Growing up in America in a post-Vietnam world, I had always assumed that draft dodgers had come to Canada illegally. Sure, Canada had turned a blind eye to it and allowed so many to stay, but it’s easy enough to live under the table for a few years.

It was a surprise to me when I was watching a CBC documentary and a former draft dodger talked about getting his papers in order and another mentioned showing her immigration paperwork to the FBI. This prompted me to do a bit of research into the Canadian immigration programs that existed during the Vietnam War. What I discovered was surprising. The vast majority of draft dodgers came to Canada legally. However, there was never a special provision for draft-aged American men.

Canadian immigration in the Vietnam era

After WWII, Canada viewed immigration as a tool for economic growth. After 1952, the Immigration Act gave priority status to Americans, among other specific nationalities such as Australians and British nationals. In 1967, the points system was introduced, giving preference for young people with marketable skills, a modified version of this system still exists today.

The young men being called up for the draft in the US were skilled workers and educated professionals who were eligible for immigration. One of the reasons we have so little solid information on draft dodgers is precisely that — they are simply classified as legal immigrants from the US.

Not all draft-age men who immigrated were actually drafted by the US military. Men who initiated the immigration process before they were called up by the draft were not breaking the law by moving to Canada and could therefore travel freely between both countries.

Others came to Canada for months or years, but never obtained landed immigrant status and simply lived in a cash economy without a valid work permit or residency status. This was the fate of many military deserters and those who could not meet immigration requirements.

How many Americans fled to Canada?

In 1971 and 1972, the US was the largest source country of immigrants to Canada. Still, it’s estimated that fewer than 40,000 Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft and half of them returned to the US after they were pardoned by President Carter in 1977. President Ford offered amnesty to deserters and draft dodgers. Deserters have not received a blanket pardon and are occasionally still arrested and charged if they return to the US but have not requested a pardon beforehand.

Immigration statistics show that about 20,000 to 30,000 draft-age American men immigrated to Canada during the Vietnam era. Others estimate up to 125,000 Americans moved to Canada in protest of the war. Around 60,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War. Nearly 90,000 US armed services personnel deserted in 1970 alone.

Unexpectedly, more women than men immigrated to Canada during this time, although women were not drafted. While American war resisters made up a large group of immigrants, they made up less than 2.3% of immigrants to Canada at the height.

While American men were resisting the draft, around 30,000 Canadians volunteered to serve in Vietnam with the US armed forces.

How did Vietnam war resisters immigrate?

Those interested in coming to Canada to avoid the draft were aided by groups like the Student Union for Peace Action, Committee to Aid American War Objectors, and the Anti-Draft Programme. Mark Satin of the Anti-Draft Programme wrote the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada. It sold 65,000 copies and mimeographed copies were widely distributed.

Canada is one of a handful of countries that open their doors to ambitious young people. While this has long been the case, the process today is decidedly more onerous than it was during the Vietnam Era. In the 1960s, prospective immigrants could complete their application form at the border, through the mail, from within Canada, or at a Consulate.

While Canadian border agents had the discretion to ask about military service and bar deserters from immigrating, it was up to the individual agent to ask these questions. The general policy was not to refuse an otherwise qualified immigrant for suspected draft evasion, but to deny enlisted men who could not provide proof of discharge. In May 1969, anti-war activists successfully made it policy that no questions about military status would be asked. This was the only concession Canada made for American war resisters.

Prime Minister Trudeau viewed deserters as being criminally inadmissible to Canada. While Canada has an extradition treaty with the US, draft resistance was not an offense worthy of extradition. This meant that if you could make it into Canada, you’d essentially be in the clear from being extradited back to the US.

Canada’s point system, introduced in 1967, evaluated applicants according to their education and training, occupational demand, occupational skill, age, arranged employment, knowledge of French or English, family connections, and employment opportunities at their destination.

Americans could enter Canada as visitors and then apply for landed immigrant status while in Canada until November 1972. Points for arranged employment would only be awarded to those who applied at the border, meaning that draft dodgers who did not have enough points without a job offer had to enter Canada as a visitor, find a job, re-enter the US, and re-apply at the Canadian border. You can imagine how stressful this would be, knowing they could be arrested in the US when they briefly returned in order to re-enter Canada.

Until July 1973, potential immigrants could appeal their immigration decision after it had been denied and appeal deportation orders. In 1973, the Adjustment of Status Program aimed to eliminate the immigration backlog and end the visitor immigration application program. The number of applicants from this program suggest that half of the draft dodgers and deserters immigrated through a straightforward process and half went through a ‘backdoor’ process.

In the Vietnam era, large sections of the US-CAN border were unguarded. Illegal immigrants could simply walk across and enter Canada. They could also enter Canada as a visitor and overstay their visitor visa.

It can be assumed that many of the illegal immigrants to Canada later gained landed immigrant status through the 1973 Adjustment, marriage to a Canadian, or returned to the US after amnesty was granted in the US.

Immigration was significantly cheaper during the Vietnam era. The Right of Landing Fee was not instituted until 1995. People recall hitchhiking to the border — something that would likely get you turned away from the border today.

The biggest difference was the fact that those who immigrated to Canada to avoid the draft — or deserted their military service — did so knowing they may never be able to re-enter the US. They moved to Canada knowing they were leaving their friends and family behind, forever.

Who moved to Canada?

Draft evaders failed to register for the draft, failed to show up for processing, or failed to report for military service. All of these are civilian offenses. Men who moved to Canada after registering for the draft, but prior to being drafted, are also referred to as draft dodgers. Draft dodgers were often college educated. They generally had no problems immigrating to Canada and settling into a new life. Many draft evaders could legally return to the US without fear of arrest, so long as they had left before they were drafted.

Deserters had enlisted in the armed forces, signing an oath. In the US, breaking this oath is a crime prosecutable by the military courts. Many had volunteered, only to discover that the military did not live up to its promises of jobs and education or decided they were morally opposed to the war. Deserters faced additional barriers to gain landed immigrant status in Canada, which would allow them to get a job legally, sign a lease, get a drivers license, etc. They were also generally not eligible for Canadian Citizenship.

What happened once they arrived?

Most draft dodgers settled in the major cities — Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. They have been described as the largest, best educated immigrant group to come to Canada. Draft dodgers and deserters are disproportionately represented among prominent Canadians.

In Toronto, vocal draft resisters settled in Baldwin Village, adjacent to Kensington Market. Today, you’d hardly know this block of restaurants harkens back to war resistance. The groups that once supported war resisters have long since disbanded. After the pardon of 1977, communities of Americans living in Canada slowly dissolved. Now they are simply Canadians.

If you’d like to learn more about American Vietnam war resisters in Canada, check out John Hagan’s highly regarded Northern Passage.