Historical Notes on Vietnam War Resisters in Canada


No. 1 :   The Numbers for U.S. Draft Resisters and Deserters Who Moved to Canada

No. 2 :   Canadian Immigration Policy 1966-1974 and the Arrival of U.S. Vietnam War Resisters

No. 3 :   Pierre Trudeau’s Views on U.S. Vietnam War Resisters

No. 4 :   Iraq War Deserters Seek “Refuge” in Canada


No. 1 :   The Numbers for U.S. Draft Resisters and Deserters Who Moved to Canada

A great variety of numbers are repeated with little investigation or justification. Citation of a person or a publication just puts at one remove the question of where the figures came from. The only reliable answer is that tens of thousands of draft resisters and deserters came to Canada during the Vietnam War. As will be seen, any more specific assertion involves assumption or speculation. The quest for a more specific quantity fragments into the following set of questions.

What ages and what period get counted?
The following facts illustrate some of the difficulties in arriving at precise ages and a precise period. One man (later prosecuted in the United States as a draft offender) moved to Canada as early as December 1962. A family with four sons aged 17, 14, 12 and 4 moved to Canada in 1967 with the draft as a motivation. The first news accounts of the migration appeared in 1966, the same year in which supporters published the first pamphlets and established the first aid programs. In November 1972 Canada revoked the provisions that allowed for immigration at the border and as a visitor within Canada. The last draft induction for the Vietnam War occurred in December 1972. The Carter pardon for draft offenders defined its period of coverage as August 4, 1964 to March 28, 1973.

Do women get counted?
At least one American woman deserter came to Canada in the Vietnam era. Except for deserters, American women remained free to return to the United States at will. Among official draft-age American immigrants, women who came to Canada 1966-1972 outnumbered men five to four.

Do associated people get counted?
Some draft resisters and deserters were accompanied by other people – parents, wives, girlfriends, children, relatives.

Do draft-age men who never violated the draft laws get counted?
Some draft-age American males moved to Canada, yet remained free to return to the United States at any time. Particular individuals (e.g. film critic Jay Scott) may be regarded as “draft dodgers” because of self-identification or popular misunderstanding. This group includes persons who

~   Immigrated to Canada for other reasons
~   Left the United States because of opposition to the Vietnam War
~   Anticipated a draft offense that never occurred
~   Mistakenly assumed they had committed a draft offense

How does length of residence in Canada figure into the counting?
Some American draft resisters and deserters sojourned in Canada for weeks or months or years before returning to the United States. Those who stayed for a brief time might be regarded as visitors. Others were part of an underground that never obtained legal resident status in Canada.

How many draft-age American males do official statistics record as immigrants to Canada?
Canada’s Immigration Statistics show that about 16,000 American males aged 19-25 formally immigrated to Canada in the period 1966-1972 (amounting to about 1.4% of total immigration.) Beyond this, Americans constituted some proportion of approximately 80,000 persons who participated in special one-time Canadian immigration programs of 1972 and 1973. (A Canadian government web site once indicated that Americans constituted 28% of the 39,000 covered in one of the programs.) These special programs regularized the status of some deserters who had remained underground because they were unable to meet immigration requirements.

What upper bound on numbers is indicated by U.S. statistics?
An official U.S. review of the data cites 209,517 cases of accused draft offenders and 100,000 less-than-honorable military discharges for absence offenses – a total that exceeds 300,000. By the 1977 Carter pardon the same source estimates a total of 11,000 American offenders at large, the “overwhelming majority” in exile. In the early 1970s the United States made liberal use of administrative measures to reduce embarrassing numbers.

How many responded to the 1974 Ford clemency program and the 1977 Carter pardon?
For the Ford clemency program, an official U.S. review of the data cites participation by 736 draft offenders and 5,555 deserters. (These figures include some 2,000 exiles.) In the first six months after the Carter pardon, 95 individuals asked the Justice Dept. for pardon certificates, and 85 exiles made a permanent return to the United States. On June 1, 1978 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service stopped keeping records, having tallied the return of 381 men, of whom 114 intended to remain in the United States.

Most of the foregoing information is documented in:
Contending Statistics : The Numbers for U.S. Vietnam War Resisters in Canada


No. 2 :   Canadian Immigration Policy 1966-1974 and the Arrival of U.S. Vietnam War Resisters

Current general understanding of this period’s history appears to be based on faulty memories, ungrounded assumptions, and present-day interests. A widespread belief that Canada made special provision for the immigration of draft-age American males has no basis in history. The Vietnam War era happened to coincide with a brief period of unusual conditions in Canadian immigration policy. This juxtaposition has led to unwarranted supposition of a causal connection. Year-by-year immigration statistics for Canada for 1966-1972 show that U.S. draft-age males ranged between 0.6% and 2.3% of total immigration to Canada. This small minority did not determine Canadian immigration policy.

In 1967 Canada under Lester Pearson introduced two key provisions for immigration. Starting that October, potential immigrants began to be evaluated under a point system that required attainment of at least 50 out of 100 possible points. Points were distributed across nine categories: 20 for education and training, 15 for personal assessment, 15 for occupational demand, 10 for occupational skill, 10 for age, 10 for arranged employment, 10 for knowledge of French and English, 5 for a relative, and 5 for employment opportunities in area of destination. Although this quantification did not eliminate subjectivity (e.g. 15 for personal assessment), it did render the process more objective and predictable than it had been. A descendant of this point system still operates today. The 10 points for arranged employment could only be obtained by making application at the border. Less qualified applicants who needed that extra 10 points faced a nerve-wracking clandestine return to the United States, with possible apprehension for draft offense or desertion.

The second key provision was explicit permission in the 1967 immigration regulations for visitors to Canada to apply for immigrant status. The circumstances that led to this provision – 20,000 outstanding visitor applications – were detailed in July 1966 by Immigration Minister Jean Marchand in the House of Commons. Burgeoning numbers of on-the-spot immigrants eventually resulted in abrupt revocation of the visitor application provision in November 1972. (This five-year period saw constant turnover in the immigration portfolio, with four different ministers: Jean Marchand, Allan MacEachen, Otto Lang, Bryce Mackasey).

Canada ended its covert discrimination against U.S. deserters in May 1969, thanks to student activism followed by extensive NDP and United Church pressure on the Trudeau Liberal government. Even with fair treatment under the standard point system, many deserters remained unable to qualify for immigrant status. War resister groups called for asylum, but without success.

Canada’s Adjustment of Status Program of August-October 1973, together with the Administrative Measures Program of 1972, regularized the status of approximately 80,000 persons. (The U.S. component of that 80,000 cannot be determined accurately, although available evidence suggests 10,000 to 20,000.) Comparison with a solid estimate of 16,000 for ordinary draft-age U.S. male immigrants to Canada 1966-1972 indicates a rough ratio of one back-door immigrant for every regular immigrant. Canada’s “immigration amnesty” dealt with the aftermath of allowing visitor application and has never been repeated.

In summary:

The foregoing information is elaborated on and fully documented in:
Happenstance and Misquotation : Canadian Immigration Policy 1966-1974, the Arrival of U.S. Vietnam War Resisters, and the Views of Pierre Trudeau


No. 3 :   Pierre Trudeau’s Views on U.S. Vietnam War Resisters

A folkloric process has tried to transform Pierre Trudeau into a leader who “opened the gates” to Canada for U.S. Vietnam War resisters and gave them a “welcome.” The only specific action ever taken by the Trudeau Liberal government was to abandon covert discrimination against U.S. deserters, a step taken with great reluctance. While controversy on that issue raged throughout the first half of 1969, Pierre Trudeau kept silent and stood apart. His Minister of Immigration Allan MacEachen ultimately failed to withstand the persistent public criticisms of the NDP and the United Church. (Trudeau’s memoir makes no mention whatsoever of U.S. Vietnam War resisters, focusing mainly on bilingual policy and the October Crisis.) Archival research by John Hagan finds MacEachen reporting this comment made by Pierre Trudeau in early 1969:

Surely a person who deserts from the armed forces of the U.S. is guilty of a criminal offense and accordingly would be inadmissible to Canada on that ground alone.
– p. 53-54 in Northern Passage

Ironically, Hagan’s epigraph for this same book appears to have spawned and supported a myth of Trudeau’s benevolence toward U.S. Vietnam war resisters. The epigraph consists of two very loosely attributed fragments:

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.
– Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaking to Mennonite and United Church leaders, 1970 and 1971 (p. [v])

This “quotation” involves conflation, misquotation, and disregard for context. Yet these “famous” words have been repeated many times as authoritative by activists, professionals, academics, and major media. When carefully examined, the meaning of these manipulated words becomes much more dubious. As far as can be determined, Trudeau made no other public statements of his views on U.S. Vietnam War resisters coming to Canada. Both of these instances involve extended conversations about conscience and religious motivation with church leaders who have been granted unusual access. Any interpretation of his comments in this context must take account of his advocating the “exclusion [of religion] from public policy debates, especially those surrounding social issues” (David Seljak, “Trudeau and the Privatization of Religion: the Quebec Context," p. 47-56 in: John English, ed., The Hidden Pierre Trudeau : the Faith behind the Politics, c2004).

The first sentence is extracted from “An Interview with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau,” United Church Observer 34:3 (Sept. 1971) 15-20. The full context reveals an atmosphere of hesitation, speculation, and hedging (marked by the words ‘hypothetical,’ ‘indirectly,’ and ‘theoretical.’ Likely reflecting his government’s stance toward deserters before May 1969, Trudeau goes out of his way to emphasize that he considers deserters to be in a “more serious” situation than draft offenders. His response culminates in an expectation that draft offenders and deserters will “pay the consequences of breaking the law,” followed by an affirmation of his deep belief in civil society and its basis in law. What Trudeau says in this context is offered only when the deserter issue had been long settled – more than two years after his government was compelled to abandon its covert discrimination.

The second sentence appears to be taken from “PM sees Canada as Youth Haven from ‘Militarism’,” Toronto Daily Star (Mar. 21, 1970) 1, 3. That source states:

Canada should be a “refuge from militarism,” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said here [Winnipeg] yesterday. He said he welcomed U.S. draft dodgers to Canada because many had a “religious motivation … to do with love and brotherhood.”

This newspaper article has been misquoted – with the phrase Canada should be a attributed to Trudeau. Misquotation aside, the headline article itself indulges in remarkable distortion.

Examination of the full archival transcription of Trudeau’s meeting with Mennonite leaders raises these points:

The “Trudeau quotation” manufactured by John Hagan aligns with his thesis that May 1969 marked the “turning point” (p. 35) of Canada’s “opening the gates” to U.S. Vietnam War resister immigrants. (The phrase “opening the gates” provides a chapter title in Northern Passage.) Hagan’s particular agenda has warped history to suit his sociological theory. If the gates had been opened, thousands of Americans would not have lived underground in Canada until general immigration chaos produced an opportunity to resolve their status in 1972-1973 (see Note 2 above).

The foregoing information is elaborated on and fully documented in:
Happenstance and Misquotation : Canadian Immigration Policy 1966-1974, the Arrival of U.S. Vietnam War Resisters, and the Views of Pierre Trudeau


No. 4 :   U.S. Iraq War Deserters Seek “Refuge” in Canada

Starting early in 2004, a series of U.S. Iraq War deserters looked toward Canada for asylum. They and their supporters made extensive reference to the purported Pierre Trudeau “quotation” discussed in Note no. 3 above. Iraq War deserters believed that somehow they could manage to follow in the footsteps of the previous generation who objected to the Vietnam War. They expected that the widely broadcast slogan “War Resisters Welcome Here” reflected actual Canadian history. In fact, there was no precedent. On a policy basis, U.S. persons who objected to participating in the Vietnam War never received any special treatment at the hands of the Canadian immigration bureaucracy.

Over the six years or so that followed 2004, more than four dozen named Iraq War deserters spent significant time in Canada. Most of them engaged in struggles to obtain ongoing legal status. A frequently explored avenue was to self-declare as a refugee. This approach guaranteed consideration of their cases under a formal process that would require a certain amount of time to carry out, measured in months and often in years. The passage of time itself might strengthen a last resort appeal for consideration specifically on “humanitarian and compassionate” grounds.

As of the end of 2016, the majority of deserters known by name had returned to the United States — some of them under deportation order, some of them straight into the hands of U.S. authorities. A shadow contingent, probably larger (often estimated at around 200), also spent time on the Canadian side of the border, living underground. As of April 2017, there are no news accounts of any U.S. deserter who has succeeded in acquiring status in Canada.

It seems telling that a deserter who showed exceptional political awareness at the outset, and stood out in Canadian organizing, returned to the United States in mid 2016, well after the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority. His twelve years of resistance finished up in a sentence to 10 months of military imprisonment.

Primarily based in Toronto, the War Resisters Support Campaign pursued two overlapping strategies. The first of these, active from 2004 to late 2007, focused on trying to set precedent through legal challenge. The parallel cases of Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey eventually foundered on denial of leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The second strategy was political, and led to two terminal disappointments in 2010.

The first disappointment saw the issuance by Canadian immigration authorities of Operational Bulletin 202 — http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/manuals/bulletins/2010/ob202.asp — on 22 July 2010. Despite a reported campaign commitment made by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, prior to the October 2015 election that brought them a majority government, the Bulletin has never been rescinded.

The second disappointment saw the defeat of private member’s Bill C-440 — https://openparliament.ca/bills/40-3/C-440/ — on 29 September 2010. The Bill would have legislated provision to cover the situation faced by U.S. Iraq War deserters. In this defeat, the Stephen Harper minority government enjoyed the deciding support of a handful of Liberal MPs. The thirteen Harper-friendly Liberals included Michael Ignatieff, at that time the party leader. Bill C-440 was put forward by a member of the Liberal Party.

It seems clear that party affiliation (Conservative or Liberal) has mattered little in respect to the questions that U.S. Iraq War deserters posed to the Canadian government. Canada’s two major parties effectively colluded to reject U.S. deserters ever since the issue first arose in 2004.

The notion that Canada ever amounted to a “refuge from militarism” under an earlier Liberal Party needs to be laid to rest. A legend, an imagination of a history that never really happened, enticed dozens of Iraq War deserters into a simulacrum. The U.S. deserters from the Iraq War have found nothing in Canada except official rejection, and year after year of uncertainty.

The foregoing summary is elaborated on in detail and fully documented in:
Simulacrum of Refuge : a History of Canada as Destination for U.S. Iraq War Deserters

Also see:  Supplemental Entries for “References and Sources”



For contact information see Joseph Jones.


Created February 2006
Last updated April 2017
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