The Vietnam War and Ontario Mennonites

The Vietnam War had little direct impact on Canadian Mennonites, in contrast to their American Mennonite cousins. Mennonite young men in the United States faced military conscription, though most of them readily performed alternative service for two years instead of serving in the military. About fifty thousand American men and women fled the U.S. draft or deserted from the military, arriving in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some Mennonite churches in urban centers actively helped them find refuge. Estimates suggest half eventually returned to the U.S., while the remainder stayed in Canada. Probably fifty or so of the thousands of U.S. draft dodgers were Mennonites; some resisters from other Christian denominations chose to became part of Ontario Mennonite churches. I was one of the fifty or so Mennonite draft dodgers, coming to Canada in October 1968.


Sam Steiner’s draft protest, April 1968.

Many Ontario Mennonite congregations chose a hands-off approach to draft dodgers. In 1968 the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference passed a resolution opposing assistance to draft dodgers. Mennonites descended from immigrants who had experienced oppression in the Soviet Union were less amenable to helping American draft dodgers; they saw the Vietnam War as justifiable resistance to communism. In 1970, when the Scott Street Mennonite Brethren Church in St. Catharines refused to host an MCC Ontario consultation that included presentations by Frank Epp and Walter Klaassen and a number of draft resisters, the meeting was moved to the more sympathetic Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener. In his report of the April 25 meeting, Vernon Leis said many Mennonites were “fearful” of war resisters because their peace position was not theologically grounded, and their disobedience threatened the Mennonite relationship with the government and the special status that had been negotiated by Mennonites.

The greater impact of the Vietnam War on Mennonites, however, came through the multitude of refugees created in Vietnam and Laos, and the decision of the Canadian government to accept a significant number of these refugees into Canada. The Canadian government began to pay more attention to political refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, though without a formal refugee policy. Canada accepted 37,500 refugees after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, eleven thousand from Czechoslovakia in 1968, and seven thousand ethnic Asians from Uganda in 1972. Canada belatedly signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention in June 1969. A new Canadian Immigration Act was tabled in 1976 and came into force in 1978. Among other things, the act attempted to “fulfill Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and the persecuted.” It provided for the possibility of private sponsorship of refugees in addition to refugees selected and financed by the Canadian government. Canada’s sincerity in opening its land was immediately tested by the 1.5 million refugees of the Vietnam War who fled their homes by mid-1979. Some of these took to the sea in overcrowded boats in an effort to seek safer shores, but were refused entry by neighboring countries like Malaysia. The refugees become popularly known as “boat people.”

Mennonite Central Committee had operated programs in Vietnam since 1954, and it was one of the few relief agencies that remained in the country after 1975 when the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) collapsed. MCC Canada signed a “Master Agreement” with the Canadian government in early 1979 (negotiations took place from January to early March when the agreement was signed). As part of the agreement MCC Canada accepted the financial liability for refugees privately sponsored by Mennonite churches. Even before the agreement was signed MCC began putting the refugee assistance program in place with its first efforts in Vancouver and Toronto. Overall, MCC-related Mennonite churches sponsored almost four thousand refugees in 1979 and 1980, over 10 percent of the thirty-five thousand private refugee sponsorships in Canada in those two years.

Lao Vang, 1979

Lao Vang, speaking to refugee sponsors in 1979. Lao Vang photo.

The involvement with Southeast Asian refugees had begun the previous year, however, when the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC) became involved. In September 1978, the United Mennonite Conference’s mission and service committee appealed to its congregations to send relief goods via TUMC to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam in Canada, located in Toronto, for distribution to newly arriving refugees. MCC Ontario soon appointed Tinh Huynh, a member of the Vietnamese church, to head its refugee assistance program. Tinh Huynh assisted newcomers with basic needs and helped to find lodging and employment. Lao (Peter) Vang later worked for MCC Ontario as a refugee resettlement worker from 1981 to 1983. By December 1980 eighty-six Ontario Mennonite congregations sponsored Southeast Asian refugees. The highest participation rate came from the more assimilated Mennonite congregations. These included the Mennonite Brethren (fifteen of twenty-one congregations), United Mennonites (twelve of fifteen congregations), Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (eleven of fifteen congregations), and Mennonite Conference of Ontario (twenty-seven of thirty-six congregations). It made sense for urban Mennonite congregations to participate since the refugees usually migrated to the cities where public services for newcomers were available. But the sponsoring congregations also included at least one Midwest Mennonite Fellowship congregation, five groups from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference, and one Old Order Mennonite congregation.

In a later blog we’ll discuss the Ontario Mennonite congregations that emerged from these refugees as well as refugees from Central America.

To learn more about Mennonites and refugees, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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