For Craig Wiester of Minneapolis, fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War meant losing a country, a way of life — and his father.
"He felt it was a man's duty to go when his country called," Wiester said Thursday at the opening of a four-day reunion and peace event to honor U.S. draft resisters who fled to Canada and the Canadians who assisted them.
Organizers were expecting hundreds of draft resisters and their Canadian supporters to attend the gathering, which includes workshops and panel discussions at Selkirk College and the nearby Brilliant Cultural Center in this town about 120 miles north of Spokane.
A controversial statue commemorating the welcoming of U.S. military draft dodgers to Canada during the Vietnam War 35 years ago, sits on display after it was unveiled during a ceremony in Castlegar, British Columbia July 7, 2006. The ceremony was part of a weekend reunion of war resisters and peace activists from the Vietnam War years. REUTERS/Andy Clark (CANADA)
Speakers and participants include former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, 83, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 who lost to Richard Nixon; former California state Sen. Tom Hayden, an anti-war student activist during the 1960s; and Arun Ghandi, grandson of Mahatma Ghandi.
Wiester, a native of Ohio, said his father, a World War II veteran, despised the Vietnam War but "wouldn't admit to any of his conservative friends ... that he hated it" and was even more upset when his son decided not to report for military service.
Learning that his father had called the FBI and his draft board, he fled north and lived for eight years in Montreal. Wiester said he had never before done anything to either meet or avoid people like himself.
"I decided this was important for me. This was a way of validating that experience," he said. "The question is, why are we dishonored still in American society?"
Michael Klein and his wife, Barbara, parents of activist and author Naomi Klein, fled New York City in 1967 where he had been practicing family medicine for years.
Now living on the West Coast, they decided it was important to attend the reunion.
"For the resisters, you see some who lost their families, lost their friendships," Klein said. "Many people disowned them."
Hundreds of Vietnam war-era draft resisters settled in and around the Slocan Valley, about 370 miles east of Vancouver, British Columbia. They were among nearly 50,000 Americans of draft age who moved to Canada in the late 1960s and early '70s.
After then-President Jimmy Carter granted an amnesty in 1977, about half returned and the rest remained in Canada.
Reunion organizers noted that the scenic West Kootenay region also welcomed thousands of Doukhobors, pacifists who emigrated to Canada to escape religious persecution in Russia at the end of the 19th century.
Planning for the reunion began nearly two years ago and engendered a heated controversy when organizers announced plans for a sculpture to honor the resisters.
City officials in nearby Nelson, B.C., initially welcomed the Welcoming Peace sculpture, a statue showing a Canadian with arms open to greet two Americans, but withdrew support in the ensuing flap.
In May, reunion organizers announced that the statue would be placed in the Doukhobor Village Museum in Castlegar, a half-hour drive from Nelson, but officials in Castlegar also said no.
The bronze statue now resides at a private art gallery in Nelson.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company