Each year about 9,000 people migrate to Canada from the US and that figure has held steady for several years (“‘An alternative exists’: US citizens who vowed to flee to Canada-and did,” Guardian, February 1, 2016). The number of searches about migration on the search engine Google has risen sharply during periods of political uncertainty such as at the inception of the US war against Iraq, after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, and following Trump’s election victory in 2016. The searches on search engines must have soared during Trump’s insane performance in the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020.
Many who have strong political beliefs, or who have been involved in social movements, make powerful statements about leaving the US during seismic changes that usually begin and end in places like coffee shops when the coffee has been paid for and consumed.
A scene in Fiddler on the Roof, when the Jews in a Russian shtetl leave following a pogrom, typifies an exodus forced upon innocent people by political forces. Bob Dylan says it well in Chimes of Freedom: “Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight.”
The riveting image of a refugee child washed up on the beach is unforgettable (“Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show magic plight of refugees,“ Guardian, September 2, 2015)! Three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s family was trying to reach Canada.
There are people from the cauldron of unrest in Central America in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, countries in the crosshairs of US foreign and military policy who have sought refuge in the US and have been subjected to the horror of family separation and the denial of the human right of asylum.
Musicals and pop music aside, deciding to leave a country because of political repression or the perceived threat of political repression is not a matter for spurious remarks at coffee shops. With global hostility against refugees at a high level and refugees caught in refugee camps and ICE jails in the US, the prospect of seeking asylum or protection in another country is the most serious kind of human decision. It is the most unkind of worlds out there.
During the Vietnam War, I considered leaving the US for Canada twice. The first was in 1969, when I was accepted at McGill University for graduate school and I had the US government breathing down my back as the prospect of the draft entered every waking moment of every day. The next time that I considered leaving the US was in 1971, when I became a war resister. Both times I had visited Canada, the first to Montreal and the second to a small town about 90 miles north of Ottawa in the province of Ontario. The Canadian Broadcasting Company produced a series about many who left the US during the Vietnam era, and the life people led may have carried high moral purpose, but the reality at ground level was often far less exciting. If a person left without the support of family or a significant other to accompany him (this was a male phenomenon), then the feeling of being adrift and alone was very real, although there were organizations in the US and Canada which gave material help to war resisters.
The Vietnam Full Disclosure project of Veterans for Peace does an exemplary job portraying war resistance during the Vietnam War:
… two recent documentary films broadcast on Canadian television have featured the history of U.S. draft and military resisters in Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) aired Vietnam: Canada’s Shadow War in 2015. The Canadian History Channel broadcast Hell No, We Won’t Go in 2013. It is telling that the history of U.S. draft and military resisters has been told better and more respectfully in Canada than in the United States (“Anti-Vietnam War Resisters in Canada,” April 2, 2018).
In Montreal, I met with war resisters and it was depressing and left much despair as to the suffering of those who made the choice to leave the US. In Ontario, I stayed with the son of a family with whom my family was close. He had become an expatriate after spending time in the military and becoming disenchanted with US society during the Vietnam era.
I never left, but fought the battle against militarism here. I sometimes think about what life would have been like had I gone to Canada. About 50,000 (the exact number of people is impossible to calculate) men and women left the US during the Vietnam War, about half of those people accompanying a war resister from either the draft or the military. Thousands of people returned because of the amnesty program during the Carter administration, but thousands stayed. I’m often floored because of the fact that so many people accompanied war resisters they cared about in an example of human solidarity that is exemplary!
Ten years ago a veteran of the Vietnam War told me that he would have liked to have stood on the border between the US and Canada during the Vietnam War and shot at resisters. Much of the current outrageous polarization in the US because of decades of neoliberal and far right policies has engendered the kinds of behavior and concepts that have as an aim the death of one’s adversaries.
Only days after Trump was inaugurated in 2016, the US Holocaust Museum published “The 12 Early Warning Signs of Fascism” (Washington Monthly, January 31, 2017). Readers know now in the US that we’re already almost there! Any serious consideration of leaving the US for Canada needs to recognize the fact that the Canadian border is closed to movement by individuals.
For journalists, writers, and those who protest, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are symbols of shots fired across our bows.
We’re hammered with the Judeo-Christian admonition to love our enemies and “Do not send to ask for whom the bells tolls” (John Donne). Now that Trump has Covid-19 it may be time to cite May 2020 data that points to Trump’s policies causing “50 to 80 percent of deaths in New York” and “90 percent of all American covid-19 deaths…. attributed to the administration’s delay between March 2 and 16″ [in implementing principles for virus protection] (“Trump’s covid-19 inaction killed Americans. Here’s a counter that shows how many,” Washington Post, May 6, 2020).