Saturday, March 26, 2011
Montreal Council to Aid War Resisters. My Involvement.
When we returned to Montreal after the European trip we didn't return to the charity house in the Point, but moved into an apartment in the McGill student ghetto. Our second son, Julian, was born not long after our return. The fact that we didn't return to the Point and that we named our son "Julian" is an indication that we had been gradually drifting away from the practice of Catholicism. As far as I know, the name "Julian" has no particular resonance with the Church and was chosen because I was reading Julian by Gore Vidal; not a particularly religious association; we simply liked the name. Pope John XXIII had died a few years previously and the movement in the Church to retrench was slowly, but surely, establishing itself. Our disengagement from the Church followed the metaphor suggested by Wittgenstein of the assault on an impregnable fortress; there was never a definitive moment when it was captured, rather, individual by individual, the fortress fell by being deserted. The drift away from Catholicism went almost unnoticed by us and took several years more before I definitively acknowledged it, though my wife subsequently re-engaged in a very committed way.
We were increasingly implicated in the secular political movements of the Sixties: my wife with feminism and myself with the peace movement. Because our baby sitters for the boys were mainly students, our apartment became a hang-out for dope-smoking students drawn from the counter-cultural movement of the time. I remember the first time I got stoned with Phillipe; a short, cute,very long haired, guitar playing, song writer and student. He wrote several of the most popular songs of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. I had smoked before to no particular effect and he was determined to get me really stoned. He suggested I go into the small closet (how appropriate!) in his bedroom, sit on the floor with the door closed and smoke. When I came out I was hallucinating stained glass windows and totally enjoying it, though there was also a strong and disconcerting attraction to Phillipe. There were long, enjoyable, wine-drinking, dope-smoking evenings, sitting on pillows on the living room floor, the boys running or crawling around and listening to Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and the Beatlles. Several of those students subsequently became well know cultural figures, as artists and musicians. There was a relative absence of boundaries between the students and my wife and I, which never provoked any feelings of conflict, even when they might have been in my classes.
One of those students related that another student had been involved in the theft of the heart of Brother Andre (recently declared a saint) from St. Joseph's Oratory; an event that provoked a major reaction in Montreal. I don't recall the student's name and, after all, he was just recounting a rumour. The theft was reputedly motivated for ransom, but seemed to be regarded as more of a prank by the students. The heart was returned to the Oratory several years later, evidently with no ransom paid. Before the theft the heart had been kept in a sort of elaborate Mason's jar at the Oratory, filled with formaldehyde and fashioned as a reliquary before which the faithful could pray. The practice of saving bits and pieces of holy people in hopes that they might some day be declared saints is one of the more gruesome and primitive practices of the Catholic Church. A toe nail, for example, might become a valuable source of offerings for a religious order, so saving body pieces with a view to future canonization functions as a sort of futures market in holiness. I imagine there must be some sort of exchange, an All Saints EBay, through which pieces of saints get parcelled out to various religious institutions and individuals that can afford to make the expected offering in return.
I became active with the Montreal Council to Aid War Resisters, a group established to assist draft dodgers to enter Canada and, subsequently, help them get settled. The Montreal Council was started one or two years previously by two American resisters: Ed Miller, a child psychologist, and Vance Gardener, a child care worker. After a few months of attending meetings of the group, Ed and Vance asked me to become the third member of their executive. Happily, it wasn't a group that practiced democracy in its organizational structure or operations, but consisted simply of the executive and a large body of volunteers. I have never liked committee meetings or political infighting and am very happy to initiate an organization, then move on and leave others to run it. Especially in the Sixties and Seventies having a democratic structure was most often a recipe for endless discussions, meetings and conflict; we wanted the Council to be focused on efficiently providing services. Those services included publishing a continuously updated news sheet on how to get across the border and establish immigrant status in Canada of which tens of thousands of copies were distributed. We also had volunteers who would put up draft dodgers in their homes until they became settled in Canada and a group of professionals who would provide them with legal and emotional counseling when it was required. We also had contacts in other countries through which we could move resisters out of Canada if they were unable to establish immigrant status here, which at the beginning happened particularly with deserters.
When deserters began arriving we assisted them as well, but they did often present problems for us. Draft dodgers were mostly drawn from the middle class and were often college students who had lost their deferrals after graduation or because of political activism. Deserters tended to be working class, often had enlisted in the armed forces and were more likely to have experienced emotional and legal problems not directly related to their opposition to the War. There is no question that they provided a challenge for the volunteer base of the Montreal Council, who had been accepting boarding draft dodgers in their homes with only minor and occasional issues, but were encountering severe emotional problems and an inability to trust many deserters. No doubt this was partly a class issue as many of our volunteers were professionals; many of them university professors; but class issues are, nevertheless, realities. It wasn't long before deserters organized themselves into their own organization: the American Deserters Committee. Overall, we managed to maintain a relatively collaborative relationship, but there were certainly tensions in terms of political differences and styles.
I don't want to go into detail regarding those relationships as you can research them yourself by Googling my name and the Montreal Council to Aid War Resisters. For old times sake and as an illustration of the conflicts of which I speak, I suggest, if you do attempt such a search, that you be cautious regarding the memoirs of Gary Davis. I have only the vaguest memories of him and recall some events quite differently. I don't believe he was ever, as he claims, director of the Montreal Council, nor did it merge with another organization in the late Seventies. In fact, Vance and myself met a year or more after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 to formally dissolve the Council and took legal steps to maintain it in reserve should the need arise to resurrect it in the future. However, I feel the need to pull back to another level of discourse and remind myself of my own awareness that memory is not the domain of fact, but of narration.
One of the difficulties we faced in the work with the Montreal Council was that we could never be sure with whom we were dealing. We knew there were agents provocateurs and informers amongst both deserters and dodgers; placed there by either American or Canadian law enforcement agencies. The Council was supported financially by our volunteer base, the United Church, the Mennonites and left-leaning, nationalist organizations in Quebec, such as the Quebec Federation of Labour. We also had benefit concerts, one of which featured Jessie Winchester, Louise Forestier and, if I remember correctly, Pete Seeger and filled Place des Arts.
One day I was asked to meet with a man who introduced himself as an official of the QFL and wanted an update on our operations. Out of caution, since I hadn't met him previously, I politely gave him the sketchiest possible answers to his questions. I lived close to the RCMP building at the time, which was located in Westmount, a bit further west than it is today. The building had a main, public entrance on St. Catherine and an entrance on the side street for staff. Walking by the building not too long after my meeting with the alleged official from the QFL, I saw him entering the building by the side door. From time to time we would receive calls, supposedly from Canadian immigration agents, relating that someone was at a border point and had given our name as a person he intended to visit. If we had no communication with a person by that name, we had to say that we didn't know them, even if it meant they would probably be refused entry and turned over to the American border officials. There was always a possibility of entrapment.
As the Vietnam War expanded and the peace movement grew, the flow of draft dodgers and deserters into Canada grew proportionally. I became uncomfortable with the fact that I was continuing to cooperate with the agency which ran the draft in the USA, while thousands of people I was assisting had made the choice to no longer do so. To be sure many of those who fled to Canada came simply because they didn't want to be killed or maimed in a pointless war, which is a reasonable enough motive; however, many exiled themselves in protest against war in general or the Vietnam War in particular. I, along with very many middle class kids, had always maintained a student exemption, which was followed by an exemption for teachers. I decided that I wanted to make my own gesture of non-compliance with the draft and the war, so I tore my selective service registration card into pieces and mailed it to the board with which I was registered with a letter stating my opposition to the war and my decision to no longer cooperate with them.
A couple of weeks later, two FBI agents visited my parents. They asked questions about my political affiliations and activities, where I was currently living and whether I planned to stay there. Shortly after that I received a letter from the draft board revoking my exemptions. A couple of years later I received a certificate revoking my American citizenship on the grounds that I had sworn allegiance to a foreign power. I filed an appeal to the revocation, but never received a response. Consequently, there were several years when it wasn't safe for me to visit the States, which was difficult for my family and meant I had to be careful that travel routes didn't potentially risk a landing there. The RCMP increased their surveillance of me as well. Sometimes it was obvious that the papers in my office were no longer where I had left them the day before. Many years later, my secretary at McGill, a woman with whom I had a very good relationship, told me that the RCMP had visited her and requested that she inform them of any activities she felt were suspicious. Each time a significant American governmental figure visited Ottawa, she would receive a call from them asking where I was. Her informing on me despite our relationship is an illustration of how intimidated people in any country can be to government pressure to collaborate. It seemed possible that I might never be able to return to the States; a status I was more comfortable sharing with other resisters than taking advantage of my privileged position as a student and academic.
At some point in the late Seventies or early Eighties there was a court decision in the States ruling that American citizenship could not be revoked unless it was formally renounced. I applied for a passport to test what my status was with the American government and received one with no difficulty, but was still unsure of whether there could be criminal charges against me. As my parents had become quite elderly, were finding it more difficult to travel to Canada and missed my being able to visit them, I decided with my partner of the time to take the risk of crossing the border with my new passport. It was an experience similar to going through the exit controls in Hungary, but somewhat more anxiety-producing, as this time I was mature enough to appreciate the potential risks. Happily, there were no problems, but it was an anxious few minutes when the border agent typed my name into the computer. It wasn't long after that visit that an amnesty was granted to draft dodgers, but deserters can remain subject to prosecution if they cross into the States. I think that had the increasing sophistication of border information systems deployed after 9/11 been in place at the time it's likely I wouldn't have crossed without difficulties.
It was through the anti-war movement that I met political activists who were openly gay for the first time. One, Michael Hendriks, was an American resister and later became a leading figure in the successful struggle for the recognition of gay marriage in Canada. The other was John Southin, a Canadian professor of biology at McGill, who had been very active in helping Cuba after the revolution to establish an impressive curriculum in higher education. John was to become a close ally in the organization of the gay liberation movement in Montreal and has commented on some previous posts in my blog. My transition from being an anti-war activist to gay liberation was a path that many people on the left took; one that I want to reflect upon in my next post.