It all started when some artists, academics and American expatriates in the charming British Columbian city of Nelson, in the Kootenay Mountains, announced plans to host a reunion of American draft-dodgers and their Canadian supporters. The "courageous legacy" left by these Vietnam-era activists would be commemorated in 2006 with a concert, the premiere of a documentary, a play and a series of lectures. The centrepiece of the whole affair would be the unveiling of a melancholy bronze statue, depicting a naked draft-dodger being welcomed by two naked Canadians.
The next thing you know, the notoriously rabid Fox Network is whipping Americans into a frenzy. The 2.4-million-member U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars is shouting itself hoarse and demanding that President Bush somehow put a stop to the "abomination" planned for Nelson. The radio talk-show hosts go nutty. There were headlines in American newspapers from the Tuscaloosa News and the Raleigh Star to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and the Washington Post. Even the BBC News took notice.
Soon, the City of Nelson, echoing the stance adopted by the local chamber of commerce, declared that it wanted no part of the tribute because it was "highly divisive in nature." No city funds would be spent and no weird statue with naked hippies would appear on city property because the whole idea lacked "widespread community support." Then the reunion organizers announced that maybe Nelson wouldn't be the best place to host the event, after all.
The Vietnam War ended roughly 30 years ago. I was little more than a kid, so my memory might be a little fuzzy, but I recall no lack of widespread community support in British Columbia for the proposition that what the Americans were doing in Vietnam was unconscionable butchery. True, there were differences between people who merely wanted peace, and those of us who dearly hoped for a crushing, brutal and humiliating defeat of all American occupation forces throughout Indochina. But there certainly wasn't much "divisive" about those differences.
Then, Nelson mayor Dave Elliott and city councilor Ian Mason shed some light on the nature of the misgivings certain Nelson residents were harbouring. Elliott confided that he'd been flooded with e-mails from Americans threatening to wage a tourist boycott of the area. Mason warned that local ski-hill businesses, which rely heavily on American tourists, were at risk of "certain economic disaster." A bit hyperbolic -- and evidence of an embarrassing slavishness, maybe -- but at least there was some candour coming from Nelson's city-council chambers.
More than anything, though, the rumpus-making in Nelson casts a cold and harsh light on certain troubling questions about how Canadians have come to conduct themselves in relation to American sensibilities and American power. It's enough to make you wonder whether one aspect of the "courageous legacy" left by Vietnam-era expatriates in Canada is a narrowing of our options. We can side with belligerent American Republicans and keep the ski hills running, or we can side with American liberal Democrats, and feel suitably pious and superior.
During last summer's election campaign, the federal New Democratic Party quite properly and clearly stated its intention to counter those forces pulling Canada deeper into the American orbit. Then, just days before the vote, famous American consumer rights' activist and independent presidential hopeful Ralph Nader, along with left-wing American filmmaker Michael Moore, paid Canada a visit. Both offered leftish advice to Canadian voters. New Democrats beamed gleefully.
Try to imagine how NDP leader Jack Layton would have responded if ultra-conservative American filmmaker Mel Gibson, say, had travelled to Canada with, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to warn Canadian voters against electing socialists.
American influence in Canada's political culture is okay, apparently, so long as it's not of a Republican kind. That is what one might conclude from the angry correspondence that quickly filled letters-to-the-editor trays in newsrooms across B.C. when the Nelson controversy erupted. The call-back lines to CBC Radio in Vancouver were jammed.
No one can deny that the Vietnam war- resisters who fled to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s made enormous contributions to Canadian cultural and political life. This is true even though about half of them returned to the United States under President Jimmy Carter's 1977 amnesty program. Even Corky Evans, who was Nelson's MLA until the last provincial election, was an American immigrant of that generation. A delightful, thoughtful man, Evans ran twice for the leadership of the provincial New Democrats. He could have been B.C.'s premier.
But questions persist. We have been told, time and again, about the important part American war-resisters played in bringing the Vietnam carnage to an end. That's an argument the Nelson reunion organizers were intent upon reiterating. But here's one of those troubling questions: Didn't hundreds of thousands of martyred Indochinese guerillas play some rather important part in ending the war as well? Where is their monument?
It remains very much an open question, from a Canadian nationalist perspective, whether it was wise for Canadians to have been so welcoming of American draft-resisters and the ideas they brought with them. How much of Canada's irrational antagonism to defence spending can be attributed to the influence of Vietnam-era American liberal pieties? What of our tragic descent into U.S.-style "identity" politics? What of the narrowing of the Canadian left's historic mission to an obsessive preoccupation with public health-care funding?
These are unsettling questions, especially in places such as the Kootenays, where so many American draft-resisters settled, as they also did in B.C.'s Gulf Islands, where I live.
After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, a new wave of gun-shy Americans began washing up on our shores. Good and decent people, like their predecessors, true enough. But after the horror of September 11, 2001, that wave became a flood.
Throughout the islands, and all around the Strait of Georgia, wealthy American liberals started buying up every scrap of land they could. They have unwittingly contributed to a debilitating gentrification of communities all along the Sechelt Peninsula. On Saltspring Island, hundreds of young islanders can't even afford to rent a house, let alone buy one or build one, on the island where they were born. Last year on Mayne Island, where I live, one out of every five real-estate sales involved an American.
Now, throughout Canada, Kerry campaign organizers are busy trying to convince the half-million-or-so American citizens living in this country to exercise their absentee-voting rights to help oust Bush. The Canadian left cheers them on.
If Bush wins, the re-establishment of conscription is a very real possibility. But should Canada again provide a safe haven for Americans who flee the draft? Should we allow the White House such a convenient way to rid the U.S. of its dissidents? We're already providing ample refuge to a new generation of American liberals who can afford to flee. Is Canada fated to become a "gated community" for wealthy American Democrats?
Kerry, meanwhile, has pledged to abandon Bush-style unilateralism and more vigorously conscript America's allies in the "war on terror." This might sound vaguely pleasing to Canadians. But doesn't it also raise the prospect of an administration in the White House that will be hell-bent on dragging Canadian soldiers to Baghdad?
These are impolite questions, but they are questions unavoidably raised by the ruckus in Nelson. It's high time we started asking them, as Canadians, of ourselves.
Terry Glavin is a B.C. author, critic and journalist. His most recent book, The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean, won the 2001 Hubert Evans Prize. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books, and lives on Mayne Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.