Quill and Quire

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Hell No, We Won’t Go: Vietnam Draft Resisters in Canada

by Alan Haig-Brown, introduction by Pierre Berton

When its involvement in Vietnam escalated in 1964, the United States called upon increasing numbers of its young men to enlist in the armed forces. Those who refused had four options: they could become conscientious objectors, go to jail, go underground, or move to Canada. Thousands of Americans – estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000 – chose the latter course and, some 30 years later, many remain here as Canadian citizens.

A West Coast resident, Haig-Brown had several reasons for writing Hell No, We Won’t Go. He had encountered many former draft evaders in Vancouver and concluded they were doing interesting things and making a significant contribution to this country. He was curious about what led them to leave their country, with little hope of seeing family and friends again. He also wanted to leave for future generations a record of how and why one generation of youth acted from conviction and conscience.

The book contains 20 chapters, telling the stories of 18 men and two women. One story stands out from the others for sheer suspense. Mary Cleemput came to Canada with her doctor husband who was evading the draft. They settled in Newfoundland and had two children, then made the mistake of going back to the U.S. At the border, Cleemput’s husband was arrested. He agreed to sign on with the U.S. airforce to avoid trial but sought help from the Quakers. In the dead of night the couple fled, to cross the border into Canada a second time.

Few of the other stories are as exciting, and unfortunately, too many blur into each other. After all, these were 18-, 19-, 20-year-old university students who did not differ a great deal from their peers. With the exception of a couple of conscientious objectors and a couple of deserters, they left for many reasons, ranging from alcoholic parents to racial injustice – but not because of deep philosophical beliefs. This blurring of individual stories may be the result of Haig-Brown’s narrow focus. His sympathies clearly lie to the left of the political spectrum and most of the people he interviews fall into three groups: artists, academics, and community activists. Most, as he states, have made a significant contribution to Canada, but it is unfortunate that the book could not have been broadened to include draft evaders who have contributed in other areas – for example, business, retailing, and manufacturing.