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Roger Davies: My Life Well-lived in Canada

What led to your decision to immigrate to Canada?

I was 23 when I came here. The day was May 10, 1968, a date I will never forget. At that time it was possible to get landed immigrant status right at the border. I was tremendously well prepared by a group of Quakers in Bloomington, Indiana; I was living close to Bloomington at the time. The Quakers were part of a larger network of draft counsellors and played a huge role in that respect in the U.S.

There was sort of an immigration checklist that you needed and there was a points system back then. There were a range of factors that were considered: education, did you have financial support, did you have job prospects, personal support, and so on and so forth. So, I prepared myself as best I could and was accepted at the border.

After years of struggle in the U.S. working to end the American War Against Vietnam, there I was, conscripted into the army! Now, the fact of conscription in my story, and in many others’ is huge. People need to understand what an extremely radical demand the draft, or conscription, is in regards to a citizen. No matter what you may think about it, basically the state is saying that “we are fighting a war with another state and you are required to kill or be killed.” It is just about the greatest curtailment of personal liberty that one can think of, short of being imprisoned.

In my own case, at that time, I was not part of one of the three peace churches: the Brethren, the Quakers and the Mennonites. Even though I felt that I could probably mount a fairly good philosophical argument to put forward to the draft board—they were groups of individual citizens, appointed to a local board that would make up their minds about whether somebody should be granted conscientious objector status or not—I was keen to come to Canada.

There were a number of options. One would be to go to prison out of refusal to follow the law that was being instituted, another would be to leave the country, another would be to try to get conscientious objector status, another would be to go underground. And there were young men, some women but mostly young men, who chose these various options.

I did not have a difficult time making up my mind to come to Canada. In my case, I had a really easy time compared to many of the resisters who came, particularly the deserters. To me, it was more an adventure in some ways. I knew Canada, I had always liked Canada, I had visited it a number of times, and my parents and friends were supportive. I mean, it was very hard on my parents, but in some cases parents basically disowned their sons, and families had great contention around people’s decisions. I was one of the lucky ones.

I had been working against the war, I had been at the big marches in Washington and involved in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society, which was an organization of the 60s with a great idealistic vision of changing things in a fundamental way. But I was also at a point in my life where I was ready for something new, I had kind of been doing the same thing for a number of years and it was an adventure in that way.

There is something that I did that I think is really quite interesting. The Quakers had come up with the idea, or had heard, that if you give up, or renounce, your U.S. citizenship before the date that you are meant to be inducted, and inform the draft board that you are no longer a U.S. citizen, you would not be breaking a law because you cannot be drafted in a country in which you are not a citizen. The idea was that after you become a Canadian citizen, you could return to the U.S. for a visit. I never had it in my mind to want to live in the U.S. again, and the thought has never crossed my mind in all these years. I love Canada and I am very happy to be here. So, that is what I did.

Within three days of arriving in Toronto, I went to the U.S. Consulate and told the fellow there that I wanted to give up my citizenship. He said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” and I said “Yes, I know exactly what I’m doing.” I sent the papers to my draft board and they didn’t acknowledge them, whatsoever. So my dear father got a lawyer and they were forced to acknowledge that they couldn’t draft me anymore. But the situation was that for five years I was stateless. I was a landed immigrant but I had no citizenship anywhere. I was young, but I would still do it.

I was involved with an organization called the Union of American Exiles, an organization that was helping deserters and draft dodgers. When I first came to Toronto, I stayed with some folks and got some help first getting to know the city, and I ended up doing the same thing, having folks stay at the apartment that I had.

After five years, when I became a Canadian citizen, I went back to the U.S. and it was kind of an interesting moment at the border wondering “what’s going to happen?” I was allowed in, so I was able to visit my family. It was the kind of thing that I had hoped for, that one day I could go back and visit some places and people—and this was long before the Carter Amnesty.

What was life like in Canada?

It was such a huge change. Thinking about living in the U.S. in the year or two before I came to Canada, I was involved in so much social justice work, and living for a time in New York in a kind of bohemian way. Then within two years of coming to Canada, I am in Newfoundland, teaching school, with a wife and a baby in a little outport! And not paying much attention whatsoever to the war and what was going on in the U.S. since I didn’t watch much television.

My first teaching experience in Newfoundland, the first thing I had to do was try to understand what people were saying! And then after four years, my wife, Judith, our young daughter and I came to Halifax. After studying for a time at the art college, I taught special education for a while. From there, I taught at an alternative school funded through social services, which I really enjoyed. We taught the students who had either dropped out or gotten kicked out of the local high school and had some really wonderful outdoor programming, too. I went on to teach adult education at the correctional centre for about a decade and eventually coordinated literacy upgrading as well as ESL programs at two branches of the regional library. Before retiring, I also filled in for a friend and taught a course on ecology and religion at Saint Mary’s University. Looking back, I feel really good about the career that I had. I like working with people in desperate circumstances and after a while I think I developed a knack for doing it.

Compared to many, many people who left oppression I really had a free ride and I am well aware of that. That’s why I like working with refugees. I volunteer my time now, tutoring at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia ISANS (formerly known as Immigrant Settlement & Integration Services) and have made some very good friends that way.

I really want to say that because Canada was here for me and accepted me, part of it all in the back of my mind was that I wanted to give what I could of myself, and I think a lot of war resisters who came to Canada had similar kinds of feelings.

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