Fred A. Bernstein

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Greetings from Resisterville

A town where Vietnam draft avoiders have made a difference

Published in The New York Times, November 20, 2004

The New York Times
November 21, 2004
Greetings From Resisterville

NELSON, British Columbia

IT has been more than 30 years since Irene Mock, who grew up on Long Island, celebrated Thanksgiving in November. In Canada the holiday falls on the second Monday in October. And Ms. Mock said she is definitely Canadian. "I came here to start a new life," she said.

At a time when more than a few unhappy liberals in the United States are rumbling about moving north - bombarding the Canadian immigration Web site, fantasizing about Toronto real estate - Ms. Mock and the expatriates in this town of 9,300 people on a 90-mile-long crystalline lake are proof it can be done.

But her move was no mere political protest. In 1970 she drove her boyfriend to Canada, so he could avoid arrest for evading the Vietnam draft. "Irene didn't want me to go to jail," said Jeff Mock, who is now a tofu maker in Nelson, 400 miles inland from Vancouver. "Irene is the reason I'm here, and being here changed my whole life."

In Nelson, which some say has the highest concentration of draft resisters in Canada, those men and the women who accompanied them say they rarely think of the events that made them cross the border 30 years ago. But then, as Ms. Mock put it, what happened in Nelson this fall "brought it all back."

What happened was that a local peace activist proposed a monument to honor the "courageous legacy" of American draft resisters. The idea provoked outrage in the United States, where the presidential election had reopened wounds of the Vietnam era. Then came calls to boycott Nelson.

"The negative reaction was so immediate and so forceful that everyone was stunned," said Don Gayton, a former high school football player from Seattle, who raised five children in Nelson after immigrating to Canada during the Vietnam War. Rumors that the United States might reinstate the draft because of the Iraq war have made the expatriates wonder if they might find a whole new wave of resisters on their doorsteps and whether they will be as welcoming as an earlier generation of Canadians were to them.

Ms. Mock, the former Irene Popkin-Clurman, grew up in Brookville on the north shore of Long Island. At Antioch College in Ohio she dated Mr. Mock, a Quaker from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. He refused to register for the draft. In 1970, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation looking for Mr. Mock, she drove him to Canada in a friend's Volkswagen bus.

After she finished college, they married and settled in Nelson. More than 50,000 draft-age Americans went to Canada during the Vietnam years, said John Hagan, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of "Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada" (Harvard, 2001). About half of them remain in Canada, Professor Hagan said, even though Jimmy Carter pardoned them in 1977.

"They have lost their sense of Americanness and overwhelmingly identify themselves as Canadians," Professor Hagan said.

Among the attractions of Nelson at the time was its history of war resistance. The surrounding Slocan Valley was settled in the teens of the last century by the Dukhobors, a sect of Christian pacifists who fled Russia to avoid serving in the Czar's army.

Thanks to the Dukhobors and the Vietnam draft resisters, who dotted the countryside with yurts and geodesic domes, the town has long been a haven for free spirits.

"It's quite a unique blend," said Alan Middlemiss, an owner of Holy Smoke, a store that sells marijuana in its "produce section." Selling marijuana is illegal in British Columbia but tolerated by local authorities as long as no minors are served. Mr. Middlemiss said it was the draft resisters who brought marijuana cultivation to the Slocan Valley.

If that's true -- no one can say for sure -- it was half a lifetime ago. Now mostly in their 50's, the expatriates are more likely to talk about how to pay for retirement in a town that has offered few conventional careers.

They seem especially proud of their community, which has more yoga instructors, organic bakers and acupuncturists than some large cities. "It fits me like an old blanket," Mr. Gayton, the former football player, said.

Mr. Mock, who has been divorced from Ms. Mock for more than 20 years, occasionally visits the United States. But on one trip 14 years ago, he had an accident that left him in a coma. In Canada he would have received free health care. In the United States treatment cost a fortune, he said over coffee at the All Seasons Cafe. He said he has never thought of moving back.

Isaac Romano, a peace activist who moved to Nelson from Seattle in 2001, befriended several of the resisters. "Among the right wing in the U.S. they are often stereotyped as cowards," he said. "It broke my heart to have to see this kind of ridicule to a population that has contributed so much" to Canada's tolerance and creativity.

Mr. Romano held a news conference to announce his idea for a large bronze monument in the form of a man and a woman greeted by a Canadian with outstretched arms.

He expected to get a small write-up in The Nelson Daily News. But the announcement found its way to American television, and within days Nelson was inundated with hate mail, much of it in the guest book section of the the town's Web site. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, with more than two million members in the United States, demanded that President Bush take up the issue with Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada.

A radio station in Spokane, Wash., three hours' drive south, called on Americans to boycott Nelson. Some skiers canceled trips to the area, said Roy Hueckendorff, the executive director of the local chamber of commerce.

"I've talked to people who lost fathers, brothers in Vietnam," Mr. Hueckendorff said. "The very idea that you would celebrate this is beyond their comprehension."

The city's mayor, Dave Elliott, supported the monument at first. But when business owners who depend on tourism expressed concern about the boycott, he decided that no public funds would be used for any monument lacking "broad public support."

That would appear to include the statue proposed by Mr. Romano. Mable Donaldson, a great-grandmother who has lived in Nelson for 50 years, said: "I know some of the draft dodgers, and they're very nice, decent people. But we also wouldn't want to offend our friends south of the border."

Ms. Donaldson said that when she and her husband, Stan, drove to Reno, Nev., this year with a Nelson sticker on their car, "We peeled it off so nobody would know where we were from."

But Mr. Romano's idea, which included a war resisters' festival in the summer of 2006 called the Our Way Home Reunion, made others proud. "It doesn't really matter if the monument is built," Ms. Mock said. "It's important that he's gotten people talking."

The festival, scheduled for July 7 and 8, 2006, may be, Mr. Gayton said, "like a class reunion, where people say, `I want to be counted, I want to be a part of this.' "

His own 40th high school reunion in Seattle this fall provided Mr. Gayton a chance to put his choices in perspective. Life in Nelson has not always been easy, he said. The city's last big private employer, a paper mill, closed in the 1980's. In Nelson, Mr. Gayton said, people tend to "cobble together two or three jobs just to get by."

The nearest major airport is in Spokane. A smaller airport in Castlegar, British Columbia, is fogged in so often locals call it Cancelgar. The valley is hard to drive out of for much of the winter. Jobs and schools are often far away. Mr. Gayton's wife, Judy Harris, has taken two of their children to Vancouver while she works on a master's degree in political science.

But there are plenty of attractions to life in Nelson. Nature has provided snowcapped mountains reflected in Kootenay Lake.

When the draft resisters first went to Nelson, Mr. Gayton said, some chose to live in the woods, often in communes. Mr. Mock explored one community, the New Family, which endorsed "free love," before putting down roots in town.

Mr. Gayton said his father disapproved of his decision not to go to Vietnam, and they were estranged for more than a decade. Eventually they started speaking again, but the bond between them was broken. "It was a tragedy for both of us," Mr. Gayton said, adding, "I know I'm not the only one who carried around that sense of loss."

Others went to Canada not knowing if they would ever be able to go home again. Ernest Hekkanen, now an author, publisher and painter, was wanted by the F.B.I. when he arrived in Canada in a friend's car in 1969, he said. Unlike some of the Vietnam-era �migr�s, who prefer terms like "draft resister," Mr. Hekkanen said, "I use the term `draft dodger' with pride."

There are also plenty of Vietnam veterans north of the border. When Mr. Romano's festival was announced, a group called Vietnam Veterans in Canada said it would hold a counterfestival in Nelson on the same dates. Mr. Hueckendorff of the Chamber of Commerce was afraid that the veterans and the pacifists would come to blows. But Mr. Romano approached the veterans, and now he says the two groups will coordinate their programs. "It will be a time for healing," Mr. Romano predicted.

Many of the resisters, who have teenage children, say they are glad to be in Canada during another controversial American war. "I was conscious when I had a son that he wouldn't be subject to a draft in the United States," said Ms. Mock, a nurse and writer. Mr. Mock, who has two teenage sons by his second wife, Renee Walter, a midwife, said simply, "I'm glad we're here." (Canada last had a draft in World War II.)

If a draft returns in the United States, Mr. Gayton said, he could see himself running "a kind of underground railroad" to help a new generation of resisters. But he and others worry that Canada, which in the 1960's and 70's did not ask about draft status at the border, would be less lenient next time. The United States, they say, would pressure Ottawa to turn away draft resisters.

If any get through, they will probably like Nelson. Mr. Mock, a genial man with a warm smile, would probably make extra tofu, and there is no telling what kind of deals Mr. Middlemiss of Holy Smoke would offer.

But one thing they will not see is a monument to those who went to Canada to avoid a draft before them. Mr. Romano, who continues to plan his festival, has put aside that idea to avoid further controversy. "It's a very special town, and I don't want anything to hurt it," he said.