Vietnam War Resisters in Canada  —  An Encyclopedic Essay


This account focuses on U.S. draft-eligible males (aged 18 to 26) and U.S. military deserters of any age who came to Canada during the Vietnam War era (defined by the 1977 Carter pardon as 4 August 1964 to 28 March 1973). Treatment of the significant resistance efforts of Vietnamese, women, families in Canada and the United States, or Canadian supporters lies beyond the scope of this effort.

The history of Vietnam War resisters in Canada is first of all a history of the intersection of systems: on the U.S. side, a set of systems designed to procure military manpower and to punish violators; on the Canadian side, a complex and changeable system of immigration practices.

In the Vietnam War era, a draft-liable U.S. male faced three options: (1) To accept military service via induction or enlistment (2) To avoid military service by qualifying for a deferred or exempt classification (3) To offend an enforcement system and face punishment, typically fines and/or sentences to prison or stockade. A notorious Selective Service System document on “channeling” confirms the extent to which the draft was intended to serve as a generalized instrument of social control. [1] Emigration to Canada rendered an offense unpunishable, because provisions for extradition did not apply.


The only certain assertion that can be made about numbers is that the order of magnitude for draft-age males who relocated to Canada in the Vietnam era lies in the tens of thousands. This was a far cry from the “few hundreds” dismissed by Richard Nixon. [2] Careful sifting of complex evidence lends good probability to a more specific figure in the range of 20,000 to 40,000. (Jones 2005)

Draft Resisters and Deserters

Draft resisters offended against the Selective Service System, while deserters offended against a branch of the U.S. armed services after induction. In general, the two groups diverged in social class, with draft resisters being more privileged in terms of social status, wealth, education, etc. This difference in resources often meant that deserters found it harder to achieve landed immigrant status in Canada and to adapt to a new country. Among deserters, significant differences (education, mental assessment, race) separated the exile/antiwar deserter from the classic deserter. [3]

Canada always discriminated against deserters. After a sustained campaign, in which the New Democratic Party and the United Church of Canada took leading roles, the Liberal Trudeau government reluctantly abandoned a covert practice that had hindered the immigration of deserters. But that 22 May 1969 change in policy did nothing to solve deserter problems of managing to qualify under the point system. The change simply meant that a deserter should thereafter enjoy an equal chance to meet the immigration standards that were applied to all applicants. [4]

A deserter would often find himself in the position of having to obtain the 10 additional points available for having a job offer. The catch was that those particular points could be had only by applying at the Canadian border, not from within Canada. This situation subjected prospective immigrants to a tense drama of looping through U.S. territory and risking detection and capture.

Persons unable to qualify or unwilling to face the risks of application could spend years in an underground limbo. Data on Canada’s immigration clean-up programs of 1972 and 1973 suggests that the number of those special-program American immigrants may have equaled the number who achieved immigrant status during the preceding seven years of regular immigration.

A Canadian Immigration Window

A prevalent myth about Canada’s “welcome” of Vietnam War resisters can easily be debunked by Liberal Prime Minster Lester Pearson’s early statement to the House of Commons: “The rules regarding the admission to Canada of United States citizens would apply in the normal way to men in this category … . We would certainly not do anything to encourage admission to Canada of this category of United States citizens.” [5] Otherwise put, the rules are the rules.

Two dates stand out in the history of Canadian immigration policy during the Vietnam era. On 1 October 1967 Canada introduced a point system for immigration. Coupled with that new system was explicit provision to permit application by visitors from within Canada. To a significant extent, the new system formalized what was already taking place, but established a more objective basis for individual assessment. Six years later, on 6 November 1972, an Order in Council abruptly terminated the visitor provision.

There is no reason to believe that Canadian immigration policy tailored itself to the needs of U.S. war resisters. On an annual basis, the U.S draft-age male component of immigration to Canada between 1966 and 1972 ranged from 0.6% to 2.3%. This amounted to nothing more than a trickle in the flood. The way in which the immigration opportunity window happened to coincide with war resister need to emigrate is astonishing. (Jones 2008)

Border Incidents

Canadian awareness of the arrival of U.S. Vietnam War resisters seems to have started with a border-crossing incident. In the spring of 1966 an FBI agent paid a visit to the home of a young man resident in British Columbia. Immediately the issue was raised in Parliament. [6] A number of news stories detailed the situation.

The best-documented case of border hand-over by Canadian authorities involved three deserters at the Sumas BC crossing on 25 January 1970. A subsequent formal investigation concluded that their deportation into the hands of U.S. military authorities was illegal — but that neither of the participating authorities (RCMP, Canadian immigration) could be assigned responsibility for the action. [7]

In one other highly publicized incident on 24 August 1974, U.S. officials in hot pursuit captured deserter Ronald James Anderson in Canada and then dragged him back across the border. [8]

The history of lesser-known border incidents is difficult to research, and the information that can be found tends not to make its way into respectable published books and periodicals. [9]

Organizations and Publications

During 1966 groups formed in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to counsel and support draft-age emigrants from the United States. Another group that emerged the next year in Ottawa played a major role in assisting deserters. Eventually a network of more than thirty aid groups extended across Canada. These groups relied heavily on funding from churches, especially in the 1971-1973 period, when Robert Gardner moved to Canada to administer $210,000 in funding from the National Council of Churches. [10] Quakers offered much low-profile individualized support, especially in the earlier years. Mennonites engaged more as a group, and Frank Epp, who produced the first ever book on the topic, took a lead in supporting work on the issue. [11]

The Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal groups all produced multiple editions of their own printed guides. In January 1968 appeared the first of six editions of Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, which became the standard printed resource. The Manual’s last edition of spring 1971 was supplemented by an August 1973 fact sheet. As deserter arrival overtook that of draft offenders in the early 1970s, specific groups formed to focus on deserter issues, especially needs for housing and longer-term support.

Mark Satin managed the Toronto assistance program 1967-1968 as it transitioned from a program of the Student Union for Peace Action into the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme. His media work brought increased profile to issues surrounding Vietnam War resister emigration to Canada. The Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada came into being through his initiative. [12]

Another set of groups oriented themselves toward exile politics. The foremost in longevity and impact was Amex-Canada, a term that designates both a collective and a periodical (47 issues 1968-1977). Jack Colhoun anchored Amex-Canada during the 1972-1977 campaign for amnesty. The final issue of the periodical consists mainly of his history of Amex-Canada.

A variety of short-lived local organizations and publications came and went, especially during the chaotic transitional year of 1970. A signal event of that period was the Pan-Canadian Conference of U.S. War Resisters (May 1970 : Montreal). From this meeting emerged a newly formulated agenda of “priority counselling” that supported a practice of discouraging draft offender emigration from the United States.

Circumstances of the Times

Many factors contributed to increase the numbers of draft-liable men who chose emigration to Canada. Although some persons with history in the U.S. draft resistance movement continue to disparage men who chose to avoid legal confrontation and ensuing imprisonment, the tactic was recognized at the time. [13]

Coincident with increase in military manpower requirements of the Vietnam War were changes in draft regulations. A February 1968 ending of most student deferments for graduate study had great impact.

Events piled up to create anticipation of ever greater social chaos. In 1968 these included the My Lai massacre, the April student occupation of Columbia University, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and police brutality at the Chicago Democratic convention. The fall of 1969 saw widespread and massive Moratorium demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1970 a broad reaction against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia led to the shooting of students at Kent State and Jackson State.

A draft lottery instituted in December 1969 applied to men born 1944-1950. The event gave certainty about freedom from the draft to almost half of that sizeable cohort. In the following years, the pressure that had energized opposition to the draft dissipated, as smaller year-by-year pools faced significantly reduced call-up rates.

Stresses of Transition and Assimilation

Psychiatrist Saul Levine worked with a number of American emigrants to Canada over a two-year period and described the stresses that they faced. [14] Two factors exacerbated the usual difficulties faced by any immigrant: an ongoing uncertainty caused by various discussions of amnesty possibilities; an increasing Canadian nationalism coupled with economic downturn. Forces that impel Americans in Canada to disappear into the woodwork have been little studied. [15] Additional motivations led Vietnam War resister immigrants to feel a need to “go underground” in a metaphorical sense.


Representative Edward Koch visited Canada in December 1969 and raised the issue of amnesty. The U.S. Congress held hearings on amnesty in the springs of 1972 and 1974. The last U.S. ground combat troops left Vietnam in August 1972. The last draft induction took place in mid-1973. A long struggle for universal unconditional amnesty never led to the sought-for amnesty, but only to partial and/or conditional programs of clemency, pardon, and case-by-case review.

In September 1974 U.S. President Gerald Ford granted a full immediate pardon to former president Richard Nixon, who had resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. In the following week Ford instituted a clemency program for Vietnam War offenders that was based on a notion of “earned re-entry.” His clemency program came to an end on 31 March 1974. Over the years, listings of fugitive offenders had already been administratively reduced in number. Of those remaining, the Ford program dealt with the cases of 56% of AWOL offenders and 17% of draft offenders. [16] The International Conference of Exiled American War Resisters (Sept. 1974 : Toronto) called for a boycott of the Ford clemency program, without condemning individuals who felt a need to resolve their particular cases. The continuing presence of a visible American exile community made it clear that the Ford program had failed.

The initiation of the Ford clemency program resulted in the compilation of two listings of still-active draft prosecutions, a 23 October 1974 list of 6200 names, and a refined and final “Kennedy” list of 4522 names in January 1975. (Baskir and Strauss 1978: 220-221)

On his first day in office in January 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon that eliminated legal jeopardy for approximately 3000 exile draft offenders who still had cases pending. In the six months following the pardon, only 85 exiles made permanent return to the United States (Baskir and Strauss 1978: 169, 232). A poorly advertised special discharge review program operated for deserters from April to September 1977 on a case-by-case basis. Of 432 exile deserter participants, 87% had Canada as primary location. [17] This treatment of deserters resulted in subsequent cases of border apprehension and transfer to military custody.

The Long Aftermath

The turn of the twenty-first century has seen conflicts arise from divergent understandings of the history of Vietnam War resisters in Canada.

A proposal to locate a memorial statue in Nelson, B.C. led to strong controversy, and to the production of a statue that never succeeded in finding a public home. Two gatherings called Our Way Home Peace Event and Reunion, held in 2006 and 2007 in Castlegar BC, attracted substantial participation as well as hostile attention. [18]

The 2004 arrival of Iraq War deserters in Canada generated a support campaign that over the course of a decade has failed to achieve resident status for any of the arriving new deserters, despite strenuous efforts. [19]

Since 2004, a set of U.S. initiatives has sought to detect extraterritorial population (estimated at over seven million) and to monitor their personal financial activities. Perhaps as many as a million affected persons reside in Canada. Since 2011, the rate of abandonment of U.S. citizenship has skyrocketed among “U.S. persons” who have established lives outside the United States. In 2010 the United States began charging a consular fee of $450 for renunciation of citizenship, and in September 2014 increased that amount to $2350. Ironically, many Vietnam War resisters in Canada may now need to escape from their mean mother country a second time — even though they have lived in Canada for most of their lives.

Both United States and Canadian history writing show tendencies of passing over in silence the legacy of U.S. Vietnam War resisters who chose to move to Canada. [20] While motivations may differ, the effect is the same: disappearing the actors and denying their impact.


[1] Peter Henig, ”Selective Service System: on the manpower channelers,“ New left notes 2:3 (20 Jan 1967) 1, 4-5, 8
[2] “Transcript of the President’s news conference on foreign and domestic matters,” New York times (1 Feb 1973) 20
[3] Bruce D. Bell. Characteristics of Army deserters in the DOD Special Discharge Review Program (1979)
[4] Melody Kilian & Rick Ayers, “The exploitation of youth,” Our generation 6:4 (1969) 145
[5] 27th Parliament, 1st Session (Feb. 1, 1967) 12 : 12523
[6] 27th Parliament, 1st Session (Mar. 30, 1966) 4 : 3616 “Questioning of draft dodgers in Canada by F.B.I.”
[7] Report of the Commission of Investigation Relating to Charles Allen Leonard, Earl Hockett and John Kreeger (June 1970)
[8] Daryl C. McClary. “Ronald J. Anderson, deserter from U.S. Army, is arrested in Peace Arch Park on August 24, 1974,” Essay 9804 (2011)
[9] Here is one exception: Clive Cocking. “How did the Canadian Mounties develop their unfortunate habit of deporting people they don’t happen to like?” Saturday night (1963) 85:6/3504 (June 1970) 28-30
[10] “Cleric PR man for draft-dodgers,” Globe and mail (9 Jan 1971) 44
[11] Epp, Frank H. (1929-1986) — in Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online,_Frank_H._%281929-1986%29
[12] Mark Satin. “Toronto Anti-Draft Programme: where the guys who said ‘No!’ came for help,“ Radical middle newsletter (2014)
[13] David McReynolds, “The Resistance,” New politics 6:1/21 (winter 1967).
[14] Saul V. Levine, “Draft dodgers: coping with stress, adapting to exile,” American journal of orthopsychiatry 42:3 (Apr 1972) 431-440
[15] Kim Matthews and Vic Satzewich, “The invisible transnationals? the Americans in Canada,” p. 164-179 in: Transnational identities and practices in Canada (2006)
J.M. Bumsted, “Americans,” in Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples
[16] Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss. Reconciliation after Vietnam : a program of relief for Vietnam era draft and military offenders (1977) 138
[17] Bell, Characteristics (1979)
[18] Fred A. Bernstein, “Greetings from Resisterville,” New York times (21 Nov 2004) ST1, ST5
Our Way Home Peace Event & Reunion
Andrei Conovaloff  —  Our Way Home Peace Event & Reunion
[19] War Resisters Support Campaign
[20] Example from the U.S. perspective: Melvin Small. Antiwarriors: the Vietnam War and the battle for America’s hearts and minds (2002). Example from the Canadian perspective: Douglas Owram. Born at the right time: a history of the baby-boom generation (1996).
*     *     *
Note on this additional documentation:  Specific footnoted references above have been limited. This appended selection of books should satisfy most other needs for verification and further information.
1971  Roger Neville Williams. The new exiles : American war resisters in Canada
1976  RenĂ©e G. Kasinsky. Refugees from militarism : draft-age Americans in Canada
1978  Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss. Chance and circumstance : the draft, the war, and the Vietnam generation
2001  John Hagan. Northern passage : American Vietnam War resisters in Canada
2005  Joseph Jones. Contending statistics : the numbers for U.S. Vietnam War resisters in Canada
2008  Joseph Jones. Happenstance and Misquotation : Canadian immigration policy 1966-1974, the arrival of U.S. Vietnam War resisters, and the views of Pierre Trudeau
2013  Jessica Squires. Building sanctuary : the movement to support Vietnam War resisters in Canada, 1965-73


See also:  The Weakness of Wikipedia: a Detailed Case Study

For contact information see Joseph Jones.


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