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.)

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.)

Erasing Sir John

Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.

This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries, and deaths. The fight is gearing up in Canada with Montreal’s much-defaced Macdonald statue being torn down and broken.

Macdonald

(Photo: CBC News)

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders have been attacked as symbols of white supremacy. The point is valid. Most Confederate statues were erected around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws with another wave of statues coming in the 1960s to combat the Civil Rights movement. The statues have always had less to do the Civil War and more to do with the war against racial equality.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced and so the statues more complex. He created Canada as the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. As our first prime minister, he built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.

He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us again from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States, and then negotiated the Washington Treaty which stopped Britain from giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations.

While Macdonald created, built, and saved Canada he was a flawed leader. He ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but 15-years later crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion. He refused to overturn a court’s death sentence and so let Riel hang.

Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations and so has been accused of attempted genocide. His government began the first residential schools.

Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders fought for a horrible end. Despite all, Sir John worked for a glorious goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.

And that’s the difference.

We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas, a sword to attack the ideas of others, or a wall to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher. It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our perpetual, existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point being missed by many at the moment. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be appropriately condemned but used to learn about the crimes that he, and we, committed. We should use him to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due, and the work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that both swell our chests and well our tears?

When Macdonald’s statue crashed to the ground in Montreal it represented not an invitation to heal but a demand to ignore – and down that road is not growth but regression.

What better place for our public conversations than public squares. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces. Instead, let those statues stand and allow history to do its job.

And Then I Was Tear-Gassed

I get it. I am a white, middle-class, healthy, employed, man living in a small, safe, Ontario town. I understand the privilege all that affords. I understand the sensitivity to the challenges of others all that demands. But the day I was tear-gassed affords me a modicum of insight and empathy for those peacefully protesting right now in America and around the world.

Before dawn, in April 2001, my dear wife and I left for Quebec City. We and others were assembling not to protest against the national leaders at the Third Summit of the Americas, but for them. We wanted them to summon the strength needed to stand against the growing corporate power that was running roughshod over individuals and states.

We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, chanting, and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive, party atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The leaders were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind 4 km of fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I could not leave without venturing up to see the so-called red zone.

As I reached its outer limits I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. It was eerily quiet. The air smelled of gasoline. The streets were dirty. People were dressed in varieties of battle fatigues and many had bandanas and goggles dangling on their chests.

Down a narrow street, I saw a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter-high chain-link fence. Behind the fence was a row of police officers in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They were a column of Darth Vaders. Each was smacking a club into their palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of Vaders behind it, but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our sides. No one else was anywhere near us. We discovered that were both Ontario history teachers. We agreed that conviction had drawn us to Quebec and curiosity up the hill. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged white guys in shorts and golf shirts; very much tourists and not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened into the fence. The cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We turned and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then vanished. I staggered, dazed and bewildered, as people ran past in both directions shouting a jumble of French, English, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the road and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of stormtroopers. I joined them, yelling every ugly epithet that schoolyards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I suddenly awoke. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that the anger imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

And Then I Was Teargassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and watched the two groups of people – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence. My youngest brother is a police officer. I knew he was one of the helmeted cops assembled there that day. Perhaps he was the target of my mad abuse. I needed to get out of there.

I found out later that while my companion and I were innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone had faltered. Protesters or anarchists or whatever they were had torn down part of the fence at Boulevard René Lévesque and police had reacted around the whole perimeter with gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. In their attempt to re-establish order, police attacked those with rocks and those with guitars. They attacked those administering first aid. And they attacked my companion and me, over a kilometer from the trouble, who had done nothing at all.

I am reminded of the day I was tear-gassed when I see horrific videos of police brutalizing those peacefully protesting police brutality. I’m reminded of the intersectionality of my privilege and that if it happened to me, imagine all those who have suffered injury and injustice but were not filmed. There are too many George Floyds. We need to end the brutality. We need to end racism. We need to engage in a national conversation built upon the fundamental agreement that we are all fragile, mortal, and human.

American Rage and the Day I Was Tear Gassed

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface reveals that we are really not that nice at all. And that’s what scares me about the American election.

Fifteen years ago, in April 2001, after reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power and shrinking concentrations of wealth at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As a historian and with my wife’s degree in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We joined a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind the 4 km fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.

I walked slowly up the hill and then slower still. At red zone’s outer perimeter it was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. The world had morphed to black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air reeked of gasoline. The streets were littered and dirty. Everything seemed wet. Everyone seemed sweaty. People wore varieties of battle fatigues and many wore bandanas and had ski-goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street, I watched a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter high chain-link fence. Behind the silver fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear and faceless with face guards down. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

I swallowed the metallic taste of adrenaline. Around the corner, I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers behind it but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys in shorts and golf shirts, obviously tourists not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us spewing white-gray tear gas. We instinctively pivoted away and blindly careened smack into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We spun and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of English, French, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the street and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and yelled every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I snapped awake. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and at the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

The Day I Was Tear Gassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk and watched two groups of Canadians – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother was one of the helmeted cops assembled in Quebec City that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my flash of crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

The day I was tear gassed did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian, or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order. However, I am little less sanguine about the unwritten social contract that binds us and the thin veneer of civility that protects us.

Reflecting on that day and upon how that veneer has become even thinner makes me tremble a little as I watch Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to the rage that roils beneath it. How much longer can our niceness be sustained when the globalization of power and wealth in the hands of a shrinking few – the point of the Quebec protest and core of the Sanders/Trump appeal – has shrunk even further. What happens if the fraying social contract snaps? What happens when voting for change is no longer seen as enough? What happens if the police change sides?

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