Historian examines neglected truth behind Canada's role in Vietnam War

There's a fantasy about Canada’s role in the Vietnam War: that from the beginning, Canada was the conscience of America, taking a stand against conflict, welcoming war resisters, and opening the doors for refugees. But historian John Boyko picks apart that fantasy, showing how divisive the war was in Canada, in his book The Devil's Trick.

'I think most Canadians believe that the Vietnam War... was very much an American event,' says John Boyko

In his book, The Devils Trick, John Boyko tracks Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War and revisits fiery debates over arms sales, draft dodgers, and refugees. (Knopf Canada/Simon Spivey)

There's a fantasy about Canada's role in the Vietnam War that historian John Boyko wants to clear up with some necessary added context.

It's an idea, held mostly by younger Canadians, that for the most part describes Canada as uninvolved in the conflict, welcoming American military deserters and Vietnamese refugees.  

Boyko describes this long-running imaginary view in his book, The Devil's Trick, as tragic.

"Canada was involved in that we allowed and welcomed draft dodgers to come to Canada and we allowed and welcomed refugees to come from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the war," Boyko writes.

"But beyond that, Canada was simply a bystander. We watched with horror like the rest of the world."

It's been more than 45 years since the end of the Vietnam war. Boyko says the time now allows us to confront and accept the wrong decisions that were made, as part of our history.

He suggests by remembering the debates of the past, we can better understand Canada's relationship to war, the United States, and to public opinion.

Canadian arms sales to the United States

In the book, Boyko tells the story of six Canadians whose lives were changed by the Vietnam War, such as Claire Culhane, a Canadian nurse turned anti-war activist.

"Culhane was a 48-year-old hospital administrator in Montreal who decided to work at a Canadian-made, Canadian-staffed hospital after reading a magazine article," writes Boyko in The Devil's Trick.

"She, like many others, was shocked to learn that Canadians had built and were staffing hospitals in South Vietnam. She left because she could not stand the hypocrisy."

Claire Culhane was scheduled to work in South Vietnam at a Canadian-built hospital for one year. But she left after six months when she discovered that Canada helped supply weapons, which led to civilian injuries and deaths. (Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star)

"What she found was that so many of the patients in this hospital who were being helped as best they could, were there because of the weaponry that Canada was helping to supply," Boyko added.

Culhaine led protests and sent letters to the government, demanding an end to Canadian arms sales to the U.S.

Canadian anti-war activist Claire Culhaine and others hold a protest on Christmas Eve, 1969

Vietnam war protesters try to gain audience with prime minister

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An antiwar protester camped near Parliament Hill finds that Prime Minister Trudeau only has time to discuss peace with celebrities. 4:29

"It was everything from guidance systems to boots to the green berets that were worn by the Marines and also involved napalm. And it also involved Agent Orange. They were manufactured in Canada and sent to Vietnam," Boyko told IDEAS.

"About $375 million a year of weaponry was being manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam. Equivalent in today's dollars, that would be about $2 billion of arms sales that were going directly to the Vietnamese and South Vietnamese for use in the war."

A blind eye to draft dodgers, but deserters turned away

According to Boyko, acceptance of draft dodgers during the war eventually became a point of Canadian pride. But during the war, there was significant opposition to Americans coming north — especially those already drafted into the military — who were considered deserters.

"Draft dodgers were those who decided that their number was coming up, they were about to be drafted and to be drafted was to go to the war. They had not yet put on the uniform. Deserters, however, were people who had either enlisted or [had] been drafted and were about to go to Vietnam."

Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell complains about a "scum community" of hippies and draft dodgers in 1968 

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Vancouver's mayor defends the recent arrest of several youths caught loitering, calling the hippies "parasites" and "scum." 6:46

Boyko says that race played a role in the difference in treatment between draft dodgers and deserters. While draft dodgers were mainly white, those considered deserters were often Black.

"Canadians didn't welcome [deserters] as they did the draft dodgers," he explained. "They were seen as cowards that were not doing what their country had asked them to do. They had taken their uniforms off and fled.

"And many of these organizations that were helping the resisters in cities across Canada would not help the deserters because they felt they would lose funding from the churches, and from other charitable organizations that were giving them the money to operate."

Anger and racism over Vietnamese refugees

After the United States left the war, over a million refugees left Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

In the years 1979-80, Canada accepted 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, despite a majority of Canadians being opposed to the plan. Boyko argues that acceptance of refugees has become a celebrated part of our history, but at the time sparked anger and resistance.

A Vietnamese refugee boy arrives in Edmonton, Alta., Aug.14, 1979. (Bill Brennan/Canadian Press)

CBC Radio hosts a debate over whether Vietnamese refugees should be accepted into Canada 

"Polls, just like the polls with respect to the draft dodgers, showed that the majority of Canadians did not want them. There were those who said yes, except some didn't want them in great numbers," Boyko explained.

Boyko says it was an act of defiant political will to allow the refugees to stay.

"Joe Clark was only in power for nine months, but he was there when the decision needed to be made. Will we allow these Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians in?

"And he decided that, yes, he would, despite the fact that his government was so precarious. We will go against the polls. We will go against the wishes of a majority of Canadian people because this is the right thing to do."

Prime Minister Joe Clark had his hands full as he was greeted by supporters in London, ON, Dec. 18, 1979. Clark was sworn in as Canada's youngest prime minister, a day before his 40th birthday on June 4, 1979. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Living up to the fantasy

In The Devil's Trick, Boyko argues that in the decades since the war, Canada has changed — and lessons from the debates about Canada's involvement, shaped the country today.

"The lessons that we have, basically... changed our soul. That is, we learned that we are Canadians and should be proud of being Canadians, not just anti-Americans."

When it comes to money, Boyko added, it would be hypocritical to say the country is against war as Canada did profit from war through arms sales. 

But he added the biggest lesson learned is becoming a country that cares.

"The Vietnam War also taught us something about our hearts, because it said that if young people wish to avoid a war like the draft dodgers, if the refugees from war want to leave and escape to someplace better, such as Canada, then maybe we should see it in our hearts to allow that to happen." 

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder

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