Culture Clash

Draft-dodging newcomers discover a Canadian Eden.

It was a silent, magnificent forest, glowing in the warm Kootenays, our mountain trail occasionally allowing us to peek across Slocan Lake to what became, after an eight-year battle, the Valhalla Wilderness Park.

I no longer remember the name of my mountain trail companion that day, an actor I met through the New Denver poet Diana Hartog—an intrepid writer who built her own house close to the lake. The actor was taking me back to his roots as a young man and the commune that inspired him. It was a classic Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, gone rotten and dangerously falling apart, a once vibrant site now littered with junk—pulled apart by vandals and time.

We looked upon the ruins of his old commune, aware of how much had been lost, good and bad, since those optimistic days before the rise of religious fundamentalism and the neocons whose corporate media have convinced our continent that the rich need to be rewarded and the poor should be punished.

Surveying the abandoned commune, my companion smiled wistfully, and said something like: “This place really rocked 15 years ago. It changed me.” The Kootenays and the Okanagan rocked many young Canadians and Americans discovering the beauty of these watersheds and not just engaging in the landscape’s destruction for personal profit.

Then we turned around and left the dome behind.

Kathleen Rodgers—in Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia, a dense, well-researched history—recounts a time of hope and change and discord in West Kootenay, a story that also applies to the greater region of the Kootenays. This minor revolution occurred in the 1960s and early ’70s as American draft dodgers, deserters and their companions emigrated north to mingle with the Canadian back-to-the-land hippie culture.

The first published chronicle of this time I have encountered, written by a University of Ottawa sociologist who grew up in the Kootenays, Welcome to Resisterville not only provides a background history, but also illustrates the myriad events and people who came together here. It was a different time indeed. For a brief period, our government was relatively open, and refused to publicly support the invasion of Vietnam by America. It also welcomed America’s draft dodgers and, within a couple of years, even the deserters. Rodgers documents the free spirit of the 1960s era and the various cultural and environmental paths taken by the dissident invaders over the years in their new home.

In those days America had a military draft system that scooped up both well-educated students and the impoverished—equal opportunity cannon fodder. Today, of course, it is a voluntary system that lures those who can only see their future in military training. An entirely different mentality.

A great troupe of Americans, mostly middle and upper class, fled from the carnage of the Vietnam era to several popular Canadian locations. There were perhaps as many as 40,000 immigrant war resisters. The Kootenays were a particularly hot spot. The flood north peaked between 1965 and 1975, and it is always been said that this region had the greatest density of resisters of anywhere in Canada. But, as Rodgers notes, numbers are difficult to verify. Those were exciting times. It was almost amusing—this invasion of young, alternate thinkers who retreated to Canada because of its different, softer, less repressive culture, and then set about using their American skills to change it into a culture that more suited their American vision.

The standing joke about Americans in those days was: “He’s so American he doesn’t even recognize he’s acting American.”

This colonization led to some real conflict that Rodgers meticulously documents. I remember the days of local loggers hunting down longhairs and environmentalists and shaving their heads and beating them viciously. A few of my friends got the full treatment. Store windows of counter-culture shops were spat upon; hippie children were bullied at school.

Yet the Kootenays had several peculiar advantages that eventually led to the mingling of these opposing communities. Though the free-loving, clothing-optional, liberal-anarchist, LSD-dropping and dope-smoking intellectual rebels encountered formidable opponents with the red-necked farming, logging, mining and small-town merchant communities, the region had also seen the Japanese-Canadian internment camps that educated the locals about judging so-called foreigners. An elderly friend and her sister both fell deeply for interned men during World War Two. Today, Rodgers notes, there is even a Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre.

This was also the (second) promised land offered to the Doukhobor community by deceitful Canadian politicians who proffered freedom of religion and communal ownership, but soon confiscated communal property rights along with the Doukhobor children who were interned in residential schools. This pacifist community is notorious for both its gentleness and its tendency to generate explosive fringe groups when under threat. Rebellion, civil disobedience and public nudity were no strangers to the Doukhobors, so they were more accepting of the resisters than some other cultures in the Kootenays.

This region was also, decades earlier, the site of confrontations between big companies and miners defended by various unions, including the free-spirited International Workers of the World, or the wobblies as they were known in their heyday. A long-spent force by the 1960s, the IWW’s open-minded enthusiasm had still left its residual mark on a few working people.

Rodgers points out another controversial issue was the plethora of federal Opportunities for Youth and Local Initiatives Program grants for often crazy projects. These drove the hard-working rednecks into rages, even though the government grants backhandedly fulfilled their objectives by gradually luring hippies into the establishment’s working world.

Today, we forget how sharp and abusive the confrontations were. Rodgers has some great descriptions of the feuding that led to the creation of modern housing and food cooperatives as well as a multitude of environmental groups.

She quotes a public letter signed by 37 Slocan Valley residents, complaining of invaders “who defy all common sense and decency.” Claiming to represent 90 percent of the people, they were horrified to discover their valley had “become polluted with the stench of immorality and defiance of the laws … Day after day we hear of new incidences of nudity, indecent exposure, defiance and impudence.”

Many of those impudent Canadian and American hippies invaders would eventually become respected civic leaders in 25 years.

Welcome to Resisterville is a gold mine of local history, excellently researched and clearly outlined. Unfortunately, it is also drier than dust, and it is almost heartbreaking to see this thrilling period rendered into a real grinder of academic information. Rodgers calls it a “micro-level analysis.” It is.

University presses are notorious for publishing unreadable books that seldom reach the public. While this book will be read by family and those mentioned in its pages, as well as a few curious and intrepid readers, it will not have a large audience, even though it becomes more readable as it progresses.

But it illustrates exactly why university publishing houses such as UBC Press need support. Welcome to Resisterville is an impressive reservoir of information and stories that will give extraordinary assistance to future memoirists, historians and fictionists exploring this fractious and beautiful cluster of communities in a natural wonderland during a glorious era of hope and innovative
living.