by Dee Knight
The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel was my departure point in August of 1968. I hitched a ride with a friend after the convention meltdown in Chicago, leaving Mayor Daley and his head-bashing cops behind. 
Driving from Chicago following the meltdown of the Democratic Party Convention and the virtual war in the streets outside, we got to Detroit and entered the Windsor Tunnel – the tunnel felt appropriate as an exit from my life in the USA to a new life in Canada. As I left the USA behind, my mind buzzed with questions: What lay ahead for me? What would I do? Who would help me? My friend dropped me in the town of Hamilton, northwest of Niagara Falls, and continued on to Rochester. I bought a one-way ticket to Toronto on a Gray Coach Lines bus – Canada’s version of Greyhound.
The bus pulled into Toronto in the early morning. I knew no one there, and had less than a hundred dollars to my name – all of it in my pocket. I found a phone book and looked up “draft resistance.” Sure enough, there was a number to call. I dialed the number and heard a sympathetic voice tell me how to get to a counseling center on the subway. By mid-morning I was sitting with a counselor in the office of the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme (TADP), who gave me a copy of the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, and told me I would probably qualify to become a legal immigrant to Canada if I could get a job offer. Meanwhile he sent me to an emergency hostel for new arrivals, and said he would try to place me in the home of supporters who could help me. They were really organized!
The hostel was a little depressing. New arrivals were a bit dazed and uncertain. My main problem was hunger; I noticed there was a nice big kitchen with lots of utensils but no food. So I asked where I could go to get some food, and was directed to a nearby shopping area with dozens of small shops, each specializing in fruit and vegetables, meats, fish, and so on. I brought back enough to feed myself and a few others and cooked up a meal. That seemed to help the general mood a bit.
The next day TADP called to say I had a place to stay with a University of Toronto professor and his family. I was beginning to like TADP quite a lot, and enjoyed reading their Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada – a professionally produced and very friendly guide created by fellow resisters in the two previous years. Our numbers were growing, and support was strong, thanks to the large Canadian anti-war movement.
My marvelous hosts – a professional couple with two children – fed me and made me feel more than merely welcome, giving me tips on navigating the Toronto subway and buses while I combed through the job ads. Within a week I found a job. I had worked during high school as a grocery clerk back home, so I found a supermarket job. I told the boss I was a draft resister, which was OK with him. So with a “solid job offer,” I planned a trip to nearby Buffalo, NY, to then re-enter Canada as a “landed immigrant.” In a couple weeks I made this first step in my new country. The job offer made it fairly simple for me to meet the 50-point requirement for immigrant status. Together with some college credit and passable English, I got in much easier than thousands of American military resisters who tried in later years.
I notified my parents in a letter once I was settled. It was the second shocker I gave them that year – the first was a phone call from Madison, Wisconsin, after landing there in February on a flight from San Francisco. It was a lot for them to digest, but after a year or so they planned a visit to Toronto. Meanwhile I wrote them lots of letters, trying to help them understand my viewpoint and decisions. In one letter I suggested the U.S. leadership was like a drunk driver hurtling through a curvy mountain pass in a car full of passengers – risking all our lives and endangering anyone passing by. I felt a duty to try and disable the driver and grab the steering wheel.
Building a life in my new home happened in steps: first I needed some financial help. During the McCarthy presidential campaign I had befriended Bill Johnson, who used his private airplane to carry the candidate to campaign appearances. I begged a loan of $1,000, promising to pay it back in a year. He came through with a check immediately. I was relieved a year later when I paid him back. It was very reassuring to have strong and willing support on both sides of the border. Bill and his friend Sam Brown came to Toronto that year to enlist exile support for the fall 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. We were very glad to see them, but we didn’t see much we could do from Canada at the time. Later we saw that an amnesty campaign would be a good anti-war vehicle, but at the time it felt premature.
After Bill’s check arrived I could take my next steps: a rented room and an old car to get me to work. Next, the search for friends and community. There was a constant stream of resisters – “draft dodgers and deserters” – arriving every week. TADP counselors referred me to the Union of American Exiles (UAE), who got together on the University of Toronto campus weekly for camaraderie, mutual advice and support. The conversations ranged from where to get decent cheap food and a place to stay, to what to do about the outrages back home. The U.S. presidential elections were in full swing in the fall of 1968. The UAE debated endorsing Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s candidacy or supporting Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie Party, reminding each other that back in Chicago the Yippies had nominated “Pigasus” (a real pig) as their candidate. We finally agreed to endorse Cleaver and the Black Panthers, and announced it in the UAE newsletter. After “Tricky Dick” Nixon won in November, we started planning for his “in-Hog-uration.” (Our battles with Nixon came later. For now he served mainly as justification for our decision to leave the USA.)
Belonging to a group of like-minded resisters was important at every level. First of all, basic necessity: finding people to live with. I met a draft dodger couple from Philadelphia, Charles and Maryanne Campbell, who had found a nice home they were willing to share with me: a cozy house in eastern Toronto’s “beaches” neighborhood, close to the shore of Lake Ontario. A charming street car served as public transportation. With three of us cooking, meals were hearty and so was the conversation. As college kids, we gravitated to the Union’s newsletter, and gradually became key writers and editors, helping to shape the lively debates in the exile community. We worked closely with the newsletter editor, Stan Pietlock, who was already successful in his transition to Canada, and dedicated himself to smoothing the entry for the rest of us. His gift was to make it fun – we had many enjoyable evenings of endless laughter together, while Stan showed us how to make the newsletter as professional and attractive as possible under the circumstances. He had worked for Newsweek before going north.
The debates revolved around priorities and identity: were we exiles or expatriates, and should we focus on politics or practical matters? I made a ripple with “Some Whiggish Notions,” arguing that self-help and mutual support must come first – “first food then politics,” to paraphrase Brecht. Not everyone agreed. Heroic martyrdom had some appeal, and for some, the sheer passionate need to express ourselves was vastly more important than mere food and shelter. But a communal Christmas dinner that first chilly year north of the border provided an eloquent reminder of basic priorities, as we pooled resources and “pot-lucked” a turkey with trimmings at our U of T meeting space. I never witnessed a turkey disappear so fast or so completely. The debates raged on again once everyone’s belly was full.
Expatriate vs. exile was a hot topic, not always cutting left or right. Many of us were so bitter at the rotten political situation back home that total rejection was the only thing that made sense. So we were expatriates. Others felt “rejected” or criminalized by the war criminals in charge in Washington, and viewed exile as temporary. For many – especially military deserters who by 1969 were showing up in dozens and hundreds – becoming an “expatriate” was not a realistic option. Guys who couldn’t get a college deferment either joined the military right out of high school, or were drafted. So after deserting (or going AWOL – “absent without official leave”), they came to Canada in desperation, and most were not able to put together the combination of qualifying points to get immigrant status. You had to combine education, work experience, money and other factors to make the minimum points to qualify. Without that, deserters could only be temporary visitors, living in a legal limbo. They became the basis for our first significant political struggle in Canada: a campaign to get the Canadian government to “open the doors” to U.S. military deserters.
This campaign found significant support among anti-war Canadian students, who exposed the fact that the government was colluding with the U.S. by refusing legal status to the deserters. The official Canadian government policy was that military status or obligations in a different country would not be considered relevant for people applying for immigrant status. Religious leaders pressed Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in this campaign, and got him to echo their position that Canada “should be a refuge from militarism,” which made a splash in the Toronto Daily Star. These words were welcome, but in practice the collusion continued. Anti-war Canadian students blew the government’s cover when five different students went to the border posing as a U.S. military deserter and applying for immigrant status. They went to five different border points, and each captured the immigration officers on tape telling him “you can’t qualify” as a deserter. This story was picked up by mainstream dailies like the Toronto Star and the semi-official Globe and Mail, and the campaign took off.
By this time “The American Exile in Canada” was in regular publication, and the UAE teamed up with the TADP to build the campaign. Much leadership came from Bill Spira, an intense “Canadian” who was himself a U.S. political expatriate from the anti-communist witch hunt waged by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Bill had nominated himself as our “godfather,” providing invaluable political savvy and truly fearless leadership. He helped us reach out to religious congregations and prominent individuals – which he had already done to help launch the TADP counseling center a few years earlier. Soon Canada’s largest Christian church, the United Church of Canada, together with the Canadian Society of Friends and others, helped spread the word that Canada should indeed be a refuge from militarism, and allow U.S. military deserters to become legal immigrants.
Meanwhile we published reports and editorials in “The American Exile in Canada,” and organized letter-writing to the government and parliament to build pressure. This type of campaign had significantly better prospects in Canada than it would have had in the USA – with about ten percent of the U.S. population, Canadian society was in a sense more neighborly, and the government a bit less distant. And our religious supporters had some genuine clout – more so than their U.S. counterparts.
Within a few months the government announced a “clarification” of its policy, mandating even-handed treatment for U.S. military deserters at the border. We were exultant with victory, but soon had to face the grim reality that “even-handed” treatment would not be enough. As long as our deserter brothers (and their families) had to amass the qualifying points to get immigrant status, in a point system designed to recruit more middle class applicants, the odds were stacked against them. It was a nearly hollow victory, and the flood of deserters coming to Canada became almost a rip tide of AWOL GIs going back home. But many didn’t leave Canada, instead opting to continue the underground existence they had been living already for months. And another large percentage did not turn themselves in to military authority on their return to the U.S., instead melting in to semi-underground status either with relatives or in the hundreds of anti-war communities that had sprung up like mushrooms all across the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was the “Age of Aquarius,” and the deserters had a kind of “angel dust,” so they could find some protection. Black GIs who went AWOL in many cases got help from sympathetic relatives and friends.
There were tragedies that punctuated the deserters’ desperation. Reports of suicides among deserters were frequent. They suffered an extremely precarious existence on the margins of Toronto’s youth culture. A few new institutions of self-help and mutual support sprang up. One was called “The Hall,” a hangout center where deserters could go for a meal and a referral to a place to stay. They could also watch movies or use The Hall’s library to read books, magazines, and an extensive collection of underground newspapers that had flourished on both sides of the border.
One of the mainstay volunteers at The Hall, Jack Colhoun, became an important influence on me and other editors of “The American Expatriate in Canada.” (We had changed the newsletter’s name to reflect the shift in dominant attitudes, especially among more middle class draft resisters, in our community.) The newsletter had become more and more important for us as the months wore on. We had lots to write about, and needed a way to reach out, not only to the broader community of exiled war resisters, but to supporters back home.
When I visited The Hall to better understand the reality deserters were facing, I met Jack, who sat me down to talk about what this reality meant, and what we should do about it.
Jack was definitely on the exile side of the debate. A deserter himself, but from an ROTC program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he had recently graduated, he was studying for a doctorate in U.S. history at York University, with plans to return to the USA and teach. Jack’s adviser was the well-known anti-war historian Gabriel Kolko, author of The Roots of American Foreign Policy, which came out in 1969, as well as numerous other important books, like The Triumph of Conservatism, The Politics of War, Anatomy of a War, Anatomy of a Peace, Century of War, Confronting the Third World, and more. I came to understand why colleagues said Kolko could write books “faster than we can read them” – definitely true in my case.
When Kolko and his wife Joyce invited me over a few weeks later, he personally gave me a copy of The Roots, urging me to read it right away in order to clear my mind of liberal confusion. It was worth the short time it took me to read it. They also confided to me that they were ardent supporters of the GI resistance movement, which he characterized as the true “working class anti-war movement.” This comment struck me with an impact that only deepened over the years, ultimately having a major influence on my later political thinking and activities. Gabriel and Joyce Kolko had a full partnership: while he was listed as author of all his books, he acknowledged her as a full collaborator, and in some cases, co-author. They were both brilliant and committed anti-imperialists who played a significant role in the anti-war movement.
Jack Colhoun made me think very hard about the “exile vs. expatriate” question, in the context of deserter desperation, as well as the intense political situation in the U.S. He insisted that we should be demanding amnesty, which I had publicly opposed in 1970 when Tom Hayden (co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, author of the Port Huron Statement, and co-defendant at the famous trial of the Chicago 7) came to an exile conference in Montreal and called on us to demand amnesty as part of the anti-war movement. My editorial in response argued that such a demand would show weakness, not strength, and might be considered a form of tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the war government. This argument may seem silly in retrospect; at the time, however, it reflected the deep and genuine feelings of many war resisters in Canada. But things were changing.
In fact our new life in Canada reflected the continuous change that was the only constant for our generation during the Vietnam years. For me, digging in as a “new Canadian” became a personal project to deepen my political understandings, and to become familiar with people struggling for better change in Canada. There was a vibrant Canadian left at that moment. One strand was the leftish “Waffle” movement of the New Democratic Party, which espoused a moderate socialist program. It had a fairly solid following among trade unionists and others. Waffle leaders coined their weird name saying “we’d rather waffle to the left than the right” on issues of Canadian nationalism. I followed their activities and publications closely, became familiar with their discourse and struggles, and joined in at rallies and picket lines.
Further to the left, and more attractive to me, were the editors of Transformation magazine (not to be confused with a more recent publication known as “the world’s leading transgender lifestyle magazine,” published in Los Angeles for the past 30 years or so). My Transformation was a self-published theoretical journal edited by two independent Marxist women – Halley and Maryanne (I forget last names) – who literally took me by the hand and taught me to think like a Marxist. They had dedicated themselves to training new “anti-warriors” like me in the fine points of Marxism. We would sit together for hours reading aloud from Mao Zedong’s Four Essays on Philosophy, discussing the intricacies of dialectical materialism as applied to planning for revolution. We also read Friedrich Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which became a cornerstone text for me alongside The Communist Manifesto, as well as Lenin’s State and Revolution, and What Is to Be Done? This was a deeply transformative education for me, which has formed the basis of my thinking ever since that time: I became a Marxist and socialist.
The logical next step was to try to become involved with Canadian workers. This search brought me back to Bill Spira, the war resister expatriates’ “godfather,” who had to some extent lost faith in me due to my participation in the activities of the Union of American Exiles. He disapproved because he always counseled us to “blend in” as new Canadians. But when he listened to my new-found Marxist thinking, he had just the right thing for me: working with him as an organizer for a Canadian textile workers union. I would be the “inside guy” while he worked with me on home visitations from outside. So that’s what we did: I got myself hired to work at the Puretex factory not far from my first supermarket job in Toronto’s northern suburb, where I could get to know the workers, and talk up the union – the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union. This union was led by passionate reds, completely independent of Canada’s affiliate of the AFL-CIO, but allied with a Canadian federation of independent unions. They were hard working, inspired organizers, and our collaboration bore fruit.
The Puretex workers were mainly recent Italian immi-grants, about 80 percent women and 20 percent men. As first generation immigrants, they retained their political views from the old country: mainly leftist and pro-union. So winning their support for a union was not hugely difficult: we just had to get their home addresses and visit them. They welcomed us, and after listening to our union spiel, they would serve coffee or wine and tell their stories, not only of the bad conditions at the Puretex factory, but also in Italy. And “yes,” they would say, “a union is what we need.” For me it was a living textbook in organizing: copying people’s car license plate numbers, searching for their addresses, visiting their homes, and then forming a secret inside committee of potential union leaders and activists.
It wasn’t always easy, of course, and we made at least one costly mistake: trying to convince a young woman who worked in the company office to join us. She was against it, which annoyed Bill, who said something like “just wait, you’ll come around before long.” I did not recall a threatening tone at the time, but a few nights later I was confronted as I left the plant by the girl’s boyfriend and his buddies, who jumped me and gave me a good beating. Only the fact that they pulled my coat over my head prevented serious head injuries. They mainly meant to scare me, which they did. I had already been transferred to the night shift after a foreman got wind of my “double duty,” so my effectiveness in the plant was pretty much finished. I suggested to Bill that I should quit and let the long-term workers take over. The women leaders were ready, and soon they mounted a large-scale public campaign for union recognition, which they won, after months of struggle.
Bill reluctantly agreed to let me go, disappointed that I would not stay the course. It was especially disappointing for him that my friend Jack had convinced me that I should work for “Amex” full-time so we could develop a major campaign for amnesty. (“Amex” was our new name for The American Exile/Expatriate in Canada – finessing the identity debate.)
My first three years in Canada were deeply transformative for me. “Coming of age” is a major transition under any circumstances, and in some ways my circumstances were ideal. I really liked Canada. I was happy to have found many interesting friends, and was able to get back into college, despite other priorities. It was hard to stay focused on undergraduate studies while involved in a major, transformative learning experience that included helping others for whom the life changes were overwhelming. And while I had very little money and was struggling in college, I was learning every day.
My transition to Marxist thinking was definitely the big thing for me, largely thanks to my Canadian friends and the new environment. But the most important influence for me was Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese liberation movement. The 1968 Tet chant rang true: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam is gonna win!” I read and re-read Ho’s biography, and everything I could get my hands on about Vietnam. For me there was no question: “our side” was the Vietnamese side. The other side was the enemy in Washington. Ho was the ultimate patriot, declaring that for a colonized country like Vietnam, “patriotism is applied internationalism.” Ho made it clear that for those of us living in imperialist countries, our duty was international solidarity, and rejection of false imperialist “patriotism.” Since the leading “patriot” in the USA was war criminal Nixon, it wasn’t too difficult for me to figure it out.
In late 1970 I met a young woman, Carol Woolverton, who became my partner and lifelong friend. Our relationship was solid for four years in Toronto, and we decided to return together to the USA in 1974, after draft refusal charges against me were dismissed on a technicality two years earlier. We got married at a chapel in Reno after visiting my parents in Oakland and then hitchhiked to a July 4 VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) demonstration in Washington, DC.
Our wedding was opportunistic: we wanted U.S. immigration status for Carol, and getting married was the easiest way to get it. While the stresses of “re-entry” and my immaturity doomed our long-term prospects, we remained life-long friends and comrades after separating in late 1975. We had traveled together to Portugal to witness the revolution there, and she decided to stay a while longer. When she returned a year later, she was pregnant and needed some help. I was more than willing, so despite her anger at me she let me share some parenting chores for her beautiful baby, Jonas, who remains my “godson” to this day. Carol died of cancer in 2010.
My decision to refuse the draft and leave the USA for Canada was life-changing and formative. It was the beginning of a life quest that has been never-ending. Instead of pursuing a career, I have dedicated most of my life to constant efforts to learn about and “change the world.” In the process I “missed out” on some aspects of a “normal life,” opting instead for a variety of adventures which were all in pursuit of the elusive goal of change. There have been few shining moments, and numerous unfortunate setbacks. But the quest continues. Along the way I have sustained a sense of “revolutionary optimism,” that I am part of a widening and deepening stream of expanded consciousness about new and better possibilities.
I think a long view helps. Back in the sixties and seventies there was a sense of urgency about change, followed by frustration at shortcomings and setbacks. But the amazing success of our struggle for amnesty, together with the defeat of Nixon, who was forced to resign in disgrace in 1974, have served as examples and reminders for me that change is possible, and that solidarity and perseverance can lead to encouraging breakthroughs. This fostered over-optimism following the exhilarating triumph of Vietnam’s liberation forces in 1975. I started to believe in the discredited “domino theory,” and looked for a steady succession of new anti-imperialist victories around the world, and to a long “springtime” of progressive thinking at home. So the tidal wave of post-Vietnam reaction ushered in by Ronald Reagan in 1980, which has raged unabated ever since, caught me by surprise. (Reagan dedicated his presidency to overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome” – a widespread reluctance among people in the USA to engage in more Vietnam-style interventionist adventures.) I have never ceased to be optimistic, and I stubbornly continue to believe that the force of solidarity and struggle is the force of life itself, and that it will prevail.
The resurgence of struggle – both in the streets and the ballot box – brought on by Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the COVID19 pandemic and related depression, feels to me like springtime after a long winter.
1. See Chicago ’68, by David Farber; Chicago: The Whole World is Watching, Adam Cooper and Nile Southern (eds), with J.C. Gabel and Meg Handler; Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer – among many other sources.
2. The odds are still against today’s U.S. military resisters who seek refuge in Canada. Political support has not overcome government rejection.