British Columbia

The American activist who shaped the modern Kootenays

Tom Hayden, who died this week, wasn't Canadian and never lived in B.C. but his legacy reverberates throughout the B.C. Interior.

Tom Hayden lived his whole life in the U.S. but his legacy reverberates through B.C.'s Interior

Tom Hayden is shown speaking at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Sept. 15, 2014. (Patrick Record/Ann Arbor News/The Associated Press)

A founder of the modern Kootenays died this week — a man whose activism helped transform the artistic, social and political identity of the B.C. Interior and whose legacy still colours the electoral map.

But he wasn't a tree planter or a folk-singer or a local mayor. He wasn't Canadian and never lived in B.C. He was born in Detroit and died in California.

Tom Hayden was a driving force behind the anti-war movement in 1960s America, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a key figure in the rise of the New Left in the United States.

He died on Monday in Santa Monica, California. He was 76.

Without Tom Hayden, this region of B.C. might never have become Canada's counterculture darling.

There might not be a Kootenay Co-op, a Shambhala Music Festival, or The Be Good Tanyas singing about Ootischenia.

Out with the Old Left, in with the New

When Tom Hayden was born in Detroit in 1939, the Kootenay economy was based on agriculture, mining and logging.

The pacifist Doukhobors had established communities through the Slocan Valley, but socialists in the Kootenays (and there were plenty) were standard bearers of what would become the Old Left — "farmer, soldier, labourer, from the mine and factory," according to the anthem of the CCF, the party of Tommy Douglas that held power in the Kootenays through the 1940s and 50s.

The Slocan Valley was a major destination for American war resisters fleeing the draft. ((Village of Slocan City) )

That narrow appeal to labour was too restrictive for the nascent student movement of the early 1960s.

And so, in 1962, students at the University of Michigan tried to broaden leftist politics on campus by drafting a manifesto that focused less on capital and labour, and more on decolonization, race and militarization.

The Port Huron Statement was written by Tom Hayden, who was then a leader of a student group called Students for a Democratic Society.

As the Vietnam war ramped up, the SDS and its ideals spread rapidly.

The group organized the first anti-war protest in Washington in 1965.  And when young men started to flee the draft and come to Canada, they were helped by the Student Union for Peace Action — a Canadian student group affiliated with Tom Hayden and the SDS.

From outcasts to community leaders

As many as 30,000 war resisters came to Canada, many of them settling in the Slocan Valley in the B.C. Interior.

"They were young and had entirely different lifestyles," said Kathleen Rodgers, author of Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia.  "They did their gardening in the nude. They swam in the nude. They ate tofu and were vegetarians. They were different from people who lived there at the time and that led to some animosity."

Eventually, though, the impact of the SDS and the New Left in the Kootenays went beyond marijuana, co-ops and alternative medicine.

"As they became established and made their homes here, many of these people became prominent citizens," said Takaia Larsen, who teaches history and peace and justice studies at Selkirk College in Nelson. "And they ended up becoming kind of legitimized in our area."

Like Hayden himself, who later became a state senator, many of those early radical settlers in the Kootenays later became stalwarts of mainstream society, a reality reflected in the swath of orange that still dominates the electoral map of B.C.'s Interior, where NDP MLAs and MPs aren't farmers, loggers or miners but are children of the New Left — environmentalists, teachers and activists.

For retired NDP MP Alex Atamanenko, that's an important evolution.

"Not only did [Hayden] devote his life to peace but he got involved in the political process and wanted to change the system from within.

That's quite an admirable quality. He's not just exposing injustice and protesting. He did something about it."

About the Author

Chris Walker is a journalist based in Kelowna, B.C. He is the host of the morning radio show Daybreak South.