-collar city northwest of Boston. And Brassard found Quebec welcoming. He landed a job with the tabloid publisher Globe Communications, where he worked for 10 years. He later joined The Gazette, rising through the ranks to his current position.

The decision to stay or leave often divided families

Along the way, Brassard helped other young Americans who flooded into Montreal. “I think the biggest emotional difficulty for most people was being torn from their families,” he says. “That’s what drove a lot of people back to the States. They just couldn’t do it.” Brassard, who is married to a Canadian and has three children, returned briefly to the United States, but decided to come back to Canada. I’ve made a choice to live here because I feel more comfortable in this country,” says Brassard. “I do see it as a kinder, gentler society—and I think that fits my personality.”

As the war progressed, a number of Canadians decided to help the draft dodgers and deserters. Among them was Morton Bain, a McGill University professor. To receive landed-immigrant status, Americans who were in Canada had to return to the United States to apply at the border. Bain would drive them from Montreal to Vermont and then double back to another crossing where his passengers could make the application. “It wasn’t always pleasant,” recalls Bain in the living room of his bungalow in Dorval, Que. “Sometimes it was humorous—but sometimes it was scary.”

On one occasion, when one of Bain’s American passengers filled out his immigration form, he wrote that his father had lived in Paris. Bain then noticed the man’s last name and birthplace. “I said, ‘You’re Henry Miller’s kid!’ ” recalls Bain. The son of the man who wrote the controversial novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn said yes. Looking back, Bain says he still feels a sense of pride. “I was proud that I had a small bit to play,” he says. “These were morally upright people. They took a stand.” One that led them to Canada—where many of them gave back as well as they received.

Canada’s war vets

In the summer of 1968, Les Brown walked the leafy streets ofWakefield, Que., pondering a tough question: to fight in Vietnam or remain in the security of Canada. Only months earlier, he had been living in suburban Los Angeles and, like many other children of Canadians working in the United States, facing the possibility of being drafted. His mother, Joy, wanted him to stay in Canada, where he was working on a farm, but he missed his friends and returned. A year later, Brown was slogging through the jungles of Vietnam with an M-16 assault rifle. Thousands of Canadians fought in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, and some never returned.Those that did often still wake up in a cold sweat “I am seeing a psychiatrist to help me work through my memories,” says Brown, 51, who now lives near Ottawa and has just published a book, There It Is: A Canadian in the Vietnam War.

Many other Canadians served willingly. Lee Hitchins, 55, and two high-school buddies in Smiths Falls, Ont, traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1963 and enlisted in the U.S. navy. “The Communists were bad and we good,” recalls Hitchins. In 1965, Hitchins was assigned to a destroyer off the Vietnam coast for an eight month tour. He returned to Smiths Falls in 1972-reluctant to talk much about his experiences. “It was worse coming back to Canada,” says Hitchins. “All we heard about were the draft dodgers who came up here."

Exactly how many Canadians served in Vietnam is difficult to determine. Hitchins, who is president of the Canadian Vietnam Veterans-Ottawa, estimates the number at 30,000 to 40,000. The confusion exists because Canadians drafted while they were living in the United States show up in records as Americans. But Hitchins says that, so far, more than 100 dead soldiers listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington have officially been confirmed as Canadian. Their names also appear on a Canadian memorial in a park in Windsor-just across the Detroit River from the United States.