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Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73

By Jessica Squires

Review By Daniel Ross

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 164-66

During the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of draft-age Americans came north to Canada to avoid military service and protest the war in Vietnam. A few were deported, and others left voluntarily; but most stayed, and the idea that Canada was a “refuge from militarism” stuck in our collective imagination. In Building Sanctuary, Jessica Squires tells the story of the people who mobilized to help American war resisters stay and settle in Canada. She also questions whether the image of Canada as a safe haven from Cold War militarism stands up to historical scrutiny.

Groups emerged to provide American war resisters with information on employment, housing, and residency in Canada. By 1967 they had cropped up in cities across the country, including Vancouver, where counsellors were soon handling five new cases a day. Drawing on interviews with former activists and the files of anti-draft groups, the first third of Building Sanctuary describes how these local agencies got together, shared information, and found allies in churches, student unions, and other social movements. The federal government, on the other hand, was ambivalent. While a few politicians supported the war resisters’ stand, others worried about provoking a diplomatic incident with the United States. Government officials questioned the resisters’ suitability as immigrants, citing their (assumed) radical left politics. Documents obtained by Squires indicate that the RCMP conducted surveillance on war resisters as early as 1966, and probably shared information with the FBI.

The Canadian government’s initial suspicion of war resisters led to the first major challenge faced by the anti-draft movement: a 1968 directive that encouraged border officials to discriminate against immigrants based on their military status. Resisters were never considered refugees, and these new instructions made getting enough “points” to qualify for residency much more difficult and amounted to a border closure. In the middle chapters of her book, Squires argues that lobbying by the anti-draft movement played a crucial role in ending this discrimination in 1969. A highlight of this section is Squires’ analysis of hundreds of letters written to the Department of Immigration, which reveal the different ways in which opponents and supporters of the border closure appealed to Canadian nationalism. By contrast, a chapter on deserters lacks focus, a problem that crops up once or twice later in what is otherwise a clearly argued book.

The last phase of the anti-draft movement, from 1970-73, saw growing divisions between more radical, resister-led groups — like the Vancouver Yankee Refugee Group — and those that prioritized lobbying and practical assistance. The final chapters of Building Sanctuary demonstrate that this split only further complicated the relationship between activists and the federal government. The RCMP continued to spy on the movement, warning in one report that members had adopted “a more militant attitude” (180). Meanwhile, however, anti-draft organizations across the country worked closely with immigration officials to promote a “last chance” program that promised to secure status for hundreds of war resisters living illegally in Canada.

What kind of a refuge was Canada for Vietnam-era war resisters? Squires convincingly argues that it was “a contingent and partial one, at best” (228). Safe haven always depended on the usefulness of resisters to Canada’s economy and, as this book highlights, resulted from the hard work of a network of anti-draft activists. Building Sanctuary makes an important contribution to our understanding of anti-war activism and sixties social movements in Canada, and is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the period.

Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73
Jessica Squires
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 376 pp. $39.95 cloth