Introduction: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature
It isn’t a coincidence that the years of the Vietnam War, 1964-75, coincide with the rise in Canada of the “new nationalism”: a nationalism bent on establishing the country’s political, economic, and cultural independence from the United States. As Canadians grappled with the war, they developed a national mythology that shows its influence today whenever people describe Canada as nonviolent, humanitarian, and harmoniously multicultural—“a peaceable kingdom,” as Northrop Frye influentially put it in 1965.
Perhaps what most people remember about the Vietnam War and Canada, other than the fact that the Canadian military didn’t join the fight, is the tens of thousands of American war resisters who crossed the border into Canada, many permanently, from urban-planning guru Jane Jacobs to science-fiction writer William Gibson. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau eventually embraced the draft dodgers, declaring that Canada would be a “refuge from militarism.” Ever since, Canada has become a symbol of North American progressive dissidence.
In the years before the Vietnam War, Canadians tended to view their country as more conservative than the United States. But they also saw the two countries as increasingly interconnected, whether it was due to US radio and television signals crossing the border or the proliferation in Canada of American-owned branch plants. In 1965, Canadian philosopher George Grant declared in his book Lament for a Nation that Canadian sovereignty had become an impossible dream in the face of US dominance.
As the Vietnam War escalated, it made many Canadians newly sceptical about their intimacy with the United States and ever more defiant of the idea that absorption by America was inevitable. They decried the US military’s use of napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange, and they saw the staggering number of Vietnamese civilian casualties as bespeaking a monstrous, racist US disregard for life. Canadians were also increasingly liable to see their own country as a fellow victim of what they took to be American imperialism. And they increasingly celebrated Canada as welcoming to refugees, internationalist rather than xenophobic, and protective of individual freedoms, not least because there was no draft.
Such an idealized picture was troubled by such things as racism in Canada, Trudeau’s imposition of martial law during the October Crisis of 1970, and the fact that Canadian companies sold materiel to the US military: missile and artillery components, aircraft, small arms, ammunition. Even the famous US Army Special Forces green berets were made in Toronto. Accusations of Canadian complicity in the war appeared in literature as early as Earle Birney’s poem “I Accuse Us,” which Birney framed as a speech he’d given at a Toronto anti-war rally in 1967.
The war became a reference point for those wishing to foreground other failures on Canada’s part, too. For instance, Harold Cardinal’s influential 1969 book, The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians, observed that although television had “brought into our homes the sad plight of the Vietnamese” and “intensified the concern of Canadians about the role of our neighbour country in the brutal inhumanity of war,” there was “little knowledge of native circumstance in Canada and even less interest.”
While the war angered Canadian writers, the years of the conflict were very good to Canadian literature. In fact, they were arguably its golden age. In 2006, when the Literary Review of Canada named the 100 “most important” Canadian books, thirty of them were ones published between 1964 and 1975 – an astonishing number, given that the list covered over 400 years of history. The Vietnam War decade’s overrepresentation is less surprising if one considers that there was a surging interest in all things Canadian as a result of the country’s 1967 centenary, leading to an unprecedented boom in publishers, books published, and books sold. As it happens, many of those books addressed the war.
Canadian artists of all kinds, from musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot to visual artists such as Greg Curnoe and Joyce Wieland, took on the Vietnam War in their work, but it was writers who most pervasively tackled it, not least because there were so many newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers to disseminate what they wrote. An indication of Canadian writers’ feelings about the war was offered in the 1968 bestseller The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S., edited by the poet Al Purdy. Purdy claimed that one of his aims in producing the book had been to discover whether Canadian writers thought the American military presence in Vietnam was “just and honourable.” As it turned out, among the fifty contributors – including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Michael Ondaatje, Farley Mowat, and Mordecai Richler – nobody suggested it was.
If authors from southern Ontario seemed disproportionately vociferous in writing about the war, it was due partly to the fact that the region was home to a plurality of the Canadian population and a majority of the national publishers. Given the degree to which the area was saturated by US mass media and branch plants, it was also arguably the most “Americanized” part of Canada, making many Ontarians hypersensitive to the possibility of further Americanization. Writers in other regions also, however, increasingly voiced nationalist concerns. For instance, Vancouver writer bill bissett’s poem “LOVE OF LIFE, th 49th PARALLELL,” collected in his 1971 book, Nobody Owns Th Earth, bemoaned the recent tide of American arrivals in Canada. Likewise, fellow Vancouverite George Bowering declared in 1972 that he had become a “convert” to Canadian nationalism, citing his antipathy toward the violence he saw as endemic to US foreign policy, including in Vietnam.
Over and over, as Canadian authors approached the war, a striking characteristic of their writing was that little of it evoked the conflict without referencing Canada in some way. Virtually no Canadian literature featured US combatants as protagonists, to say nothing of Vietnamese characters. Instead, Canadian writers focused on how the war drew attention to Canada’s place in what Marshall McLuhan famously called the “global village.” The Vietnam War was, as McLuhan termed it, the “first television war,” and writers repeatedly dramatized situations in which Canadians witnessed the war through mass media. Often, the writers sought to characterize Canadians as coming to a humanitarian reckoning with the war by staging moments in which they had visceral responses to media images. For instance, the titular speaker in Tom Wayman’s 1969 poem “The Dow Recruiter” – an employee of Dow Chemical, which made napalm in Canada for US military use – finds himself haunted by photographs of dead Vietnamese children shown to him by anti-war activists.
Other Canadian writers went so far as to imagine Canada becoming another Vietnam. The most notorious example was Richard Rohmer’s bestselling novel of 1973, Ultimatum, a near-future tale in which the US president, facing a natural-gas shortage, tells the Canadian government to accept a resource-sharing plan or face harsh consequences. When the Canadians refuse, the president sends in an invasion force. In Rohmer’s sequel, Exxoneration, Canadian forces surprise the invaders, successfully repelling them.
If the scenario seemed unlikely, it gained some plausibility in virtue of the fact that the US had, by that point, been proven militarily vulnerable in Vietnam. As poet Milton Acorn put it in his 1973 essay “What Are the Odds?”, the communist victories in Vietnam stood as evidence that “any people on Earth, fighting a just cause” could “accomplish military feats which astound the world.” And other Canadian novels during the war, such as Bruce Powe’s Killing Ground and Ian Adams’s The Trudeau Papers, also alluded to Vietnam while imagining not only US military actions in Canada but also the possibility of a US defeat by Canadian forces.
Such imaginings invariably linked Canadian nationalism with a particular kind of masculinity by emphasizing the heroics of straight, white men in their roles as military and political leaders. In this way, the texts reflected the fact that straight, white male authors dominated Canadian literature’s treatment of the Vietnam War, despite the fact that women and minoritized people were also prominent in anti-war campaigning. This dominance was partly a product of such men’s broader, longstanding domination of culture and society. Because they weren’t, as a group, in a socially subordinated position in Canada, they were comparatively free to focus on cultivating and expressing an anxiety about the threat to Canada posed by its war-waging neighbour.
Even when the Vietnam War wasn’t the explicit subject in Canadian literature of the time, it apeared as a subtext, a touchstone, a haunting presence. Michael Ondaatje’s 1970 book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, perhaps the most influential volume of Canadian poetry ever published, offers no explicit mention of Vietnam, but the war lurks throughout as Ondaatje writes about a young American man who’s on the run from the law after participating in an armed conflict, who’s traumatized by watching friends be gunned down, and who crosses the border into Canada. When Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid declares, “There was no criminal punishment that could be genuinely brought against me without bringing it against everyone connected with that war,” his statement pointedly recalls self-defences that US soldiers in Vietnam offered for their participation in atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. Ondaatje thus characterizes the Vietnam War as part of a long pattern of American violence.
Likewise, Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, never mentions Vietnam explicitly, but the war is a conspicuous source of the book’s imagery, as when a character fantasizes about a US invasion of Canada and a Canadian resistance so feeble that that the American military “wouldn’t even have to defoliate the trees.” And Timothy Findley’s much-lauded 1977 novel, The Wars, is ostensibly about a traumatized First World War veteran named Robert Ross, but as he deals with brutal fighting conditions in a seemingly interminable and senseless conflict, then takes up an anti-war stance, deserts, and stages a violent rebellion, it’s hard not to see the Vietnam War in the background, especially given the cases of US soldiers in Vietnam committing “fragging” attacks on their superior officers.
The Vietnam War played a similar part in Québécois literature of the era. Roch Carrier’s novel La Guerre, Yes Sir!, for instance, may be set during the Second World War, but its story of war resistance and a soldier’s corpse being repatriated had a contemporary resonance when the novel was published in 1968. Similarly, Anne Hébert’s novel Kamouraska, published in 1970, features an American-born man fleeing Canada for the US after committing murder, a conspicuous inversion of US draft dodgers’ and deserters’ border-crossings to freedom in Canada. And Louis Caron’s novel, L’Emmitoufle, published in 1977 and later translated into English as The Draft Dodger, involves the eponymous American protagonist reflecting on the similarities between his draft resistance and that of his Québécois uncle during the First World War. Such examples suggest that the Vietnam War had a distinctive timbre in Quebec, especially among separatists who saw the Vietnamese as a fellow colonized people struggling to liberate themselves.
It isn’t coincidental that the new nationalism subsided as a political force in Canada at the same time as the Vietnam War ended; the US defeat symbolically rendered America a less potent threat to Canadians and made nationalist policies seem less urgent. Nevertheless, just as the war has continued to influence North American politics and culture, the myth of Canada as a peaceable kingdom has persisted in Canadian literature and the Canadian imaginary.
This essay includes material adapted from Robert McGill’s book War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature.