I had applied for the conscientious objector classification being firmly opposed to participation in the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam, but that was refused by my local draft board in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. after the U.S. Attorney General’s office decided I was not a pacifist and therefore not eligible for that recognition according to their narrow guidelines.
My opposition was based on the fact that the U.S. had violated the U.N. Charter by not following its steps on resolving a conflict before it ostensibly retaliated against an act of aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin, later shown to have been a total fabrication.
My subsequent departure from the United States in 1967 for Canada was neither ordinary nor easy for several reasons. In the first place I was attempting to create some type of mooring in a country after travelling from nation to nation for my entire life as a child and adolescent. Born in Sweden but of German nationality, I came to Canada early on when my father was the West German representative to this new country, then on to Brazil, and finally to the U.S. in 1958 where he served as the W. German observer to the United Nations.
While the travel was indeed a great benefit, making new friends and adjusting to a new country’s culture was a challenge with each move. The decision to leave the U.S. during the Vietnam war was made all the more difficult because I had become a devoted human rights activist by the time I began university. In fact, I spent as much time at teach-ins and at anti-war demonstrations as I did in the classroom (which in fact got me reclassified as eligible draft material after I lost my full-time student status).
While leaving for a non-American seemed to be a way out of complicity in a very hellish and bellicose U.S. policy, it also felt like I was being pushed out of a crucial arena of social activism. I felt I was turning my back on a commitment to oppose the war with so many people I had come to admire and love. We also sensed that our activism might turn the tide and end a bloody war no one I knew believed in.
The alternative to returning to Canada would be prison for refusing to enter the military or likely deportation from the U.S. after the c.o. appeal would be turned down and after I would have been sentenced and then again offered the choice to leave prison and the U.S.
Deliberating on my options and with the urging of my parents, the idea that I might be able to continue my anti-war work from across the border was becoming something that appeared increasingly acceptable. I belonged to those who felt that one could do as much, if not more, social change outside of prison, though Joan Baez disagreed at the time when she came to speak to American exiles in Canada.
Soon after my arrival in Montreal, I learned that I was barred from re-entering the U.S. The Immigration and Naturalization Act stated that if a non-U.S. citizen left the country in time of war or national emergency to avoid military service he would not be able to come back either as visitor or resident. I learned that I was barred from re-entry to visit my family and friends because the U.S. was still technically in a state of national emergency…. No, not because of Vietnam (Congress never declared war) but, as the lady at the U.S. consulate advised, because the state of national emergency declared during the Korean conflict had never been lifted!
My lessons about U.S. politics kept on coming. The American government’s arrogance of power was to be made known to me through the subsequent delinquency notice sent to me, a German national, residing in Canada. While that prevented me from freely crossing the border for a number of years, it was another breathtaking legislative act in the U.S. that allowed me to resume my visits once I read how the Carter pardon included non citizens in my situation. Yes, I, a German national, living in Canada, was suddenly pardoned by an American president!
With the end of the war I shifted my attention to fighting poverty and became a leader of a welfare rights group with the Greater Montreal Anti-Poverty Coordinating Committee. From there it was back into university to complete an undergraduate degree in social work at McGill followed by a masters degree and then my doctorate work on violence against women at the Université de Montréal.
My social activism continues with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Vancouver and through my union, the Kwantlen Faculty Association, as representative to the Human Rights and International Solidarity Committee of the Federation of Post Secondary Educators of B.C. as well as my recent appointment to B.C. Labour Against War.
I strongly believe that we must do all we can to preserve a Canadian tradition that has historically, albeit unevenly, provided refuge for conscientious objectors so we may have the opportunity to learn all we can from these courageous men and women. In the words of historian Dr. Howard Zinn: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty.”