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Interview: uncovering the history of the anti-draft movement

By: 
Jesssica Squires

November 14, 2013

On November 18, author and anti-war activist Jessica Squires will be launching her book “Building sanctuary” in Toronto, as a fundraiser for the War Resisters Support Campaign. Socialist.ca asked her a few questions.
 
Why did you want to write this book?
Originally for my doctoral thesis I had planned on writing on a different topic. But at the time I was involved in the anti-war movement and the movement to support Iraq war resisters. I got interested in the similarities and differences between the movement then and the movement now.
 
The Immigration Canada website removed references to Vietnam War resisters. Why is this history important to study?
Some believe the reason they removed it is because they want to change the image of Canada from one of a so-called "peaceable kingdom" to one more explicitly militaristic. But actually Canada was never a peaceable kingdom—that’s a myth I'm interested in uncovering and exploring in my book. I think this history is more important because of what it tells us about how a social movement, even a very small one, can be effective and have a significant impact on public policy.
 
Trudeau famously declared Canada should be a refuge from militarism. Was this always his attitude towards war resisters, and if not what did it take to change his mind?
Actually Trudeau never said that. That quote is an amalgam of two quotes, both taken from quite late in the period—and after the border was opened to US deserters, a move only taken following a coordinated campaign by the Canadian anti-draft movement. The campaign was characterized by media strategies, lobbying, letter-writing, petitions, and publicity stunts. In the context of heightened awareness about the war, the media paid attention and public opinion was swayed. The rules were changed in May of 1969. Before and after that moment, draft dodgers and deserters both experienced and continued to experience discrimination and suspicion at border points. There were built-in structural obstacles for deserters that also continued—such as the points system, which was biased against people from lower-income backgrounds.
 
The Harper government claims Iraq War resisters are different because they enlisted, whereas all Vietnam War resisters were conscripts. Can you comment on this supposed dichotomy?
Even at the beginning of the period some of the Vietnam war resisters were deserters. As the years passed the pendulum swung back the other way. By 1969 or 1970 a large proportion of the resisters were deserters, and not all of them enlisted. Many had originally volunteered, rather than been drafted, and for much the same reasons as people sign up today: to get access to good education, health care, etc. The main difference between then and now is government policy on both sides of the border. There is no draft in the US, but there is a poverty draft. In Canada, immigration has become progressively more difficult since the early 1970s. 
 
What inspiration did you learn from the previous movement that can help the current movement to support war resisters?
A small movement can make a difference! It isn't easy or automatic, but it can be done. The movement then, as now, was made up in large part of Canadians who saw the act of war resistance as political, no matter what the motives of those who came. The individual act of coming to Canada added up to a small but important part of the broader draft resistance movement. It was, at its heart, an international solidarity movement.
 
How can people get a copy of your book?
There is a book launch event in Toronto on November 18, where I will have copies of the trade paperback edition available. I will also have copies available at the Canadian Peace Alliance convention in Toronto. You can order the hardcover from UBC press. I would also suggest requesting it at your local library! It will be available in bookstores early next year.
 
Join the “Building Sanctuary” war resisters fundraiser and book launch, Monday November 18, 6pm at the Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil Street, Toronto.

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