Joe Erickson and the New Underground Railroad

Joe had a decision to make. It was 1968. He was married and a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. As required by law, he had registered with the United States Selective Service System. The Vietnam War was escalating. Joe and Mary agreed that he would not fight in a war which they believed was morally wrong. He could portray himself as a conscientious objector but that would be a lie. He could go to prison. But there was a third option. After many long and difficult discussions, he and Mary decided that they would escape to Canada.

            In March, Joe and Mary packed what little they had into their old Chevy and drove north. They watched with great relief as the Canadian border agent stamped their forms and wished them luck. Hours later, with the sun setting, they pulled into Winnipeg; a city in which neither knew a soul. Joe had become a thief, having stolen government property by depriving the state of his body.

(Photo credit unknown)

            Joe had joined an army of those rejecting the army. Many moved to rural and remote areas, living alone or in small groups of resister enclaves while others formed communes. Most though, settled in cities and most of them, like Joe after a couple of years, ended up in or near Toronto.

            Many war resisters, like Joe and Mary, made the trek and settled on their own. Thousands of others were helped by resister organizations. Canada’s most influential resister support group was formed at the University of Toronto in 1964 as The Student Union for Peace Action. The ongoing waves of resisters shifted its focus from protesting nuclear proliferation to helping young Americans to settle and find work. In 1966 it became the Toronto Anti-Draft Program.

            Many resisters found that adjustment to Canadian life led to heartaches, regret, and, for some, clinical depression. Some experience trivial problems akin to the discomforts felt by American tourists discovering that corner stores didn’t sell Marlboro cigarettes or beer. Resister Jack Todd later wrote that his compatriots initially assumed that Vancouver’s overall quiet, gentleness, and politeness were insincere but that they learned to accept and enjoy it. They adopted Canadian idiosyncrasies such as celebrating Thanksgiving in October and adding the letter ‘u’ to words like colour and neighbour. They agreed, though, that it would be time to leave if they ever fell into the Canadian habit of ending sentences with “eh?”.

Resisting the Resisters

While many Canadians, especially church groups, welcomed the resisters, others did not. A 1968 poll indicated that 58% of Canadians believed war resisters should not be allowed into the country. Many Canadians saw them as even more dangerous than the growing number of long-haired young people with odd clothes and annoying music because they were outsiders. Like so many of the rebellious children, the appearance, actions, and very presence of these hordes of young Americans seemed to be tearing down the old while offering nothing new.

            Toronto Mayor William Dennison spoke for many when he said in 1968, “A few hippies and deserters are Toronto’s only problem.” Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell said on CBC TV: “We’ve got a scum community, that have organized, have decided to grow long hair, and decided to pretend to be hippies…Half of them are American draft dodgers who won’t even fight for their own country.”

            The number of draft dodgers and deserters who settled in Canada has been estimated at between 40,000 to 60,000. When, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty, American film crews rushed to the border to film the mass exodus back home. They were disappointed. Some returned. Most, however, like Joe Erickson, were already home.

            Joe and a friend had formed a company specializing in the restoration of pre-Confederation rural historic buildings. Joe and Mary split but he found love again. He eventually settled on a southern Ontario farm where he renewed his love of theatre and horses. Like the thousands of others, he was changed by Canada and, in turn, the massive influx of so many predominantly well-educated young people had changed Canada. They had forced Canadians to consider who they were and who they wished to be.

            In September 2012, Joe was at the American border on the way to a high school reunion. The guard looked at Joe’s Canadian passport and frowned. Joe was in his 60s and the 60s was seeking revenge. Joe was about to experience the shock of his life.

(Erickson’s story and that of the war resisters is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

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