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.)