War Resistance in Canadian History: what you missed


On Friday, Brock hosted the grand finale of a conference about pacifism and desertion in wartime. The keynote speaker was Dr. Lara Campbell, a professor at Simon Fraser University and a leading expert in women and gender studies.

“I certainly think that most of us have been taught in one capacity or another that the experience of war or the waging of war is fundamental to Canadian identity and to Canadian history,” said Campbell. “This idea really isn’t new; traditional historical narratives chronicle the formation of Canada through the experience of war, particularly the first and the Second World War.”

The experience of war in Canadian history is so prolific that even our institution’s namesake is a war hero, Major General Sir Isaac Brock.

“Between 1966 and 1976 over 250,000 Americans immigrated to Canada with about 50,000 of that number moving as a direct act of resistance to the Vietnam war; that number includes women even though they couldn’t be drafted,” said Campbell.

Throughout the time period of the Vietnam war, Canada was in a unique position wherein draft dodgers and deserters — commonly viewed with disdain by other Americans, particularly for perceived cowardice and femininity — often sought safe haven in Canada. They saw the country as directly contrasting the perceived imperialism and corruption of the United States. For a number of years Canada did not express outright disapproval of U.S. interference in Vietnam due to its relationship with the States, though as the war went on, many Canadians could no longer ignore the atrocities that were taking place in the war and eventual calls were made for Canada to distance itself from the war the Americans were fighting.

“Many groups, particularly the Voice of Women, arose in direct protest to the war going on in Vietnam; some were passive and held peace vigils while others were more radical and held hunger strikes. These groups criticized Canada’s complicity in the Vietnam war mainly through the manufacture of war materials such as agent orange and napalm which were used to devastate Vietnam,” said Campbell.

Unsurprisingly, gender politics had a big impact on the anti-war movement in Canada. Women pioneered most of the Canadian anti-war movements, but often reported feeling underappreciated because of the heavy sexism of the time. Only American men could be drafted. Though the majority of Canadian immigrants from the U.S. were women, they were not as readily listened to as men were regarding the war.

“Much of the support work done for war resisters in Canada was actually undertaken by women but their contributions tend to get lost by historians because they tended to do these things as part of a husband and wife team,” said Campbell.

However, what does it truly mean to resist war? Depending on who you ask, some individuals will describe actions such as desertion and draft dodging as valid methods to combat war while others will say it is better to stay and have peaceful discussions and protests within the country. On the far end of the spectrum, some will condone radical acts of violence and chaos in order to protest wars. A big part of the problem faced by anti-war movements and studying resistance to war has to do with the fact that each set of people has their own ideals on acceptable forms of resistance. Through and through, Canada’s history with war resistance is important to analyze and adapt to present ways of thinking and modern attitudes towards war participation, whether directly or indirectly.

“A lot of important things are glossed over in Canadian military history,” said Campbell, “I think war resistance is just as important to the history of Canada because it asks us to think about how we have been complicit in wars that we don’t even participate in.”

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