If one considers Canada’s role in Vietnam, the phrase “draft dodger” immediately comes to mind for most people. In The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War, John Boyko presents a broader view with six biographies that demonstrate the diversity of Canada’s involvement in the war.
Sherwood Lett was Canada’s first appointee to the three-nation International Control Commission, formed in 1954 after France’s defeat in Vietnam to supervise the Geneva Accords peace agreement until elections could be held to establish a unified government.
The ICC, hamstrung by political and practical constraints, proved largely impotent. In less than a year a member of Lett’s staff became the first Canadian soldier to die in Vietnam, and two years later a civilian staffer was murdered in Saigon. Canada was already deeply involved in Vietnam while Dwight D. Eisenhower was still in the White House.
A decade later, newly appointed Commissioner Blair Seaborn, a 40-year-old career Mandarin described as “soft-spoken” with “a gentle sense of humour,” was drawn into a tale befitting novelist Tom Clancy’s action hero Jack Ryan. While fulfilling his role at the ICC, Seaborn also acted as a secret, unofficial contact between Hanoi and the White House. He met clandestinely with senior Hanoi officials, including Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s words were conveyed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who passed them to Seaborn. Boyko leaves unanswered the question of whether this was a legitimate peace feeler or diplomatic cover for a decision to escalate the war.
Claire Culhane was once a famous anti-war activist in Canada. She worked at a hospital in Vietnam and quit when she realized the director was passing patient files to the CIA. Culhane spoke across the country and twice went on hunger strikes outdoors in Ottawa, Canada’s frigid capital.
With Canada not engaged in combat, anti-war activism there turned to the armaments industry. Particularly egregious is the history of Agent Orange in Canada. It was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario, then secretly and illegally tested at Camp Gagetown in New Brunswick before being shipped to the U.S. and on to Vietnam.
U.S. demand for Canadian raw materials such as nickel, copper and zinc skyrocketed during the war. From boots to aircraft engines, the Vietnam War kept the Canadian economy humming.
In an otherwise excellent volume, the author loses his way in the chapter about Canadians who fought in U.S. forces in Vietnam. It is the only chapter without a clear biographical core and seems to meander, despite many fascinating quotes and stories. The chapter highlights the diverse motives that led young Canadian men to Vietnam.
The final chapter tells the story of the Trinh family, among the 50,000 refugees from Southeast Asia who arrived in Canada between 1978 and 1982. Today members of the family sponsor Syrian refugees.
The Vietnam War remains present in Canada in other senses as well. Both Elmira and Camp Gagetown are dealing with toxic waste. Vietnam-era emigrés—such as urbanologist Jane Jacobs who moved her family north to protect her sons from the draft and science fiction author William Gibson, among countless others—continue to influence Canadian culture. Even north of the 49th parallel reverberations of the Vietnam War are still felt. V
This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through our site, we might earn a commission.
This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook: