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.


            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.)

The One-Woman Army

Admirers called Claire Culhane the One-Woman Army. In May 1967, the 48-year-old hospital administrator read an article about a tuberculosis hospital being built by Canadians in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Quảng Ngãi. She was so moved that she signed on with external affairs and within weeks she was there, right in the middle of the Vietnam War.

            The small Canadian hospital, run by Canadians, saw 150 patients a day. Those suffering from the area’s TB epidemic were treated along with victims of the war, many wounded by American bombers. Most were women and children, weak with malnutrition and ghastly wounds. Culhane and the Canadians worked tortuous hours with their lives always at risk. They were evacuated during 1968’s Tet Offensive but were soon back; the hospital now a fortress.

            Culhane respected the hospital’s first director but his replacement was officious and cleared the hospital of all non-TB patients. She was angered upon discovering that he regularly gave copies of her meticulous patient records to the CIA. Its agents used them as part of its counterinsurgency program that saw teams descend on villages to interrogate male adults and kidnap, torture, or kill those suspected of hiding information or being Viet Cong.

            It was the last straw for Culhane. Six months into her one-year assignment, she left. Upon her arrival back in Canada she met with external affairs officials and wrote a detailed report of all she had seen and learned. She was ignored. But she persisted.

(Photo by Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

            With help from Canada’s only national anti-war organization, the Voice of Women, she trained a searchlight on Canada’s secret involvement in the Vietnam War. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, letters to politicians, and speeches delivered across the country she addressed the twisted irony of the Quảng Ngãi hospital helping a few while Canada was complicit in the death of thousands.

            Culhane explained that Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, were producing and selling 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. The war boosted by 54%, Canadian exports to the USA of oil, aluminum, and ores. For example, the majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            In September 1968, Culhane drew international media attention with a ten-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Among the politicians who stopped by to chat was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s powerful minister of citizenship and immigration Jean Marchand. They were soon in a heated debate. Marchand snapped: “Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 workers that they’re out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the U.S.A. under the defence contracts we hold with them?” Marchand had expressed the essence of the national conversation.

            On the fast’s last day, Trudeau invited Culhane to his office. As the prime minister left their brief meeting he whispered, “You have no idea the pressure I am under.” Culhane replied: “Why do you think I spent ten days out there, if not trying to bring on another set of pressures?”

            Culhane represented Canada’s anti-war efforts at a conference in Stockholm. In France, she met two North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks. In Britain, she was feted by the London press. Back home, she earned national attention by chaining herself to a House of Commons gallery chair and tossing leaflets on the unsuspecting parliamentarians below.

            On Christmas Eve 1969, Culhane established a camp at a church near Parliament Hill and told reporters that she would endure the sub-zero temperatures to bring attention to Canada’s complicity in the war. Trudeau came by in his limo and cracked the window a little but they only spoke past each other for a moment.

            Culhane refocussed her efforts on Canada’s involvement in the research, development, and sale of chemical weapons used in Vietnam. She spoke of helping to treat napalm victims at the Quảng Ngãi hospital who were wrapped so tightly in Vaseline and gauze that she could not tell if they were men or women, alive or dead. She spoke of napalm-doused children dying slow and agonizing deaths. Culhane explained that napalm was among the chemical agents manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam.

            Another was Agent Orange. It was a defoliant sprayed by planes to clear jungle to better attack the enemy. The problem was that exposure caused cancers and genetic damage resulting in terribly ill or disfigured children. Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario and shipped to Vietnam.

            Culhane did not stop until the war stopped. She forced Canadians to admit their involvement in the Vietnam War. She forced a reckoning by asking the difficult question of whether it is immoral to profit from an immoral war.

(Culhane’s story 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.)