Three Canadian Elections That Matter

Today is the 44th time we have gone to the polls to create a new parliament. Today, power shifts from them to us. Candidates preen and promise; glad-hand and grandstand, while the media shines its light on orchestrated pictures and silly distractions. But it’s our moment. In the end, when it counts, what counts is us. We decide.

            Today’s election matters because all elections matter. All campaigns reveal and some change who we are. Where we place our X later this month will determine a host of issues that will shape our future including how we emerge from a pandemic still wracking the world and the climate crisis that may wreck it. But this election could do even more than that.

            Let’s pause to ponder our moment by considering Canada’s three most important elections and the lessons they offer.

1926: Canadians or Colonials

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck, notoriously bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest person in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131 – but he refused to resign. With Governor General Byng’s grudging assent, King continued as prime minister.

Parliament resumed in January 1926. King remained in power through keeping the support of the Progressive Party, comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. In February, he won a by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and so he was back in the House in time to be attacked as corrupt due to customs department shenanigans. By the end of June, it appeared that his government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King sought to dodge the loss by asking the governor general to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled battle at Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around again by this pugnacious colonial. He said no. King resigned the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Now opposition leader, King asked if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had slyly shifted portfolios to avoid resigning and running for office again as ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. He moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. For the first time in Canadian history, a vote of non-confidence defeated a government. An election was set for September 23, 1926.

The campaign began like most with a scattergun of issues and concerns but it quickly coalesced to just one. Who governs Canada? Is it the British appointed governor general or the democratically elected Canadian prime minister? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was again at the centre of it all when a new, indignant nationalist pride swelled Canadian chests. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we? Are we Canadians or colonials?

King took the message to the country. Meighen began the campaign by speaking of tariffs and corruption but soon he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s fundamental question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats.

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference that adopted the Balfour Declaration. It led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster declaring that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers and Britain’s power merely ceremonial nostalgia. Canadians already knew; they had already made that decision.

1988: Bridges or Walls

Brian Mulroney had been ambitiously exploiting his thick rolodex, rich baritone, and Irish charm on the road to political leadership since he was a skinny teenager. In 1984, he led his Progressive Conservatives to an astounding 211 seats and a commanding majority. But his government was quickly mired in a succession of scandals. He needed a hail Mary pass to change the narrative.

In September 1985, a Royal Commission begun by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau issued its long- awaited report. Its analysis of economic problems and opportunities concluded that Canada should seek a comprehensive free trade agreement with the Americans.Despite having previously spoken against free trade, Mulroney became a convert. Canadian and American trade negotiators threw away all tariffs and trade barriers then fought over a litany of exceptions. They initialled the 194-page deal in October 1987.

The House of Commons ratification debate was raucous. Silver-haired Liberal leader John Turner had recently been prime minister for ten weeks and wanted the big chair back. He attacked not free trade but the agreement saying, “This is not a trade deal with merely lower tariffs. It goes beyond that. It’s the Sale of Canada Act.” Just before the summer break, the Conservative majority saw the agreement’s easy passage. But Turner had a trick left up his pinstriped sleeve. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Senate to block the free trade bill. He argued that because it would fundamentally change Canada, an election should be called to allow Canadians to have their say. Mulroney acquiesced and voting day was set for November 21, 1988.

Mulroney tried to make the seven-week campaign about his leadership but Turner said it was about Canada’s sovereignty; it was about Canada’s survival. The campaign came down to two key moments. First, a Liberal television ad showed imaginary American free trade negotiators standing over a map of Canada with one saying there was a line he would like to change. An eraser then began removing the 49th parallel. It ended with the Liberal slogan: “This Is More Than an Election. This Is Your Future.” It was devastating in its simplicity.

The second crucial moment was a two-and-a-half-minute exchange near the end of the second televised debate. Turner stepped from the podium, his steely blue eyes widened, and he boomed: “I happen to believe that you have sold us out.” Mulroney was taken aback, said he was a patriot, and with Turner shouting over him claimed that the agreement was but a commercial contract, cancellable in six months. Turner pounced again, saying that the agreement was much more than that because it related to every facet of all peoples’ lives.

The campaign became a free trade referendum. Many Canadians expressed worry that free trade would steal their healthcare and all that was unique about the country while many business leaders spoke of the economic bonanza free trade would bring. Polls later showed that many people changed their voting intentions two or three times.

An impressive 76% of eligible voters went to the polls. Mulroney’s Conservatives won a majority with 169 seats. The Liberals took 83 and the NDP, which had consistently opposed free trade, won 43.

The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement came into force on January 1, 1989. Just five years later, it was folded into a broader Canada-U.S. free trade agreement involving Mexico (NAFTA). With the 1988 election, Sir John A. Macdonald’s high tariff National Policy, through which much of the country had developed, was gone. The 1911 election that had rejected free trade with the United States was reversed. Free trade had finally won. We reoriented ourselves to think north-south as the rules shaping Canada’s future were forever changed.

2015: Sir John or Stephen?

Sir John A. Macdonald and Canada’s other founders met in 1864 when the United States was butchering itself in a bloody Civil War. They believed the war’s root cause was the American constitution having placed too much power with the states. They would right that error by creating a country where a dominant federal government had sufficient power to speak and act for all Canadians and the fiscal capacity to respond to emergencies. As Canada evolved, this orientation was woven into its political culture. The federal government organized the creation of railways, canals, and highways that built us; the fighting of wars and a Depression that saved us; and the institution of social programs that strengthened us. Inevitable right – left ideological arguments merely banged at the extremities of our general consensus.

Then came the letter. In January 2001, former Reform Party MP Stephen Harper, and five friends, published an open letter asking Alberta premier Ralph Klein to, “build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

The letter clearly articulated Harper’s mission: to turn the Canadian consensus on its head. A new Conservative party emerged after years of double dealing. In 2006, the introverted policy wonk with the cold eyes was prime minister. Harper’s objective remained the same. Journalist Paul Wells wrote, “His goal is to hobble not just his own government, but any federal government of any party stripe that will come after it.”

Harper cancelled the national day care program negotiated by the previous government and in its place offered families a monthly $100 stipend. He told provinces he would maintain healthcare transfers but surrendered federal influence on how the money was spent. He cut the Goods and Services Tax by 2%. Harper eliminated the long form census. He cut grants to government scientists while banning them from speaking about their work. These actions, and others, were consistent with a leader who saw the federal government as a beast to be emasculated, starved, and lobotomized.

Harper was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. In the 2015 election, however, he faced the strong opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, leading the NDP, and newly installed Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whom polls said was in third place. Mulcair and Trudeau led an uncoordinated two-pronged attack on Harper’s vision. They spoke of the federal government undertaking national programs to fight climate change and provide day care. Harper promised boutique tax cuts. He dog whistled to his base about the wearing of the niqab, barbaric religious practices, and “old stock Canadians.” Crude attacks on Trudeau’s movie star looks and apparent inexperience gained no traction.

On October 19, voters created a Liberal majority government. Sixty percent of Canadians had rejected Harper and his decentralized conception of the country by voting for the NDP or Liberals. The firewall fell. The country’s founding and guiding consensus was back. Every time Trudeau put conditions on federal transfers, rallied national support in reaction to natural disasters and the welcoming of refugees, and spoke of new national policies on day care, climate change, and vaccination acquisition, one could almost hear the soft Scottish burr of Sir John’s echo.

We don’t know why individuals vote as they do and our antiquated electoral system often divorces voter intentions from seat counts and power. That’s alright because the reasons that determine a particular election’s outcome are not the same as why it’s important. It’s a safe bet that our most significant elections – 1926, 1988, and 2015 – changed Canada in ways that most voters at the time did not factor when marking their X.

That notion leaves us with a sobering thought. When considering our vote later today, let’s think not just about who we want to win, but more importantly, why that win will matter.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 4, 2021. If you liked it, you should consider checking my books, my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Canada as a Six-String Nation

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

In 1995 Canada was coming apart at the seams. A host of proposed constitutional amendments that would dramatically shift power from the federal to provincial governments was stirring arguments among Canadians. Revolutions had been fought over such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War that was spurred by the question of state power. Canadians reach not for guns but gavels. We debate. We argue at kitchen tables and over backyard fences. But in 1995, it was getting ugly.

The national tension inspired Jowi Taylor. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii that is sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on.

The tree was an inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Strat at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later, at Ottawa’s Canada Day celebration, renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need and especially when suffering the aftermath of war be it Vietnam, Syria or Afghanistan. We are nearly all from away and at one point we were on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada is a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

(Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sending it to others and maybe even checking out one of my books – my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Elections Matter

Whether we like it or not, after being confined to our homes for a year and a half we are all now off on a haphazard journey. Canada’s 44th federal election has begun. We will now be coaxed, bribed, and flattered. There will be appeals to the logic of our minds and yearnings of our hearts.

            This election matters because all elections matter. Ask Americans if it mattered that Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. While all elections are important, some are more important than others. Over the next few weeks I will consider Canadian elections that were more significant than others because of the changes they wrought.

The Canadians or Colonials Election – 1926

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck loner with notoriously bad breath and totally bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest man in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131. But King refused to resign. He met with Governor General Lord Byng and said he would try to continue as prime minister with the support of the Progressives, a fringe party comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. It worked, for a bit.

Arthur Meighen

            Parliament resumed in January 1926. Still unable to sit in the House, King had his able Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe audaciously move a government confidence motion on itself! He was interrupted by Meighen who leapt up to move one of his own. The speaker allowed debate on Meighen’s motion. The Progressives supported the Liberals which allowed King to maintain his tenuous hold on power.

            In February, King won a hastily-called by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was back in the House in time to have his government attacked as corrupt regarding a customs department issue. By the end of June, it appeared that the government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King dodged by going to see Byng. He asked the governor general to dissolve parliament and call a new election.

            Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around by this pudgy little colonial. He said no. The Canadian prime minister could not have the election he wanted. King’s only option was to resign the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Viscount Byng of Vimy

            Now opposition leader, King rose to ask if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had done a political two-step to avoid resigning and running for office again as all cabinet ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. King moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. Then, for the first time in Canadian history, a government was defeated with a vote of non-confidence. Now an election had to happen. It was set for September 23, 1926.

            The campaign had only one issue. Who governs Canada? Is it the British-appointed governor general or the prime minister who had been elected by the Canadian people? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was at the centre of it all again when a new nationalist pride was felt in the breasts of many Canadians. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we?  The 1926 election was posing that fundamental question and demanding an answer. Are we Canadians or colonials?

            King took the message across the country. For two weeks, Meighen spoke of tariffs and King’s corruption and political trickery but then he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

            Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats. In an uncomfortable meeting, Byng asked King to again become prime minister and form a government.

Legacy

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference. Inspired by Canada’s temerity, the other British dominions demanded all that the Balfour Declaration had suggested and insisted that they and Britain be deemed equal. Britain agreed. Negotiations continued until in December 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers.

            Elections matter. The 1926 election determined that Canada would be an independent state.

(If you enjoyed this article, please check my other work at johnboyko.com or my books – my latest is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Our next Governor General is Amazing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Mary Simon would be Canada’s 30th Governor General; the first Indigenous person to serve in that role. Simon is a tremendous choice.

(photo: CTVNews)

Mary Simon was born in the tiny village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, on the east coast of Ungava Bay, at the tip top of Quebec. While her mother was Inuk, her father was an English Canadian who ran the local Hudson’s Bay Company post. Simon and her seven siblings grew up spending months every year on the land, hunting food.

Simon has dedicated her life to public service; specifically, to protecting and advancing the rights of the Inuit people in an environmentally sustainable north. As the board secretary of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, she played a role in negotiating the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement – Canada’s first comprehensive Indigenous land claim settlement. She was elected vice president and then president of the Makivik Corporation, which administered the agreement’s complex terms.

Simon served as the secretary and then co-director of policy with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Its 1996 report outlined a 20-year plan to restructure the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

The next year, Simon became one of three Canadians representing the country on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. She was elected committee chair in 1998.

From 1986 to 1992, Simon served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. It represents nearly 200,000 Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and Canada and lobbies governments to protect Inuit interests while advancing social and economic development. She then served as Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2003. At the same time, from 1999 to 2001, she was Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.

Beginning in 2001, Simon served as a Counsellor on the Carter Centre’s International Council for Conflict Resolution. The Carter Centre was founded by former US president Jimmy Carter and seeks to mitigate and prevent conflicts around the world.

Simon served on the Nunavut Implementation Commission which, beginning in 1994, consulted Inuit communities to ensure their interests were reflected in the creation of Canada’s newest territory: Nunavut.

From 2006 to 2012, Simon was president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. It lobbies the federal and provincial governments with respect to Inuit rights in the north. Its work has become especially important as the very real effects of the climate crisis are altering life in the north. 

Simon has always respected education as the engine of change. From 2008 to 2014, she chaired the National Committee on Inuit Education. It brought positive changes to education in the north and ensured that Inuit children respect their cultural heritage and are taught in their own language.

The announcement that Simon would become Canada’s first Indigenous governor general was made in the shadow of recent revelations of mass graves being discovered outside several residential “schools.” The horrific news focussed attention on Canada’s history of systemic racism. Standing next to Prime Minister Trudeau, Simon observed, “My appointment reflects our collective progress toward building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.”

I hope she’s right. We deserve to be pleased that it is no longer remarkable that our next governor general will be a woman. Let’s look forward to the day when the fact that a prominent official is Indigenous is no longer newsworthy. For now, let us celebrate the fact that our new governor general is such a well-qualified and simply amazing person.

(If you enjoyed this article, please see my others at www.johnboyko.com and you might even want to check out my books including my most recently published The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Canada’s Racist Ladder

Many Americans are arguing about critical race theory. It is the 40-year-old academic notion that race is a social construct. The theory contends that race is not an aberration rising at times in a country’s history but a constant that shaped its development. Racism, the theory contends, is embedded in legal systems and policies.

            Canadians are not debating critical race theory. We can’t. Not today. With the discovery of mass grave sites containing the remains of Indigenous children who were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, we are being reminded of all we have known or should have known for years. We are being invited by our grief to consider who we are and have always been and, if we have sufficient courage, to begin active redemption.

            Our first step in that wrenching process involves a clear-eyed consideration of Canadian racism. It is perhaps helpful to consider racism as a ladder. The racist ladder’s first rung is stereotypes – characteristics attributed to a particular group. They are created and perpetuated by popular culture. Stereotypes are cemented by racist jokes that would fall flat if the stereotypes were not understood.

            The second rung is prejudice – a belief that the stereotypes are accurate and so all members of a particular race have the characteristics that are popularly attributed to it. A betrayal of prejudice is a sentence that begins: “They are all…” Prejudice allows no individuality for those of a particular race.

            The racist ladder’s third rung is discrimination – an action taken based upon prejudice. An employer, renter, or banker, for instance, may refuse to hire, rent, or provide a loan to someone of a particular race because their negative appraisal of the person before them is based on that person’s race.

            State-sanctioned racism is the natural next rung. With prejudice and discrimination widespread and accepted as normal, prejudiced people are promoted and elected and so discrimination becomes embedded in laws, practices, regulations, rules, and commonly understood behaviour. Racism becomes self-perpetuating as it becomes engrained into all facets of social activity and all social institutions. A systemically racist society overlooks or condones the actions of racist individuals, groups, and incidents in the house because the house itself is racist.

            The next step up the ladder is seen with exclusion and expulsion. Laws are passed to limit or end the immigration of those of a particular race or to stop them from expressing their uniqueness through dress or religious symbols and observances. A particular race may be forced to live in areas reserved for them that are apart from the general population. In times of war, those of a particular race may be rounded up and deported or placed in detention camps.

            The final step on the racist ladder is genocide. Genocide may involve the physical murder of a particular group of people within a country as was done in Germany, Ukraine, Rwanda, and more. According to United Nations Resolution 96, genocide can also involve the killing of a societal group’s soul through the systematic theft of its religion, customs, and language.

Children’s shoes outside a residential “school” where 215 children, who had been kidnapped and taken there with thousands of others over generations, were found in a mass, unmarked grave (Photo: NY Times)

            Canada’s racist ladder is white, Christian, and French in Quebec and British in the rest of the country. It’s propped against a wall of suspicion, fear, pride, and hatred. Without those emotions, and the ignorance from which they grow, the ladder would fall. The stirring and exploitation of those emotions for economic and political advantage, affords it strength.

            We must begin our personal and national reflection and redemption by finding all murdered Indigenous children and honouring their spirits. We must hold to account those people and institutions responsible. We must stop calling residential “schools” schools. We must listen and respect – all of us. We must quickly and faithfully act upon the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

            If our horror and grief at the discovery of the mass graves of children is not a turning point in our history, and the incentive to finally descend and abandon the racism ladder, then what the hell will be?

John Boyko is the author of 8 books including The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.

Leadership of the Bridge or the Moon?

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969, front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three-inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return, he called a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. Kennedy and his advisors had no idea of how the goal could be achieved – he set it anyway. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day, and later, Kennedy expressed the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears.

Kennedy did not then micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of bold ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

(JFK announcing moon challenge)

Only a few years later, a smaller headline at the bottom of the Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Senator Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove off a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

(Senator Kennedy observing car being recovered)

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar – not the politician but the playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect the younger Kennedy borther’s belief that ethics, morality, and that rules and the rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there in the Globe and Mail that day. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. And we have the other brother who seemed, when it came to the crunch, to understand only the arrogance of privilege; the hubris to believe that he was above ethics, morality, and decency.

And now, we cringe as our leaders twist themselves into knots trying to appear like one Kennedy but somehow, too often, appearing as the other. Too many claim to have our short and long-term interests in mind while clearly considering only their own, or, at least, those of the donors who helped get them where they are.

Leadership is tough and, as JFK proved, it does not take a particularly nice person to do it well. Leadership is essential in a time of crisis whether the existential threat of something as consequential as the Cold War or a personal crisis that demands doing what is right according to principle and not the protection and advancement of oneself.

That dichotomous choice of leader and leadership is especially important right now as we navigate through the pandemic, economic recovery, climate crisis, and racial reconciliation. We need smart, serious, principled, honest people and we need them right now so that we might exert our agency in ways that will matter most to us and our grandchildren. We need the leadership not of the bridge but the moon. 

(If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others on Facebook or your social media of choice and you might consider checking one of my books such as my latest “The Devil’s Rick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Apologies and Reconciliation

We Canadians like to apologize. Comedian Rick Mercer once quipped that every border crossing should have a large sign exclaiming: Welcome to Canada – We’re Sorry! For some time now, our government has been offering apologies on our behalf.

            On May 27, Prime Minister Trudeau rose in the House to apologize for the internment Italian Canadians during the Second World War. When Italy declared war on Canada in 1940, our government declared 31,000 Italian Canadians enemy aliens and 600 of them were forced into detention camps. It was said they had donated to the Italian Red Cross, written articles supporting fascism, or belonged to unions with fascist ties. None of them, or any of the 31,000 for that matter, were ever charged with a crime.

            In May 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for Poundmaker’s being arrested as part of our government’s reaction to the 1885 Riel Rebellion. Historians subsequently determined that the Cree leader had, in fact, not supported Riel and had tried to stop the violence perpetrated by a group of young Cree men.

(Photo: Ottawa Citizen)

            Trudeau apologized in 2018 for our government’s turning away 900 German Jews seeking to escape Hitler’s madness. When asked how many Jews should be allowed into Canada the deputy minister of immigration replied, “None is too many.” Our anti-Semitism defeated our humanity and the Holocaust took 254 of those we could have saved.

            The Komagata Maru steamed into Vancouver harbour in April 1914. It contained 376 British citizens wishing to make new lives. The problem was that they were Indian Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. White supremacy beat the heart of the British Columbia’s civil society at the time and the province’s MPs led the charge to have the ship turned away. In May 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized for our government’s actions. 

            Chinese workers were imported to help construct the Canadian Pacific Railway that built and saved our young country. But when it was done, our government deported many of the navies and, in 1885, instituted a prohibitively expensive head tax to stop Chinese immigration. It remained in place until 1923. In June 2006, Prime Minister Steven Harper apologized for the blatantly racist tax.

            In September 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in the House to apologize for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Fears of a fifth column in Canada following Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack were fuelled by the already wide-spread anti-Asian racism. Some 22,000 Japanese Canadians were placed in camps and their property confiscated and sold. They even had to pay for their own incarceration.

            These apologies are right and proper. Cultural relativism be damned – those actions taken on our behalf are reprehensible now and were then. Another series of apologies have addressed our original sin.

            In June 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized in the House for residential schools. The Catholic Church established them in the 1840s, the Canadian government began and ran more, and the last one closed in 1996. Think of that – 1996. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis kids were kidnapped and forced to attend institutions that were less schools than instruments of cultural genocide. Many children were sexually and physically abused. And, as was recently confirmed near Kamloops, many died and were buried in unmarked graves.

            Outside the House, in 2017, Trudeau apologized for Newfoundland’s residential schools. In 2018 he apologized for six Tsilhqot’in chiefs having been offered a peace proposal in 1864 but then being arrested and hanged. In 2019, Trudeau apologized for our government’s shameful reaction to the tuberculosis epidemic among the Inuit that began in the 1940s and lasted twenty years. 

            Let’s hope the Pope does the right thing and apologizes for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. Let’s embrace that and the other apologies as first steps toward atonement, reconciliation, and the building of a better, non-racist society. But at the same time, let’s recognize all the apologies as only that: first steps. Our policies and laws can change. That’s easy. But what was sadly proved yet again by the London tragedy was that nothing of value will be gained until and unless change occurs in our hearts.

If you liked this article, please share it with others and consider checking out my latest book: The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.

A Father and a Dad

My father was a good Dad. There’s a difference. Let me explain with just one story.

Every winter my Dad created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games. Every winter, he worked frightfully hard on that rink. I have visions of him out the frosted window as I was being shuffled to bed; out there in the deep Canadian cold, slowly waving the hose in that steady, arcing pattern that pillowed the water across the deepening rink just so.

One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink when he suddenly experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile, he went in and to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would be thicker and smoother than ever before.

I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pyjamas with my Mom and brothers, gazing out our kitchen window in wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s a detail like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard, diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and frozen along its twenty-foot length and then dripped and froze some more.

My Dad had awoken, like always, for some early rink time before work. Bleary-eyed, he had turned off the water downstairs, walked up and out the basement steps then, stopped dead. Reflecting the early dawn’s glow was a wall of ice, nine inches thick, eight feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he whacked the wall’s base. It wouldn’t budge. He grabbed an axe. He banged and chipped and chopped at the ice wall’s base until, with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing, he smacked its centre.

It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall dislodged from the rink at once, swung up a little, and then, carried by its weight and momentum, moved back like a giant, frozen pendulum. As it swept across the rink and up the other side, a little higher this time, my Dad gave it another mighty smack. That was it. It became magical. The wall slowly swung up and then back, back once more, and finally, right over the top. It gained speed as it came down then managed another complete rotation. As the whole magnificent wall swung clockwise over the top yet again, long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched wide-eyed as my Dad threw the axe, covered his head, and ran with ice missiles soaring over and around him.

It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there again braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We had agreed when he said at dinner that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a sound idea. But it stayed in the basement until spring.

Even better, though, was knowing that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kids’ fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.

I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called the long goodbye but I never really understood until now. As he faded, he began failing to remember me but I continued to visit because I still remembered him. As best I could, I took care of the man who had once taken care of me. He was my father after all, but more than that, and more importantly I think, he was my Dad.

me as Gordie Howe

The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.

(If you liked this column, please consider sharing it with others over Facebook or through other means or perhaps checking out my other columns at johnboyko.com. You might even check out one of my books – The Devil’s Trick would be a good start. Even better, call or recall someone who means or meant to you what my Dad still means to me.)

Canada, Chemical Weapons, and the Vietnam War

The Dow Chemical Company was founded by Herbert Dow, who was born in Belleville, Ontario. The Michigan-based company opened a plant in Sarnia, Ontario during the Second World War. In the 1960s, it manufactured napalm, a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene. When dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft over vast areas of Vietnam, it burned the flesh of those it touched and destroyed fat tissues. It left victims writhing in insufferable agony. The fortunate died.

            A growing awareness of the ghastly effects of napalm led to protests against companies producing it and, one by one, they stopped making it — except Dow, which increased production, including at its plant in Sarnia. Dow became the focus of a number of protests, articles, and letters to editors across Canada.

(Photo: warhistory.com)

            Events at the University of Toronto were a microcosm of debates raging across Canada. In November 1967, faculty members and students staged a sit-in to protest Dow’s plan to conduct job interviews on campus. Mathematics professor David Chandler wrote in Varsity, the widely-read campus paper: “As we would not invade Vietnam, we should not be a cog in a machine which is invading Vietnam.” Dow cancelled its visit.

That decision led U. of T. engineering students to rise up against the anti-war protesters, arguing that they had a right to decide for themselves who they worked for, regardless of a company’s product or customers. The Engineering Society demanded that Dow recruiters be re-invited to the university. Its action inspired other students and student groups to protest the protesters.

            After the Student Advisory Council (SAC) passed a motion condemning all Canadian companies that provided products for use in Vietnam, a 1,600-signature petition led to the resignation of SAC president Tom Faulkner. Faulkner then ran for re-election and won by over 800 votes. Dow’s recruiters did not return to the university, but its Sarnia plant continued to make napalm and sell it to the Pentagon.

Agent Orange

            From June 14th to 16th, 1966, American Army helicopters roared just over the tree tops at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, dropping a fine chemical spray. A year later, from June 21st to 24th, they did it again. They were testing a herbicide defoliant that burned the leaves from trees and shrubs. Variants of the chemical had been used by the American military in Vietnam since 1961 to rob the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, American GIs joked, “Only you can prevent forests.” The military nick-named the chemical after the colours of the bands that secured their metal containers, calling it Agent Purple, Agent White, and the most widely used, Agent Orange.

            From 1962 to 1971, approximately 19 million gallons of the stuff was spread over 10-20 percent of Vietnam and parts of Laos, destroying 12,000 square miles of jungle and forest. It also poisoned crops and water supplies. Later, scientists determined that the chemicals were carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank contaminated water, or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children. It was these chemicals that the Americans were testing in New Brunswick. Because they were not registered for use in Canada, the tests were illegal. But there they were – twice.

            In 1956 the Uniroyal Chemical Company had begun producing Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. It was used by Ontario Hydro to clear forest for its lines and by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to clear brush from roadsides. Beginning in 1962, barrels of Agent Orange were regularly loaded onto trains at the Elmira station and shipped to Montreal for transport to Vietnam.

            Elmira’s 7,000 citizens benefitted from the American defence contract as plant and spin off jobs boosted prosperity. They accepted the sickly-sweet smell that wafted over their homes as just part of life in the small town. They accepted without complaint that plant waste was dumped into barrels and buried nearby. What they did not know, however, was that while the herbicide they were making was killing people in Vietnam, it was also slowly killing them. Due to long-standing manufacturing and disposal practices, Agent Orange and residue from other chemicals produced in the plant slowly seeped into the local aquifer, contaminating the water supply. It would affect them long after the war ended.

            Canada’s manufacture of napalm and Agent Orange and its sale to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam raise ethical and moral questions that resonate to this day. Should we enjoy the jobs and profits of a war that the majority of its people deem immoral?

(The article is from The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War, published in April 2021 and available now at independent bookstores across Canada, and through Amazon and Chapter. If you pick it up, please let me know what you think.)

Masks and Circles

A mask has become a statement. It says I care about my health and yours. Or it says you have surrendered your liberty. I think a mast is even deeper than that.

You see, I see us all as the enlightenment’s willing adherents. It began when a number of 17th-century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently, and with variations on a theme, argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion of linear progress was perfectly fine until challenged by the bloody trenches of the First World War, the extermination camps of the Second, and now COVID’s costs. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line after all. Perhaps Indigenous spirituality was on to a more fundamental and enduring truth long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and their buddies insisted they were wrong. Maybe it’s not about lines but circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Indigenous North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in many circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

(Photo by Jeff Dean via Getty Images)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are into our second year of the pandemic and people are tired of how it has disturbed their lives. I bet people grew tired of the sacrifices demanded during the world wars too. Progress no longer seems linear. The air has become smudged with attacks and broken promises. New facts are dismissed as proof of old lies. Because we can’t trust everything we are told to trust nothing.

Amid the screaming on cable news, social media, and street protests we can see frustration that the enlightenment’s version of linear progress may not be true. More than that, if we look carefully, we see circles asserting themselves.

Some want their circles to be small. They say we should be loyal to and responsible for only ourselves and immediate families. Everyone of a different class, race, religion, or region be damned. Others allow a little broader circle of compassion and argue that we should also feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country. Those outside our locked borders should be left to themselves. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kick down the ladder. Still others, however, expand their circle further. They argue that we are all human beings and so we should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all.

When boiled to its essence, our thoughts regarding staying home, wearing masks, and sharing vaccines are all about whether we believe enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that Indigenous spirituality is right. Is it really all about circles – our societal and personal circles. It is about how we interpret progress and how broadly we draw our circle of loyalty and responsibility. Who knew a small piece of cloth could be so deeply powerful?

 (If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my others or even subscribing to http://www.johnboyko.com)

Roman was a Russian

Roman was a Russian or maybe Ukrainian. The folks of his town went from one to the other with each shift of the restless border. From the bitter cold of the 1905 winter came a worker’s revolt. Tsar Nicholas reacted first with concessions but soldiers were soon attacking trouble-makers. Those with books were deemed especially dangerous. Roman’s uncle imperiled his family for reading, among other things, the poetry of Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, whose words inspired the oppressed to feel power and the shamed to know pride.

With rumours of soldiers on the way Roman’s parents told him to run. The eighteen-year-old hitched rides and jumped trains for weeks until finding the coast at Antwerp. He snuck aboard the first lackadaisically secured ship he could find and hid beneath a lifeboat’s thick tarp. After two days at sea he emerged dirty and hungry and agreed to work for his fare.

 A long and roiling journey took him to Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two years he hacked roads to resources through the Amazonian rain forest. One steaming afternoon a workmate rhapsodized of a place with more high-paying jobs than people – Canada.

Roman bought a ticket for the first northbound ship. But he was tricked. Declared a stowaway, he was forced into back-breaking labour as the hulking cargo vessel steamed around the world. After nearly a year of depredation he gazed longingly at the Statue of Liberty. Excited for his first leave in months, he and two friends signed for their meagre pay but then were grabbed, lashed, and thrown onto their bunks; they’d been duped into re-upping for another year.

Just before dawn a sympathetic crewmate cut the ropes and helped them sneak to the deck where they leapt into the cold, dark water. Three unkempt young sailors shuffled through the Battery’s morning mist. A gentleman with an expensive suit and friendly smile said they looked lost. In his best, broken English Roman explained that they were on their way to Canada. The man laughed and said they must be the luckiest boys alive because he worked at the Canadian consulate. The sorry little gang were given train tickets to Montreal.

Montreal was a French city run by the English, and all on the backs of those speaking a hundred tongues. Roman found a job in a large and dirty iron works and happiness in the city’s thriving Ukrainian community. After a particularly trying shift he was told that steel factories offered safer work and better pay and that an American had just started a new steel company in Ontario. Within days he was on a train to Ontario.

Hamilton was a tough, hard-hat town. Factories hugged Burlington Bay. Shady bosses held sway in the multi-ethnic east side, and everyone called the towering Niagara escarpment that watched over it all the mountain.  The place brimmed with the power and potential of the industrial age. Roman was among the first employees at Hamilton’s Dominion Steel and Casting Company that became Dofasco. Roman was a molder. He created castings into which molten metal was poured to make machines, the bank vault now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even the turbines at the Hoover Dam. He built weapons for the First World War and in the Second his three daughters were among the women who traded dresses for overalls to defeat Hitler. 

Roman with his wife and daughters

Upon retirement, Roman purchased a small farm near Port Dover. He grew corn and every year turned 11 acres of grapes into sweet wine. His grandson worked the farm each summer. Later, Roman walked his great-grandson among what to the little boy were towering corn stalks. He tried but failed to reassure his great grandson that the barn and those squawking chickens were not terrifying.

That scared little boy was me. In my home today is a painting of my great-grand father’s Port Dover farm. It is more ideal than real; perhaps like elements of his adventurous escape. But that’s okay. Societies need myths to define and inspire and so do families. Like the tenacious Ukraine, my family is a little dysfunctional at the edges but rock-solid at its core.

Meanwhile, a new Tsar is creating the same old havoc with Mr. Putin massing Russian troops on the Ukrainian border then, like a torturer applying his craft, withdrawing them just a little. Ukraine is back fighting for imaginary lines and Shevchenko’s poems are again on Ukrainian lips. As we watch egos and power and money at war let’s pause to consider the people in those border towns who wake up each day and do their best. I know, as do thousands of others living in Canada today, that their struggle will echo for generations and in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Canada and Two Wars: Vietnam and Yemen

We Canadians try to be on the right side of history but too often we fail. We fail largely because morality and money are seldom on speaking terms. Consider our role in two immoral wars.

            Canada was officially neutral in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. But we were not. Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam throughout the war as part of the International Control Commission charged with observing a non-existent ceasefire. Canadian doctors and nurses ran Canadian-built hospitals in Vietnam and over 20,000 Canadians joined the American military to fight in hamlets and jungles. Over 30,000 young Americans evaded military service by coming north. They were joined by thousands of refugees who fled the post war madness. But there was more.

            Throughout the Vietnam War, Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, produced and sold to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. Over the course of the war, Canadian steel and iron exports to the U.S. rose by 54%. The majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            Canada also played a role in the chemical warfare in Vietnam. The Dow Chemical Company’s Sarnia plant manufactured napalm. It was a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene that, when dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft, burned the flesh of those it touched, destroyed fat tissues, and left victims writhing in insufferable agony.

            The Uniroyal Chemical Company produced Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. The herbicide defoliant burned the leaves from trees and robbed the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Scientists determined that Agent Orange was carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank contaminated water, or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children.

            The people of Elmira were exposed to Agent Orange for years and their fight for restitution continues. In 1966 and 1967, American Army helicopters tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Hundreds of people there and nearby suffered long term consequences but it took a generation for the Canadian government to admit what it had allowed to happen and to offer compensation.

            Canada’s profiting from the immoral war was simple to explain. Canadian Defence Production Minister Charles “Bud” Drury said in 1966 that arms sales to the United States were responsible for 13,000 to 15,000 Canadian jobs with spin-off jobs probably totalling 110,000. In 1968, Treasury Board President Edgar Benson stated, “Unemployment would rise if arms shipments to the U. S. were stopped. It is to our benefit to continue the program.” Vietnam era diplomat John Holmes observed that with respect to Vietnam, “You hang on to your principles but find a way around it.”      

            It would be nice to think that we learned from our Vietnam War experience. We have not. In 2017, we exported $1.03 billion in arms, with the United States our best customer. Second was Saudi Arabia, which had just been tagged by Amnesty International for violating human rights at home and in its dirty war in Yemen. Canada’s sales to Saudi Arabia primarily involve military vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario. The multi-year deal was signed by the Harper government then later renegotiated by the Trudeau government.

             In November 2017, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development was considering changes to laws regulating arms production and sales to foreign customers. Christyn Cianfarani, President and CEO of the Canadian Defence and Security Industries, appeared before the committee and stated that she represented 800 Canadian defence and security companies that generated $10 billion in annual revenues and employed 63,000 Canadians who earned wages 60% higher than average manufacturing wages. The committee ended up recommending no changes that would threaten Cianfarani’s impressive numbers. Human Rights Watch reported last year that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen has seen 233,000 deaths. Over 25% of those killed in air raids are women and children. More than 20 million people in Yemen are now experiencing food insecurity.

(Photo: Atlantic Magazine)

            Yet, in 2019, Canada sold $3.7 billion of military goods and technology. Saudi Arabia continued to be our second-best customer accounting for $2.9 billion or 76% of non-U.S. military export sales. According to the government’s Exports of Military Goods report, “The Government of Canada strives to ensure that…Canadian goods and technology are not used in a manner that is prejudicial to human rights, peace, security or stability.” Please.

            Brock University assistant professorSimon Black has led protests against continuing our involvement in the Yemen war through continuing our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He has said, “Most Canadians don’t realize that weapons manufactured here continue to fuel a war that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” He’s wrong. We know. We knew in the 1960s when we were profiting from the immoral war in Vietnam. And we know now.

            A voice in the wilderness is Spadina—Fort York, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan. He has said, “I believe the humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires us to suspend military shipments to the region and provide more in the areas of food and medicine.” We won’t do it.

            We won’t because the lessons taught in Vietnamese jungles are the same as those being taught again in Yemeni streets. But lessons taught are not lessons learned because, in the end, money doesn’t talk – it swears.

(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday April 10, 2021. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider picking up The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War which will be published this week in Canada and the United States by Knopf Penguin Random House.)

Canadians Fighting in Vietnam

Rob McSorely was 17 when he quit East Vancouver’s Tempelton Secondary School, craving the action and adventure of war. His distraught parents did all they could to dissuade him but he was determined. McSorley skipped across the border to Blaine, Washington and enlisted.

            After training, he was flown to Vietnam as a proud member of the U.S. Army Ranger’s 75th Infantry, L Company, 101st Airborne Division; nicknamed the Screaming Eagles. On April 8, 1970, McSorley’s twelve-person unit was in the A Shau Valley at the Laos border. Mission Grasshopper involved infiltrating positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, reporting on Viet Cong or NVA movement, engaging if necessary, and calling for air support when needed. Most of the reconnaissance work was done through thick jungle that restricted visibility to just a yard. The Rangers were battle-tested and combat-hardened. They relied on each other like the brothers they had become. At 1:30 in the afternoon, four helicopters dropped them at the designated landing zone (LZ) just inside the Laotian border. Two of the helicopters were empty, to deceive anyone who might be watching about the group’s size.

            They immediately saw a number of NVA running down the hill, away from the LZ. Others were spotted on a hill above their position. The Rangers quickly moved to set up a secure perimeter and waited for the inevitable attack that for some reason never came. A single helicopter was called in to fake an extraction, hoping it would entice the NVA into the open.

The ploy worked. Bullets sprayed the helicopter, allowing the Rangers to spot enemy positions and return fire. The firefight quickly escalated with the NVA attacking the Rangers’ perimeter at McSorley’s position. They put their M-16s on rock’ n’ roll – firing automatic bursts – and McSorley killed two NVA and wounded more. Amidst the firing he yelled to Frank “Buff” Johnson: “Hey Buff, I feel like John Wayne!” They continued firing until, finally, the NVA withdrew. There was another quick exchange and another tense quiet.

            With less than two hours of sunlight remaining, the Rangers gathered their gear and prepared to return to the landing zone. McSorley’s closest friend in the unit was another teenager, Bruce Bowland. Bowland was to walk point, that is, lead the column through the jungle. McSorley smiled and said to his less experienced friend, “You forget who taught you to walk point?” Bowland nodded and McSorely took the perilous point position.

            The men were slowly and quietly making their way with McSorley out in front when AK-47 fire crashed in front and around them. McSorely killed three NVA but then his weapon jammed. He took three shots in the chest and shoulder and lay wounded in open ground, over 30 feet in front of the others. Gary Sands crawled out and dragged McSorley back to safety. With McSorley moaning in agony, the firefight continued. Within fifteen minutes he was dead. It was just two weeks past his nineteenth birthday.

            Days later, the doorbell rang at McSorley’s Vancouver home. A hand-delivered telegram brought the news. McSorley’s parents were shattered. It was the wrong order. Children should not die before their parents. Time saw their grief and isolation grow for no one they knew shared their experience of losing a child while fighting in a foreign uniform in a foreign land in an unpopular war.

Rob McSorley (Photo: VVMF)

Rob McSorley’s name is carved into the reflective black granite of Washington’s Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial. Difficulty in defining exactly who is Canadian allows us only to estimate that between 79 and 160 other Canadians share that honour. Canadian visitors remember them by visiting the wall and completing paper and charcoal rubbings, and leaving flags, roses, and tears.

            It has been estimated that between 12,000 and 40,000 Canadians enlisted in the American armed services and fought in the Vietnam War. Some, like McSorley, went for the adventure, some to fight communism, and others because of a sense of duty, having grown up knowing that nearly every man they knew was a veteran. While many died, all suffered. Many returned home as physically and emotionally damaged as their American comrades but to a country that either didn’t know they had fought or had been crazy for having done so.

            The Vietnam War stole many Canadian lives and continues to affect thousands of others. Canadian Vietnam War veteran Doug Carey, who lives outside Ottawa, speaks of being among those who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He can still never play a round of golf without scanning the trees for danger. The stories of Canadians who donned an American uniform to fight are just one part of the larger story of how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was forever changed by it.

(Doug Carey’s story and that of others that fought 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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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.)