[Source: Photo Courtesy of Bob Waller]

Who Says That Young People Cannot Affect Change

The war in Vietnam was a defining event from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s for university students in Canada, especially young men, including those of us at Glendon College.

We watched as our American contemporaries were drafted and sent to fight in a war that killed almost 60,000 of them as well as an estimated two million Vietnamese.

As the war dragged on, it became increasingly unpopular and thousands of young men fled the U.S to evade the draft. Many came to Canada as landed immigrants. A smaller number of deserters tried to follow the same path but they had a much tougher time.

That is because Canadian immigration officials were violating our own government’s stated policy by turning them back at the border.

As spelled out on July 12, 1967, by John Munro, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, the policy was unambiguous. He told the House of Commons that “an individual’s status with regard to compulsory military service in his own country has no bearing upon his admissibility to Canada, either as an immigrant or as a visitor. Nor is he subject to removal from Canada because of unfulfilled military obligations in his country of citizenship.”

Nevertheless, there was a huge disconnect between the politicians in Ottawa and the public servants at the border.

Many Canadians were outraged. In January 1969, a group of activists met in Toronto to hatch a plan to expose the practice and compel Canada to follow its laws.

A group of people protesting in front of a building

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Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Queen’s Park, Toronto, during the peak of the Vietnam War. [Source: thestar.com]

The moving spirits were Larry Goldstein (then 27 years old), 1966-67 Editor-in-Chief of Pro Tem, the bilingual newspaper of Glendon College, York University’s oldest student-run publication, Stephen Dewar, a CTV W5 reporter, his wife, Elaine, a York student, and Clayton Ruby and Paul Copeland, two young lawyers.

The group had been given the personal records of an actual U.S. military deserter named William John Heintzelman. Goldstein then recruited five Glendon students to pretend to be Heintzelman and simultaneously test the Canada-U.S. border at five crossings, two at Windsor-Detroit and three along the Niagara frontier.

The students were Jim Weston (20), Graham Muir (19), Chris Wilson (19), John Thompson (20) and I (20). Weston had succeeded Goldstein as Pro Tem Editor-in-Chief in 1967-68, I had succeeded him in the same role in 1968-69 and Muir would succeed me in 1969-70.

We were carefully briefed by the organizers. We researched all immigration regulations to ensure that we qualified in every way as admissible immigrants.

We also made certain our own passports and identification were in order so that if worst came to worst—and it did—we could unmask and prove that we were Canadians who could not be arrested as American deserters.

The five of us also carried letters of explanation that this was a journalistic project being undertaken for Pro Tem.

We launched the operation on Saturday, February 8, 1969. The five of us left Toronto that morning armed with sets of the Heintzelman documents: his birth certificate, as well as legitimate proof of a job offer in Canada and references from a Canadian citizen.

After entering the U.S. at our designated crossings—mine was the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor—we were to turn around and return to the Canadian border. We would simultaneously try to enter Canada as landed immigrants.

Under questioning by Canadian immigration officers, we would eventually “confess” we were deserters and see what happened.

Well, we did and guess what? We were all turned away even though, in my case, the officer told me my education, my job offer and my references gave me more than enough points to earn landed immigrant status.

My admission of deserter status was the sticking point and my rejection came after the officer called his superiors at a place he called “Central” to ask what to do with a deserter.

The answer he received was simple. I was to be escorted back to the U.S side by a Canadian driver and handed over to American authorities.

At that point, I asked to go the washroom where I flushed all the Heintzelman documents down the toilet except for the birth certificate which the Canadian immigration official had retained. He returned it to me when I was handed over to the driver.

The driver, in turn, delivered me to a pair of U.S. border agents.

I gave my real name—Bob Waller—presented my Canadian birth certificate, and asked to be admitted to the U.S.

The agents frisked me. They found the Heintzelman birth certificate as well as my Canadian passport and the letter of introduction from Pro Tem.

Their supervisor made a phone call and I heard him say: “This seems to be the guy but he’s carrying a lot of Canadian identification.” At one point he said “Thank you, Central.” (I wondered whether it was the same “Central” the Canadian officer had consulted and mused silently to myself about collusion.)

[Source: Photo courtesy of Bob Waller]

The Americans gave me a rejection slip and sent me back to Canada. I was met by a testy Canadian immigration officer who accused me of fraud, misrepresentation and public mischief before admitting me.

A person in a suit and tie

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Pierre Elliott Trudeau [Source: thefamouspeople.com]

The plan had worked. It garnered a lot of media coverage and stirred up public opinion. We had demonstrated that Canadian immigration officials were not following official government policy regarding the fair treatment of U.S. deserters.

The government of Pierre Trudeau finally stopped the illegal and hypocritical practice a few months later—on May 22, 1969.

While Immigration Minister Allan MacEachen took “a dim view of the impersonation tactics” we had used, he reaffirmed to Parliament that “membership in the armed service of another country, or desertion, will not be a factor in determining the eligibility of persons applying for landed immigrant status in Canada.”

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