Long-Read: The Evolution of Canadian National Identity During the Vietnam War

Identity and personal history are important aspects of anyone’s life. Anthony D. Smith, a British historical sociologist, defined national identity as the “feeling of belonging, closeness or attachment to a nation…associated with certain myths.”[1] These myths being the traits and characteristics that Canadians identify themselves as, regardless of how much truth they hold. In terms of national identity, Canadians find themselves in a unique and sometimes frustrating position. As a nation, Canada is very young. The dominion of Canada has existed for fewer than two hundred years and Canadian passports only came into circulation after 1947. Sarah V. Wayland notes that Canadian identity was hindered in the early years due to language divides, a high immigrant population, a weak federal government, regionalism and the long-term dependency on the motherland.[2] These hurdles, however, never stopped the Canadian government from attempting to instill a sense of national identity and unity. For much of its early history, immigration was tightly controlled, as the federal and provincial governments tried to maintain a white, protestant, European identity; doing so by rooting out “non-assimilable elements.”[3] During the first and second world wars, the government would attempt to muster support for the fight; espousing a nation that was willing to stand up for freedom and peace. In the modern era, the federal government would introduce a series of social welfare programs that set the nation apart from others in the western world. Still later, the multicultural and bilingual bills introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would both solidify and confuse Canadian identity.

The Vietnam war era would prove to be a critical time in Canada’s maturation. Some study has been done examining the effects the Vietnam war had on Canada, particularly in the area of politics, economics and civil disobedience but little has investigated the evolution of Canadian myths in the same context. Content in the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, suggests that Canadian involvement in the Vietnam war contributed to the development of national identity and commonly held myths relating to her role as a peacekeeper and a nation independent of the United States.

Officially, Canada’s only direct involvement in the Vietnam war was that of a neutral peacekeeper. Indirectly, Canada accepted Vietnamese refugees and harboured an estimated 30,000 American draft dodgers.[4] Later records show that Canada was secretly involved with the Agent Orange project, arms testing and weapons production. Reports also showed that the Canadian government was willing to support the United States throughout their decade long fight.[5] The Vietnam War embodied the ongoing fight between communism and western democracy. Even so, both Canadians and Americans fought against the war and western imperialism. Substantial demonstrations were held by university students and intellectuals. Letter writing sessions were popular as well as teach-ins, sit-ins and university course offerings on the subject. Politicians were followed and questioned by concerned or angry citizens and student’s union elections hinged on candidate’s personal opinions. Intellectual discussions also pertained to the growing reality of globalization; a system that the international community was still learning how to operate within.[6] The decade containing the Vietnam war is remembered as one of the most active eras for protest, activism and civil dissent in North America. How the Vietnam War and the resulting activism against it were portrayed by the news media gives a glimpse into the evolution of popular opinion and the status quo. The university, in essence, becomes a microcosm of the nation.  

Victor Levant’s book, Quiet Complicity, chronicles Canada’s involvement and the effects the war had on Canadian society. Levant argues that the war “contributed to the growing Canadian consciousness of the difference between Canada and the United States,” particularly through the role of the nation in the ICCS. Canada’s role in the ICCS reflected their involvement throughout the war, wherein decisions were mitigated through fear of angering the United States and continual proclamations of neutrality.[7] Robert Bothwell presents a similar argument but finds that the division of Canadian and American identities started much earlier in the decade.[8] Contrary to what can be seen in The Varsity, Bothwell notes that Canadian and American views on foreign policy tended to be similar. He argues that mythmaking during the Vietnam war years was necessary for a country that saw itself as under threat of Americanization; the peacekeeping role leading to the myth that Canadians were anti-military.[9] It follows that this played into similar myths that Canadians are polite and non-violent. In another article, Bothwell examines Canada’s role in the first Indo-China war. Canada helped to “clean up” the leftovers of European colonialism, at the same time struggling to assert themselves as a truly independent nation.[10]

The struggle in Vietnam originated long before the Unites States or Canada got involved. French Catholic military involvement began in 1772, eventually resulting in the signing of a treaty recognizing French control and influence in 1874. During the second world war, Vietnam was taken over by the Japanese until the abdication of Japan’s emperor in 1945. Shortly after, Ho Chi Min declared Vietnam an independent republic and the French began fighting for renewed control. This time, the French sought aid from the other western powers, leading to $3.6 billion in US aid by 1954. The struggle to reclaim Vietnam had the compounded goal of defeating communism after China stepped in to help the Viet Minh, spreading the conflict into Laos and Cambodia.[11] Canadian involvement was scarce at this time, due mainly to its role as a trading partner with Asia and the Pacific.

Prime Minister Saint-Laurent was particularly against involvement; however, he was eventually overruled by his cabinet. In 4 years, $63.1 billion worth of goods were sent to aid France in what Canada’s ambassador to France, General Georges Vanier called the “immediate communist threat.”[12] In 1954, France agreed to pull out of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference and the first installment of the International Control Commission (ICC) was established. This would constitute the First Indo-China War, resulting in Communist-run North Vietnam and the U.S. backed South Vietnam. In direct opposition to the Geneva accords, no free election was held in Saigon and attacks by pro-communist rebels in the South led to the second Indo-China war, or what is commonly referred to as the Vietnam war. In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and the second implementation of the ICC, the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), was put in place to enforce them. Despite this, the fighting didn’t officially stop until 1975 and Vietnam was united.[13]

Canada’s role often changed, with neither the country nor the international community quite certain about the part they were trying to play. Levant argues that Ottawa’s decisions reflected interconnected and sometimes antithetical principals; including the fear of communism, the need to defend the “free world,” the recognition of their budding middle-power status, and interest in peacekeeping.[14] Economic considerations were paramount since Canadian and American economies were closely tied. Canada had to tread lightly, especially in light of the auto pact negotiations, new American taxation and the New National Policy or “Nixon Shock.”[15] Additionally, the manufacturing companies that obtained contracts from the pentagon provided a boost for the Canadian economy.[16] University students would not see the economic considerations in the same way.

            While content in The Varsity reflects a relatively cohesive stance on the war, like the wider population, students at the University of Toronto were divided in their opinions. The majority of the conflict stemmed from recruiting on campus by companies on contract with the Pentagon, such as Dow Chemicals. Dow targeted engineering students and often held interviews on campus. An entire page of in January 1986 was devoted to covering protests against such recruiting. 300 students rallied while 1000 engineering students formed a counter-protest, antithetical to the usual majority anti-war support. Insults and snowballs abounded. Repeatedly, student writers referred to national, but also university administrative complicity. A leaflet handed out at the rally read “you can take a job to make bombs or planes or poison to be used in Vietnam and the courts won’t stop you, but what about your conscience?” Many students, who were willing to protest “all weekend, if demands are not met by the administration,” appeared to see complicity in the war as a stain on Canada’s conscience.[17] The calls to end Canadian economic involvement in the Vietnam war continued until 1975, with McGill University students and professors going so far as to compile a list of companies involved.[18]

In 1968 a long read was published imploring students to be empathetic to the situation that draft dodgers face. The writer asks readers “could the resources, both human and material, be better used for non-military ends?”[19] The thousands to draft dodgers coming to Canada would have provided a visual representation of the moral divide that Canada and the United States were experiencing. The Canadian government’s general allowance of draft dodgers a political example. In a 1968 opinion piece on Page Four, a student relates the result of a meeting held by SAC (University of Toronto’s student’s union council). While many of the members were personally against the way, the anonymous writer noted that the representatives were hesitant to speak out against the war as an organization. Readers are asked, “does he realize these people [draft dodgers] come to Canada as political refugees under the same conditions as the Czechs now, Hungarians 12 years ago and Jews in the 1930s?”[20] The article is only one in the many about the students union and Vietnam that would litter the pages of the newspaper throughout the entire war. Students wanted their representative to take a certain ethical and moral stand as the country experienced a “crisis of conscience,” that challenged national identity.[21] The myth that Canada was a nation of helping and peaceful people were being formed.

In 1964 a highly influential wartime journalist, Blair Fraser, concluded that “a majority of Canadians differed sharply from the majority of politicians, regardless of party”.[22] While the Canada wide survey that Fraser was referring to suggested that the general population was more militantly against communism than the political elite, his comments can be applied to the university population. In a full two page long read from 1969, a student writer criticizes Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his stance on Canada’s economic involvement in the war:

“Mr. Trudeau talks about economic realities by resurrecting that old technique, reductio ad absurdum: “Then we could stop selling to these bums. You’d have pure hands. You’d have clean hands. But you’d have empty bellies and you’d be lying on your faces.” This remark is, of course, patent nonsense. Canada would not be reduced to a state of complete economic and physical degradation if it started asserting its economic and political independence.”[23]

            The passage indicates not only a desire to be economically and politically independent of the United States but culturally and morally as well. By economically aiding the Americans, Canada was telling the international community that the cause was worth supporting. Students no longer identified with the morals of the government that served them, favouring the role of peacekeepers, at least in theory. A few years later in 1972, a student protester is quoted saying, “peace can only be achieved by the withdrawal of US imperial armies.” Another saying, “the people of Indochina have only one guarantee of peace and that guarantee is the victory of their revolution. Canadians who support the revolution must oppose Canadian peacekeeping forces who intervene in the Vietnamese struggle.”[24] In this instance, students no longer viewed the Canadian army as peacekeepers but rather as aids to U.S. imperialism. The United States was deliberately hindering Vietnamese democratic elections, and the extent to which Canadian peacekeepers aided in this matters less since economic and moral aid to the U.S was incriminating enough.[25] Students were fighting to shape Canada into a nation that valued democracy and peace, rather than second-hand imperialism.

Americans were guilty of sabotaging democracy and Canada was seen as being complicit by supporting the US under the guise of the ICC. “Canada has backed the Americans continually throughout the war’s long and dirty history.”[26] Two months earlier, a petition was being signed by university students and faculty urging the Canadian government to denounce the American’s use of bombs in “the strongest possible terms.” Through rallies and petitions, Canadian youth were attempting to persuade the government to align more with their values. These values had come to be non-violent, non-nuclear and pro-freedom. Democracy and freedom became important and the “desire to prove that they are not what they suspect, a second class American.”[27]

It is important to understand where our myths and identity come from. Myths do not always ring true beneath the surface. Canada played a devastating role in the Vietnam war that citizens were only vaguely aware of at the time. While this information is accessible today, the myths that were born out of the Vietnam war years continue to define Canada and her people. The divide between the political elite and the rest of society is also an important distinction. The average Canadian did not play a role in producing Agent Orange, nor in the decisions, public or private, made by the federal government; suggesting that national identity has more to do with the general populace and less to do with the actions of the governments. Much like the United States, Canada experienced a “crisis of conscience,” that challenged national identity and subsequently helped begin the formation of a new one.[28] Through written opinion pieces, news articles, rallies, sit-ins and petitions, the University of Toronto students helped to shape what would become some of the most pervasive myths about Canadian identity; the role of international peacekeepers who are culturally and morally distinct from the United States. 

[1] Tracey Raney, “As Canadian as Possible…Under What Circumstances? Public Opinion on National Identity in Canada Outside of Quebec,” Journal of Canadian Studies 43, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 7.

[2] Sarah V. Wayland, “Immigration, Multiculturalism and National Identity in Canada,” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 5, no. 1 (1997): 3.

[3] Wayland, “Immigration,” 38.

[4] “The Vietnamese War: Canada’s Role Part One,” CBC Radio, last updated April 23, 2015, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/rewind/the-vietnam-war-canada-s-role-part-one-1.3038110.

[5] Victor Levant, “Vietnam War,” last updated September 8, 2016, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vietnam-war.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Victor Levant, Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War (Toronto: Between The Lines, 1986), 192, 231.

[8] Bothwell, “Vietnam,” 214.

[9] J.L. Granatstein, “Peacekeeping: Did Canada Make a difference? And What Difference Did Peacekeeping Make to Canada?” in Donald Avery and Roger Hall eds., Coming of Age: Readings in Canadian History since World War II. (Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1996), 347.

[10] Robert Bothwell, “Innocence Abroad: Fumbling for Peace in Indochina,” in Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the World. 1945-1984 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007): 195-196. 

[11] Levant, Quiet Complicity, 42.  

[12] Levant, Quiet Complicity, 43.

[13] Levant, Quiet Complicity, 44-46; “Indochina Wars,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed March 28, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Vietnam-War-and-the-media-2051426.

[14] Levant, Quiet Complicity, 3.

[15] Charles Rheaume, “Cautious Neighbour policy: Canada’s Helping Hand in Winding Down the Vietnam War,” Cold War History 11, no. 2 (2011), 225.

[16] Bruce Muirhead, “From Special Relationship to Third Option: Canada, the U.S., and the Nixon Shock,” The American Review of Canadian Studies 34, no. 3 (Autumn, 2004), 439-462.

[17] Brian Johnson, “Recruitment Process Moves to Simcoe Hall,” The Varsity, January 19, 1968, 1; Anne Boody, and Dave Frank, “Shoving, Shouting, Skulemen Snowball Sidewalk Pickets,” The Varsity, January 19, 1968, 1; Canadian University Press, “Sir George Students Re-instate Pres, The Varsity, January 19, 1968, 1.

[18] Levant, Quiet Complicity, [  ]

[19] Louis Erlichman, “Here’s What It’s All About, Alfie…” The Varsity, February 5, 1968, 7.

[20] Anonymous, “Sick, Sick, Sick,”  The Varsity, October 19, 1968, 4.

[21] Victor Levant, Quiet Complicity, 1.

[22] Robert Bothwell, “Vietnam and Canadian-Vietnam Relations,” in Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the World, 1945-1984 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007), 214; J. L. Granatstein, “Blair Fraser,” TheCanadian Encyclopedia, last modified December 16, 2013, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/blair-fraser.

[23] Bob Rae, “Pierre Elliot Trudeau: Purveyor of the Just As It Is Society,” The Varsity, September 16, 1969, 8-9.

[24] Elaine Farragher, “Mixed Bag March Attacks Vietnam Conflict,” The Varsity, November 20, 1972, 3.

[25] Elaine Farragher, “Mixed Bag.”

[26] Don Humphries, “Canada Hops Back Into Vietnam: More Complicity,” The Varsity, March 14, 1973.

[27] Bothwell, “Vietnam,” 215.

[28] Victor Levant, Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War (Toronto: Between The Lines, 1986), 1.