In 1969, I was a University of Toronto student sharing a house in the Kensington Market area of Toronto with other students. All of us were Americans. I was not yet a landed immigrant in Canada, but I soon became landed. The Vietnam War was shaking up our lives in very unpleasant ways, and we believed – implicitly most of the time – that little short of a revolution could restore our lives to a state of domestic tranquility. The world was developing in ways that made it unlike the comfortable milieu we had seen in shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. What if it turned out that Father didn’t know anything?
The rich colours and flavours of the Kensington Market ensured that our lives were full of colors and a variety of rich flavors, and, most of the time, I enjoyed the neighborhood and did not worry a lot about the turbulence of the wider world. There were wonderful Portuguese and Jewish bakeries like Permutter’s and Lottman’s and lavishly supplied cheese emporiums on Kensington Ave. Grossman’s Tavern served as a local beverage house. The transformation of Baldwin St. into an interesting cultural center, which would happen because of initiatives by U.S. draft dodgers and their friends, had not yet occurred. There were still shows at the Victory Burlesque at the corner of Spadina and Dundas. I went once myself because, even though I was a woman who supported “women’s lib” (as it was often called then), my consciousness was still not really raised.
For a while, we provided temporary housing for draft resisters and people who had left the U.S. armed forces (usually referred to as “deserters”). We did not talk very much about whether provision of housing to people we never met before was a good idea. We just took it for granted that this was an action that people living in Toronto should take. Most of the people we housed were deserters, not draft resisters. We didn’t talk much to the people who stayed with us. They were quiet and cooperative, and moved on within days. An RCMP officer did come to our house once because he wanted to talk to one of our guests, and I found this occurrence quite alarming. Nothing negative happened to our guest or to us as a result of the visit, however.
One of the residents of the house was a draft resister. My friend did not have to uproot himself and move across the border when he was drafted because he was already a student in Canada when he was drafted. His situation was easier than the plight of many draft resisters who had to make an abrupt move. Still, his decision was not at all easy because he had to turn down an attractive offer from a U.S. graduate school. He had to give up the idea of going home to see his parents across the border. Any idea he might have had about a bright professional future had to be shelved, at least temporarily, and reshaped at a later date.
Then there came an occasion when he felt that he had to cross the border to see his family. He borrowed someone’s ID to cross the border. At the time, borrowing ID did not seem a crazy or impossible step, though of course it would be now. Most people of our age had had some experience of borrowing ID to purchase alcoholic beverages, and using ID to cross the border did not seem very different, though of course it was completely different! I believed that it was very unlikely that anything could go wrong. As it turned out, I was mistaken. His father ended up driving him back to Canada very quickly when his family members got the impression that inquiries were being made.
As I reflect on this experience now, a couple of insights occur to me. One is that the people who crossed the border were courageous. Draft resisters, whose only previous infractions may have been high school demerits and traffic tickets, made the choice to become law breakers. This choice drastically changed the course of their lives, at least for a while. Many draft resisters and deserters settled permanently in Canada and developed rewarding personal and professional lives. Their resistance has become a distant bump on the horizon as they look back on their lives. Still, it was a very big bump at the time.
As I look back, I am also surprised at how little people who resisted or deserted seemed to agonize about their decisions. I suppose that this ability to take swift action is one of the advantages of youth. We never asked ourselves: “Suppose this is a just war that can be won?” Maybe it is just as well that we did not ask the question, because it turned out that we were right that the Vietnam War was not a war that we should support.
The author of this story wishes to stay anonymous.