Dan Bouman

Gimme Shelter!

A troubling realization that came out of the discussion ignited by my 1992 novel Centre/Center, at my most recent Travelling Book Café, was how Canada has changed since the 1970's when war objectors and even deserters from the U.S. armed forces were welcomed with kindness by the government and any number of open-hearted individuals who provided shelter, offered jobs, donated food and clothes, extended friendship.
     It was standing room only at the Gibsons Public Library late Saturday afternoon. I had invited three former U. S. War Objectors to join me at the front, and after introducing "the times" with a short reading from Centre/Center, which deals with the migration to Canada during the Vietnam war years, the men described their experiences. Dan Bouman, a former town councillor and head of the district conservation society, talked about how his decision to cross the border influenced his family in Michigan; how, despite criticism from a local church minister and a threatening call from the FBI, his army veteran father began to understand that Dan had made the right decision. He was welcomed and aided by the Quakers in Vancouver. He thought then and still thinks of Canada as a place of refuge. Ken Dalgleish, a popular piano player, remembered the various people who helped him along, from a California Induction Center doctor willing to believe that Ken had been suffering chronic headaches, to an immigration officer who told him: If you want to stay we'd like to welcome you. Dr. Michael Klein detailed his Ionesco-like exchanges with the military board and showed a film now mounted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  In the film Klein describes how he and his wife were advised to cross from New York to Montreal at night when French Canadian border guards would be on duty, French Canadians having been historically opposed to conscription. There is also a sequence about the difficulty Iraq war resisters have experienced because nowadays, instead of welcoming immigrants for humanitarian reasons, the present government gives preferential treatment to entrepreneurs promising to invest in other businesses or open their own.  Meantime, war objectors like Rodney Watson have to seek sanctuary in churches to avoid being sent back to the U.S.  All three speakers had commented on Canada's traditional place in the world as a haven. Acknowledging the new reality produced a mixture of emotions and shame was a major component. So it wasn't just about nostalgia, all the talk, but living history that gives us an opportunity to consider how Canadian society has evolved.
     This Travelling Book Café confirmed that the Vietnam War era remains unfinished business for many who were touched by it. The time was too limited to allow all the audience members who had been involved as war objectors, or soldiers then veterans (as is one of the characters in C/C) to tell their stories. Those who did, including Dan Bouman, were grateful. "It's the first time I have ever talked about my experience in public and the first time anyone asked me to."
     There are clearly more to speak and to be heard. The Centre/Center Travelling Book Café hits the road in mid-February, willing to stop in interested communities along the way. Quebec and Ontario in late February, early March.