Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia
August 29, 2014
Review By Sean Kheraj
Just about every kid who grew up in British Columbia in the 1980s had a friend (or a friend of a friend) whose parents were American immigrants. Their parents usually arrived in the province sometime between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. If you stole a peek at one of their family photo albums, you might see folks with long hair, funny clothes, VW vans, and a headband or two. As you chuckled with your friend and flashed a peace sign, you might also share that your parents were hippies too, once upon a time. And when pressed further, that friend might reveal to you, in hushed tones, that her mom and dad were in fact “draft dodgers.”
Throughout British Columbia, American dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s left their mark on the province. The communities of the West Kootenay region bear some of the most enduring signatures of the period, remaining to this day counterculture enclaves nestled in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia. Welcome to Resisterville attempts to explain how this peculiar immigration experience came to shape this region.
Using a qualitative case-study approach based on fifty-two in-depth interviews, newspapers, personal, government, and private organization records, Kathleen Rodgers demonstrates how the American migration to the West Kootenay region influenced the emergence of a counterculture identity that remains to this day. Although many of the immigrants shared values associated with the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Rodgers argues that “these ideas were not simply transferred from one location to another but were fostered, negotiated, adapted, and sharpened as the migrants settled” (13). The emergence of a counterculture identity in this region, then, was a product of the confluence of the immigration experience with a series of complex interactions with the local community. The book explores the founding of counterculture settlements in the West Kootenays, interactions and conflicts with the local population, and the emergence of an environmental consciousness in the region that eventually came to have an influence across the province.
Through its qualitative case study approach, this book reveals important insights about individual and community experiences, some of which could only be brought to light through detailed interviews. But the author overlooks vital points of context. The most obvious omission is the absence of a sustained and thorough analysis of race and gender in her assessment of American dissident identity formation in the West Kootenays. Rodgers insists that, “Besides their youth, the only characteristic they all shared was the fact that once they crossed the Canadian border, they were American immigrants who had made a conscious choice to participate in this nation’s history” (35). Yet she neglects to highlight what were perhaps two of the most important common traits that facilitated American resettlement in the region: race and gender identities.
Although Rodgers does not make it clear to the reader, it seems that one thing nearly all of her interview subjects had in common was that they were white, English-speaking Americans. Rodgers notes the unique privilege that American immigrants had to “pass” in Canada because they had “the advantage of looking and speaking like the average Canadian,” (17), but she does not highlight the racial assumptions implicit in this analysis. While this migrant group may have shared counterculture values of the back-to-the-land movement, feminism, communalism, and anti-militarism, they also shared a common racial identity that, one might argue, was instrumental to their integration into rural British Columbia. David Sterling Surrey’s 1982 study of war resisters in Canada found that “In terms of race, resisters in Canada are extremely homogenous. Those who went to Canada were mostly white; those who remain are almost exclusively white.” He also noted that very few visible minorities (particularly African Americans) fled to Canada and those who did had much more difficulty assimilating, often opting to return to the US. The methodological appendix to Rodgers’s book does not provide racial data in the breakdown of the characteristics of the interview group. They are only identified as being “primarily American-born” (184). Given that American war resisters also often referred to their migration as part of “The Underground Railroad,” it seems that a more robust discussion of the role of race in this immigration experience was needed.
Some traditional gender roles were also common defining characteristics of the American war resister community in British Columbia. Rodgers adeptly shows the ways in which American immigrant women began to challenge these gender roles, introducing feminist ideas to the community, but she overlooks the degree to which the war resister migration itself was structured by normative gender identities. Like many other immigrant communities, the decision to migrate was driven by men whose economic interests and roles as breadwinners structured family life (albeit dependent upon the domestic labour of women). What stands out in Rodgers’s research is that many of the women in this book migrated to Canada as girlfriends and wives of men who sought to avoid military service or imprisonment for war resistance. In fact, none of the women interviewed in this book migrated to Canada outside of a partnership with a male spouse of some kind. The heteronormativity of these case studies seems to be a common characteristic worth further investigation.
These omissions in the analysis of the identity of the American dissident community in the West Kootenay region should not detract from what is a well-researched and important contribution to immigration history and the history of British Columbia. It is also a useful case study for understanding the formation of community identity through immigration experiences. Rodgers’s extensive interviews offer unique insights into the development of these communities in rural British Columbia. The discussions with Corky Evans and other prominent political figures to come out of the American migration are especially revealing and valuable. Rodgers opens up new possibilities for further research on the impact of American war resisters on Canada during the 1960s and 1970s.
Surrey, David Sterling, 1982. Choice of Conscience: Vietnam Era Military and Draft Resisters in Canada (New York: Praeger): 76
Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014. 240 pp. $29.95 paper