Canada Then and Now

When I read the account (“Canada invited Chelsea Manning to country just so she could be thrown out”, Guardian, October 7, 2021) of the planned removal of Chelsea Manning from Canada, should she show up at a hearing in Montreal, I thought of how welcoming Canada had been to war resisters during the Vietnam War.

Manning is the whistleblower who leaked documents to WikiLeaks about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her admirable actions and released in 2017 by then-President Barack Obama. If a person attempts to enter Canada for an offense that may have been punishable by a sentence of 10 years or more, that person can be barred from entry into Canada and thrown out of the country.

Canada has been the stepchild of US policy, both foreign, domestic, and especially economic. While a somewhat more liberal Western Europe social order is present in Canada, its proximity to the US has often cast Canada in the subservient role to the dictates of US policy.

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War (the US war had begun in 1964 and would end in 1975), Canada was the refuge of countless numbers of men and women who resisted that war through either draft or military resistance and were often accompanied by significant others or friends. A Trudeau, Pierre, was the prime minister of Canada, as is a Trudeau now, Justin. But times have changed and so dramatically in some ways that the differences between the US and Canada seem less than they have ever been. Canada often supports US hegemony over the globe. Canada’s dependence on fossil fuel production and its treatment of its indigenous citizens is nearly a mirror-like reflection of the US.

In April 1969, a relative and I headed north to Canada from New England on a school vacation. I had just returned from basic and advanced training in the army and wanted to visit some people who had emigrated to Canada in resistance to the Vietnam War.

Canada was such a welcoming place then that I have great difficulty imagining a political climate in which they could lure a heroic whistleblower to the same city we visited decades ago intending to eject that person from the country.

That the world was objectively different in some ways in 1969 was evident in Montreal. We left the campus of McGill University, where I had been accepted as a graduate student in 1969, but did not go, and walked a few blocks to a housing clearinghouse. Through that facility, we received a number of referrals that allowed us to stay with hosts in private residences during our stay in the city. Not to discount the ease with which people interacted, we found the same sense of camaraderie when we returned to the US several days later and were housed at a private residence in Portland, Maine. The world was not perfect during that era, but it was certainly a more welcoming place. Try to imagine the same simple acceptance that we found in those days to today and it would be like awakening to a nightmare where everything is commodified and suspicion is rampant.

Critics may say that it’s unfounded nostalgia to glorify the past, but that is not the intent here. Those who bucked the government were treated harshly in both eras, then and now, but there was something that the poet Kenneth Rexroth, writing of yet another era, said in “Fish Peddler and Cobbler”: “Something invisible was gone”.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).