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Monumental Lessons in Nelson

The draft dodger memorial flap, and what my town learned about war, peace, art and (some) Americans.

By Bill Metcalfe 12 Oct 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Please allow me to express my outrage at the citizens of Nelson proposing to celebrate dishonour. Honouring those that deserted the U.S. for sanctuary in Canada is a dishonour to those brave enough to go, and those braver still who refused to fight and stayed at home and faced prison. A monument to cowardice is silly. A monument honouring criminal behaviour is disgusting. A festival celebrating draft dodgers appears to be a lame attempt by cowards to slap each other on the back and pretend they are really misunderstood heroes. But silly people enjoying the benefits of a free society have the right to celebrate any way they choose, standing on the corpses of those brave enough to fight and die for their freedom.

That email was written by a resident of North Carolina in mid-September. It appeared on the electronic guest book on the City of Nelson’s website. It is one of a thousand letters and emails received by the city and the Chamber of Commerce after local resident Isaac Romano, speaking for a group called Our Way Home, announced plans for a conference of Vietnam draft dodgers in Nelson in 2006, and a memorial statue to be erected at the same time.

Here’s another typical quote, this one from a resident of Iowa: "Say what you want about us Yanks, you should know one thing, we're smarter than you, tougher than you, and we will kick your inbred ass.” Many of the writers threatened never to visit Nelson or Canada again.

This issue has provoked an extraordinary public discussion in Nelson about war, peace, Canada-U.S. relations, the power of the media, tourism, and public art. Many people have reacted very personally to it, and as a good example of that I highly recommend the recent article in the Tyee by Nelson writer Don Gayton, himself a Vietnam-era draft dodger.

Flood of hate mail

The controversy started because Fox News got wind of what Mayor Dave Elliott said when the project was announced, and they really liked it. Elliot has since said he was speaking personally and not as mayor when he off-handedly spoke approvingly of the project proposal, and he says he was agreeing with the conference, not the statue. Fox’s news broadcast of Elliott’s comments triggered an American hate-mail assault on Nelson led by several conservative American websites and the group Veterans of Foreign Wars, who appealed to President Bush to censure Canada for this insult.

In response to the emails, there was panic in Nelson among many people who thought the monument and the controversy would hurt tourism.  Others were simply alarmed by the rude and aggressive language of the letters from the U.S. So the City of Nelson posted on its website a declaration that the city was not involved, and passed a resolution that there would be no public funding for monuments that did not have broad public support. In the meantime, the pro- and anti-monument debate grew within the city of Nelson, and letters started to come in, first from Canada, then from the U.S., supporting the project.

I interviewed Mayor Elliot about this issue on Nelson Before Nine on Kootenay Co-op Radio, after he’d spent the previous couple of days talking to major media outlets all over the continent. Commenting on those interviews he told me, “When I explain to them these are war resisters and that this is what veterans fought for in past wars, fought for freedom of speech, they begin to turn around and think about that, and I also tell them Nelson is the most livable city in the interior of B.C. and what a great tourism town we are, and we are a very liberal and open minded and we like anybody to come here. The interviews are very positive and I think the tide has turned.” Elliot speculated that this controversy will be good for the city because now millions more people have heard of Nelson.

Elliott’s next media interview after mine was with Fox News, up from Seattle to follow up their original story.  Elliott told me he intended to ask them for an apology for misrepresenting the project as one sponsored by the City even after they had been told this was not the case. After that follow-up interview with Elliott, Fox then reported that the City of Nelson is now backing off its original plan to build a draft dodger monument because of dissent from the U.S. and Canada. Then they quoted George Bowering, Poet Laureate of Canada, from his letter of support for the project printed in the Nelson Daily News the day Fox was in town.

Controversy still not over

From my point of view as a radio journalist covering it, this issue has been fascinating because of its multifaceted nature and also because it has been so capricious: several  times we’ve thought it was over or that we understood the issues, but something new always comes along to rejuvenate the debate.

On October 5, for example, everything changed again. Isaac Romano, the local organizer of Our Way Home called a press conference. At the speakers table with Romano was Our Way Home member and Vancouver historian Jeff Schutts, along with a teenage boy in a backwards baseball cap. Romano and Schutts announced that the monument would now be a monument to peace and refuge, honouring Canada’s role as a place of refuge from all wars. Romano said the conference and monument would not necessarily be in Nelson and that groups and individuals in other communities had expressed interest.

Then Schutts introduced 19-year old Brandon Hughey, who recently deserted the U.S. army and is applying for refugee status in Canada. His hearing is later this month. Hughey told us he is here because he doesn’t want to kill innocent civilians and he doesn’t want to go to prison. This was the Our Way Home group making the connection between Vietnam and Iraq explicit.

Near the end of the press conference everyone, including the organizers, got an interesting surprise. Someone circulated a press release from Vietnam Veterans in Canada, which outlined that group’s plans to have a conference in Nelson on the same weekend as the Our Way Home conference. Everyone assumed this would be an attempt to discredit, disrupt, or compete with the war resisters’ gathering.

‘Night sweats, heart pounding’

I interviewed Woodrow Carmack and Jerry Flowers of Vietnam Veterans in Canada the next day on Nelson Before Nine. Carmack is an American who moved to Canada after the war, and Flowers is a Canadian who went south and volunteered for Vietnam. They explained they organize a gathering every couple of years, attended by several hundred veterans from both Canada and the U.S.

“Our main business is reaching out to veterans of the Vietnam War and trying to provide counselling services and access to benefits and programs,” said Carmack. “When the news broke of the proposed memorial to the war resisters we saw this as an ideal opportunity to draw people out and provide them with services. It’s not a counter-event. We saw it as North-America-wide publicity for our services.”

Carmack described the acute need the need for counselling services among Vietnam war veterans. “Our entire Board of Directors is disabled from post-traumatic stress disorder, and most of the membership too,” he said.

“I have a sleep disorder,” said Flowers. “I have a big-time startle reflex, I like to sit with my back to the wall in restaurants, I don’t like crowds, I wake up with night sweats, heart pounding.”

“Many times it’s the wife who brings these guys kicking and screaming to our events. She says,  ‘Look, this husband of mine needs help, he says he doesn’t need help, but I need you guys to talk to him and to talk to me as well.’ Then when they get there, the husband sees people just like himself….”

Flowers said they have gained one new member from the Nelson area as a result of the monument controversy.

What is public art?

When I asked them why they think the proposed monument to war resisters caused such controversy in the U.S., Carmack said, “Although by calendar date the Vietnam War is 30 years ago, for many people it was simply last night. It’s a current issue in their minds. It never goes away.” Carmack and Flowers told me that by having their conference at the same time as the war resisters conference, they hope to build bridges with “those who chose a different path.”

Meanwhile, on a more mundane level, this issue has provoked calls for a public art policy in Nelson. It turns out we may already have one, contained in the draft  report of the Arts, Culture and Heritage Task Force that has been waiting for months to be put on City Council’s agenda. Council has been divided over the monument issue, and presumably they’ll get time to consider public art policy when they decide to take a break from debating things like courage, conscience, international ethics, and commercial garbage collection.

Some people in Nelson are saying the monument controversy is a good thing. Nelson is already on the map as one of the best small arts towns in North America, and as the most livable city in the B.C. Interior. Now maybe we’ll become known as the town that can spur a more passionate continent-wide debate about war and peace than any other town of comparable size in Canada.

Bill Metcalfe, host of Nelson Before Nine on Kootenay Co-op Radio (KCR) , contributes regularly to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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