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Do Draft Dodgers Like Me Need a Monument?

The Nelson ruckus makes me wonder who is truly deserving of a memorial.

By Don Gayton 5 Oct 2004 |
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A local group in Nelson has announced plans to erect a memorial to American draft dodgers who moved to Canada during the Vietnam era. Predictably, the proposal set off intense and opposing reactions. Nelsonites do love their politics, and so good times are being had by all.

As one of those draft dodgers and now a proud Canadian citizen, I have mixed feelings. If such a memorial were to be erected anywhere in the country, Nelson or the West Kootenays would certainly be the place, because of the large draft dodger contingent here. These young American war resisters were attracted by liberal politics, cheap land, and the pacifist views of the local Doukhobor and Quaker communities. Nobody knows how many there are. As I am part of that cohort, I can usually pick them out through the nuances of lingering accents, dress and lifestyle.

I am sure many of the draft dodgers feel as I do about the memorial, that we don't need any external validation for the decision we made; it was right for us, and that's that. In the unlikely event that there were remnants of self-doubt within the draft dodger community, I'm sure they evaporated the day American forces landed in Iraq.

Fear of offending Americans

The great fear among the Nelson business community is that American tourists will be offended by this political statement, shun us, and take their greenbacks elsewhere. However many Americans are fairly vague about the actual precise location of British Columbia, and those actually wishing to shun us would first have to find Nelson on a map.

Coincidentally, I returned to Seattle for a 40th high school reunion during the draft dodger memorial crisis, and it offered me more food for thought. I left Seattle right after high school, did a few years of university, spent three years in Colombia with the Peace Corps, became a conscientious objector, and then moved to Canada. So I was seeing my classmates for the first time after four decades. A typical conversation would begin like this: "Oh, so you're Don Gayton. What have you been doing all this time?" "Well, I was a draft dodger," I would reply. "I moved to Canada and became an ecologist." To which the typical response was: "Gee, I'd love to talk about that, but I'm double-parked." Or, "I'm just going to nip over to the bar and get a refill." Or, "I can't hear a thing over all this racket."

After a few of these reunion encounters I was on a roll, and started approaching the most Republican-looking types I could find, to introduce myself and tell my story. It was great sport for a while, until I spotted the Dearly Departed display, with pictures of people no longer with us. Five of my classmates died in Vietnam. I had heard that previously, through the grapevine, but actually seeing the pictures of those fresh young faces -- three black, two white -- was heartrending. Those faces will forever be a sensitive touchstone for me. Politics aside, did my courage and my convictions match theirs? Could I put conscientious objection, war resistance and the Peace Corps on some kind of moral balance beam, and compare it to their sacrifice? Damn Johnson and Nixon for forcing such heavy choices on our fresh young minds.

Love it and left it

Expatriate Americans have a curious role in Canada. For the most part they try very hard to blend in. People of other nationalities tend to gravitate toward each other in specific Canadian cities and neighborhoods, but expat Americans do just the opposite. You will never find an ethnic enclave of Americans. I think there is a kind of expatriate cultural embarrassment over the magnitude of America's role in Canada's culture, and we avoid doing anything personally that might draw attention to or magnify that role.

I have been to many multicultural festivals in my three decades in Canada, but I have yet to see an American booth. I often fantasize what one might be like. The ethnic food served at such a booth would be cheeseburgers, French fries, and ketchup. Everyone would be wearing the national dress: blue jeans and T-shirts. Cultural dances like the Twist and the Philly Dog would be performed. While you eat your hamburger, you could leaf through informative vessels of American culture like People, USA Today, and the National Enquirer. Of course there would be American flags everywhere.

I speculate often on my Americanness. Even though I bitterly reject its politics, when I travel down south of the 49, I'm like a salmon. I know I'm in home water; I can taste it, feel it and smell it, particularly when I'm in the rural areas.  But just when I'm getting comfortable I'll see a John Birch billboard: "America, Love it or Leave." I guess I've done both.

Truly deserving

If there is to be any draft dodger memorial at all, it should be to the Canadians: to the federal Government, which in classic Canadian style, quietly and unofficially facilitated the draft dodger movement, and to the people that ran the "underground railroad," maintained the safe houses, and helped those young men get a start in a new country.

For us draft dodgers, the greatest tribute would be for Canada to re-commit to its honorable traditions as a peacekeeper nation.

Don Gayton is an ecologist in Nelson, B.C., and the author of The Wheatgrass Mechanism, and Landscapes of the Interior, which won the U.S. National Outdoor Book Award.   [Tyee]

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