Canada and the Vietnam War

From Academic Kids

Canada's official position was as a "non-participant" in the Vietnam War, but the war had an important impact on the country and Canada and Canadians had an impact on the conflict itself.



Canada had eagerly joined the United States in earlier Cold War conflicts such as the Korean War and was viewed as America's closest ally. While Canada was committed to the western cause in the Cold War, the country was also committed to multilateralism and the United Nations, especially under Lester B. Pearson from 1963 to 1968. Canada thus found itself in a difficult position caught between its two foreign policy objectives. Canada never agreed with the Truman or Eisenhower Doctrines that communism itself must be opposed, rather its policy was that illegal acts of international aggression must be opposed.

During the first conflict between France and the Indo-China nationalist and communist parties Canada remained uninvolved but provided modest diplomatic and economic support to the French. Behind the scenes Canadian diplomats tried to discourage both France and the United States from escalating the conflict in a part of the world Canadians had decided was not strategically vital.

Canada thus laid out six criteria that would need to meet before it joined a war effort or an Asian alliance group like SEATO.

  1. It had to be more than a military alliance, also involve cultural and trade ties.
  2. It had to demonstrably meet the will of the people in the countries involved
  3. Other free Asian states had to support it directly or in principle
  4. France had to refer the conflict to United Nations
  5. Any multilateral action must conform to the UN charter
  6. Any action had to be divorced from all elements of colonialism

These criteria effectively guaranteed Canada would not participate in Vietnam.

At the start of the war Canada, to its relief, could not enter combat as it was appointed to the UN truce commissions and thus had to remain officially neutral in the conflict. The Canadian negotiators were strongly on the side of the Americans, however. Some delegates even engaged in espionage on behalf of the Americans, with the approval of the Canadian government. Canada also sent foreign aid to South Vietnam, that while humanitarian, was directed by the Americans.

Canada tried to play a mediator role to help reach a conclusion that could allow the U.S. to honorably leave the conflict that prime minister of Canada Lester Bowles Pearson thought was a horrible mistake.

As the war escalated, relations between the two nations deteriorated. The lowest point was in April 2, 1965 when Pearson gave a speech at Temple University in the United States which called for a reduction in the bombing of North Vietnam. When a furious President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Pearson, he grabbed the much smaller Canadian by the shirt collar, lifted him off the rug, and yelled, "You pissed on my rug!" After this incident, the two men somehow found ways to resolve their differences over the war--the fact that they both met together in Canada two times afterward--one of them being Expo '67 during LBJ's whirlwind visit to the country.

Draft dodgers

Main article: Draft dodgers

A large number of draft dodgers, young American men facing conscription for the Vietnam War, decided to relocate to Canada rather than serve in the armed forces. Concentrated in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, this group was at first assisted by the Student Union for Peace Action, a campus-based Canadian anti-war group with connections to Students for a Democratic Society in the United States. Canadian immigration policy at the time made it easy for immigrants from all countries to obtain legal status in Canada. By late 1967, dodgers were being assisted primarily by over 20 independent and locally based anti-draft groups, such as the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme (

Following the dodgers, deserters from the American forces also made their way to Canada. There was pressure from the United States and Canada to have them arrested, or at least stopped at the border. In May 1969 the Canadian government ceased its active discrimination against deserters after facing extensive criticism.

The population of draft dodgers had an impact on Canadian society. The influx of young, educated, and left-leaning individuals affected Canada's academic and cultural institutions. These new arrivals tended to balance the "brain drain" that Canada had experienced. While some draft dodgers returned to the United States after they were pardoned by Jimmy Carter in 1977, many stayed. Deserters were never pardoned and may still face pro forma arrest and release. Estimates of how many Americans settled in Canada to avoid service vary greatly. Canadian immigration statistics show that 20,000 to 30,000 draft eligible males came to Canada as immigrants in the Vietnam era. This group has helped to shift Canadian politics further to the left of those in the United States.

Anti-war activism

Anti-War activities were nearly as widespread in Canada as they were in the United States with demonstrations on most Canadian campuses. In English Canada the movement was fueled by the draft dodgers. Quebec also had a strong, and violent, anti-war movement as well. The separatist FLQ was also stridently anti-American and against the war.

One of the most visible expressions of this was at Expo '67. President Johnson was visiting for the opening of the American pavilion, which would involve a large American flag being unfurled. The FLQ secretly informed the government that anyone who tried to raise the flag would be shot. The original government plan was to use a Boy Scout to raise it, under the assumption the FLQ would not assassinate a child, but this idea was rejected and an extremely nervous scout leader wearing a bullet proof vest did so. While he was not shot it was discovered upon the unfurling of the flag that the canton with the stars had been cut out by a protester.

Canadians in the U.S. military

Concurrent with the draft dodging and defections to Canada an estimated 10,000 Canadians joined the U.S. military and fought with the Americans in Vietnam, and several thousand more Canadians joined and served with the U.S. military but did not fight in Vietnam. 110 Canadians died in Vietnam and seven remain listed as Missing in Action. Many of these were Canadians who had long lived in the United States, Canadians with US citizenship who were drafted or had previously served in the U.S., and out-of-work soldiers who had been the victims of recent government cutbacks. Still others volunteered because of ideological or moral support of the American war effort.[1] ( This cross border enlistment was not unusual: in both World War I and World War II tens of thousands of Americans had joined the Canadian forces while their homeland was still neutral. Canadian Peter C. Lemon won the U.S. Medal of Honor for his valour in the conflict.

In Windsor, Ontario, there is a small, privately funded monument to the Canadians killed in the Vietnam War. However, many Canadian veterans returned to a society that was strongly anti-war. Unlike in the United States, there were no veterans organizations or help from the government. Many of them moved permanently to the United States. There has been ongoing controversy among Canadian Vietnam veterans who want their comrades' deaths to be formally acknowledged by the government, especially in times of remembrance such as Remembrance Day.

Military assistance

Canada's official diplomatic position was as a non-participant, but the country was not neutral in the conflict: it professed explicit support for the United States. Canada was also a major supplier of equipment and supplies to the American forces. Under UN rules Canada could not send these directly to South Vietnam, but they could sell them to the United States. Throughout the Vietnam War Canadian manufacturers profited greatly from the conflict. These included relatively benign items like boots and whiskey, but also napalm and Agent Orange the use of which was fiercely opposed by antiwar protesters at the time. Between 1965 and 1973 Canada sold some $2.5 billion worth of matériel to the American forces. Canada also allowed their NATO ally to use Canadian facilities and bases for training exercises and weapons testing.

In 1973, Canada also provided peacekeeping troops to Operation Gallant, the military operation associated with the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS) Vietnam, along with Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland. Their role was to monitor the cease-fire in South Vietnam as per the Paris Peace Accords.


After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 thousands of refugees, known as boat people, fled Vietnam for both political and economic reasons. Canada agreed to accept many of them in one of the largest single influxes of immigrants in Canadian history. This created a vibrant Vietnamese community especially in Vancouver and Toronto.

As in the United States, the Vietnam War was an important cultural turning point in Canada, perhaps even more so than in the United States. Coupled with Canada's centenary in 1967 and the success of Expo '67, Canada became far more independent and nationalistic. It became more willing to oppose the United States and move in a different direction socially and politically.

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