The wages of exile — American war resisters in Canada

Rick Ayers
6 min readAug 4, 2022

I turned in my draft card and sent it back to my draft board in October of 1967. The anti-war movement was large and growing — our protests escalating and our militancy escalating — but nothing we did stopped our government’s genocidal aggression against the people of Vietnam. On this National Day of Resistance, many of us who were university students, protected from the draft by the privilege of a 2-S deferment, declared that we would no longer accept that exemption. We would gum up the system with our bodies, refuse to fight in the war.

Things moved quickly. In November my local draft board reclassified me 1A and ordered me to report for induction. I tried an appeal but it was short-lived. The lawyer assigned to me by the draft board, who was supposed to support my appeal, denounced me as a communist and said he hoped I was drafted soon. With an induction date set for March, 1968, I faced three choices: go into the army as an anti-war GI (where I feared I would suffer “blanket parties,” beatings for being a leftist), go to prison (where I would probably face two to three years), or go to Canada, where they were accepting Americans and not returning them. I headed north.

Canada in the late 60’s was the landing point for thousands of people either resisting the draft (“draft dodgers”) or escaping after they were already in the military (“deserters”). Migrating to Canada was not the end of the story. Besides the personal life of these new Canadians — jobs, loves, growth — the political landscape they were part of was endlessly complicated. Dee Knight’s compelling new memoir, My Whirlwind Lives, expresses the shape and the feel of those years and illuminates the issues that were at stake. He captures the many ways that Americans in Canada came together to question and debate what we were doing there and how to continue the struggle for peace and justice.

My first point of contact with the new immigrants, as well as Dee’s, was the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, a community center that provided counseling, legal help, survival networks, and political organizing. I got to know Bernie Jaffe there and ran into friends from Ann Arbor who were making the same trek northward. Everything was up for debate. For instance, should we regard ourselves as exiles or expatriates? There were serious implications with each term. Those who felt disgusted with the whole US enterprise, who wanted out for good, preferred expatriate. Others argued that we were still part of the struggle against the war, and that we had been exiled — and were, then, exiles.

There was another dimension to this distinction. If we were only focused on the US, only looking south, were we arrogantly refusing to understand Canadian politics, the huge struggles there around social programs, First Nations sovereignty, independence for Quebec? Now that we were new Canadians, weren’t we responsible to be where we were? Dee Knight takes us through these dilemmas and his activism on both fronts, opposing US imperialism and joining social struggles in Ontario.

In August, 1968, I sat in a friend’s living room in Toronto watching the police riot at the Democratic Party convention. It was agonizing seeing my friends beaten, my comrades’ political fight against the war coming to a head. And where was I? Safely in Canada. Sitting it out. Was this it? Was absenting myself from the war the whole of my contribution? It was a terrible feeling. Many people today consider leaving the US as the fascist political movements ascend, to protect themselves, to protect their children. But exiles typically face a deep sense of ambivalence and contradiction. I did; Dee Knight did. I was out there, away from the front lines, while my brothers and sisters were caught in the vortex, still in the cauldron, still battling. Exile is a possible option, but it’s neither pain free nor easy — it’s not the end of the doubts or fears, the questions or tough choices ahead.

In his memoir, Dee Knight also explores the class and racial divisions in the American exile community. Generally the dodgers were college kids, those with the social mobility and contacts to get out ahead of the draft. The deserters, who were more and more numerous as the 60’s wore on into the 70’s, were mostly working class, often Black or Brown. They had gotten pulled into the draft and then confronted the reality of imperial invasion and occupation up-close — and they made the courageous choice to join the great migration away from war. Canadian immigration law itself was an oppressive sorting mechanism, with a point system that gave priority to those with more money, more education. Often army deserters were the ones who continued to be fugitives, even in the north.

When I moved to Vancouver, I got involved with projects that prioritized working with deserters. We called ourselves neither expats nor exiles, but refugees. We set up a free hostel as well as counseling. We arranged job opportunities and even some immigration marriages. Facing an impossible immigration system, we started learning how to make fake Canadian identification papers. Breaking the law seemed completely legitimate in the face of the illegal and genocidal war that was raging.

The next chapter for me took me to the other side of the resistance movement — into the military. While in 1968 I thought that the military culture would be gung-ho and isolating, by 1969 it was clear from my work with deserters that the US military machine was in crisis, was falling apart, in the face of the defeat they were suffering in Vietnam. By 1969, anti-war Vietnam veterans as well as active-duty GIs were a leading force in anti-war activities and the front line in all large demonstrations. So I headed back to Chicago, along with my partner and her daughter, to turn myself in and accept induction. I openly organized anti-war sentiment while training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, and Fort Polk, LA — which is another story. But I could never let them ship me to Vietnam so in March, 1970, I went AWOL and my path entered another crossroads with the Dee Knight story, the struggle for amnesty.

In most countries, the end of a war means a general amnesty for combatants of all sides. Since so many have been fighting, there would never be an end to conflict unless they allowed most people to come back in. But amnesty is a hard pill for US war-makers to swallow. What was at stake was how to understand the war itself — the war to explain the war. The politicians wanted some kind of conditional amnesty — perhaps requiring a few years of civilian service or perhaps giving more severe punishment to army deserters than to the draft dodgers. The anti-draft and anti-war community fought for years, from 1972 to 1977, for a full, unconditional amnesty.

In fact, I got back from being underground under that amnesty. I flew from Toronto to New York in March, 1977. The police at Kennedy airport wrestled me to the ground in a dramatic arrest but then sent me to Fort Dix, NJ. There I was housed with hundreds of other returning AWOLs. In a few weeks I was simply discharged, with a “less than honorable” status.

Dee Knight gives a good accounting of the many ups and downs of the struggle for amnesty, including a thorough analysis by himself and outspoken army deserter Jack Calhoun of the amnesty debates. It highlights the real questions that we are still grappling with. Why do we consider killing for the empire honorable and resisting the killing cowardly? Why aren’t antiwar fighters honored as veterans? Why is John McCain, a war criminal who bombed civilians, held up as a great American, and those who forced the war to an end described as the problem?

It all has to do with the next war and the one after that. The war-makers needed to besmirch the resistance, to lie about the horrors of the war and why the US lost, out of fear that the appetite for invasion and aggression will erode among the American population. The subsequent wars and invasions of Grenada and Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan, all depended on keeping the lies of American innocence and good intentions intact. My Whirlwind Lives is an important reminder of the stakes of war — in the lives of those who are invaded, and in the lives of those in the imperialist center.



Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is professor emeritus of education at the University of San Francisco.