In January 1970, Lee Zaslofsky fled New York for Canada. Drafted into the U.S. Army the year before, he was serving at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when he received orders to go to Vietnam.
At the time, he had already applied for conscientious-objector status and been denied, twice. He was 24 and had participated in the 1967 march on the Pentagon, where a demonstrator had inserted that iconic flower into the barrel of a soldiers rifle. Hed attended a cocktail party in Boston, as a bartender, where Bobby Kennedy had given a speech, and had been jumped by fellow soldiers in a South Carolina bathroom for his peacenik beliefs.
The Army gave him a two-week furlough to go home to Long Island before being shipped off to Vietnam, and his days there were spent in contemplation and discussion with his father, a World War II vet, New York City firefighter and major in the Air Force Reserve, who at times was more opposed to the war than he was. At one point, his dad basically told him to "shit or get off the pot."
So he did. He took a bus up to Buffalo. Spent the night there and caught another to Toronto, "careful," he says, "to purchase a two-way ticket."
He doesnt remember what he brought with him that night, but Zaslofsky, now 60, recalls phoning his parents from the NYC Port Authority and $4 in change dropping through the slot when he hung up, which he thought "was a nice goodbye."
Zaslofsky went on to earn his masters degree in history from the University of Toronto, speaks five languages, served for a dozen years on the city of Torontos Health Board and even drove a cab for a while. Today hes an openly gay Canadian citizen, and spends his days manning an office in the Steel Workers Hall in downtown Toronto, which serves as headquarters for the War Resisters Support Campaign. The group formed last April when local activists met then-25-year-old U.S. Army deserter/spiritual seeker Jeremy Hinzman. Hinzmans claim, which was heard before Canadas Immigration and Refugee Board last week, was the first of three filed by Americans to date. But the lawyer handling the cases, another Vietnam-era draft dodger, Jeffry House, has received some 60 calls from other U.S. soldiers inquiring about gaining Canadian refugee status.
The War Resisters Support Campaign declaration/petition, which can be read online, reminds us that more than 50,000 draft-age Americans fled to Canada between 1965 and 1973, and includes romantic quotes from former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Its signed by a long list of prominent Canadians, including filmmaker David Cronenberg, actress Shirley Douglas (Kiefer Sutherlands mom), No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies author Naomi Klein and actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), who had her teeth knocked out by a police officer at a political protest in Canada some years back.
Zaslofsky talked about his work helping young soldiers fleeing the United States like he did, and another controversial war:
What do you think about Iraq?
It is an immoral, illegal war. Its an atrocity.
Do you find it similar to Vietnam?
Yes. I think the American people were lied to about it and manipulated into supporting it by fraudulent claims. I think the United States has other concerns than the ones they have voiced and they are basically sacrificing, apparently, up to 100,000 lives in Iraq and more than a thousand American lives to achieve what they seek.
What was your emotional response when you first heard about Jeremy Hinzman?
I was really glad to hear that there were some guys actually coming up. Recognizing that it is an immoral war and taking a stand so early on.
And do you see yourself in them?
To some extent I do, cause they made a decision similar to mine. But it is a different generation. The peace movement was much larger in the United States when I left. It had been active for some years, partly because there was a draft and partly because the Vietnam War was larger and more murderous. So I think our generation was much more politicized than the current one. And when I speak to them, I see that they have arrived at their conclusions independently. They have thought about this on their own.
This is a personal question. You mentioned that you are gay. Were you out when you left the United States, and did you tell the Army?
No. I knew I was attracted to guys, and it occurred to me that I should try to get out of the Army by saying I was homosexual, but the Army didnt just believe you if you said it. Essentially, you would have to get witnesses to write letters. I wouldnt have been able to do that, cause I wasnt out at that time. I also felt that the reason I was leaving was not because I was a homosexual; the reason I was leaving was because I was against the war. On a conservative Web site today, I saw where someone had said Jeremy Hinzman should have made up some reason rather than to make his own statement about Iraq. My feeling at the time was that I was making a statement about Vietnam.
You said you get a lot of support e-mail. Do you get hate mail?
Yes. Though that seems to be going to the war resisters themselves, to their Web sites. Jeremy, of course, who just had his hearing and has been getting a lot of publicity, has been getting a large number of hate mail from people, including threats.
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Did you attend his hearing last week?
Yes. The most interesting parts were when Jeremy was questioned. And then there was a witness he brought, former Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, who spoke about the war crimes that he witnessed in Iraq. And he spoke passionately. It was quite a harrowing tale he had to tell.
Have you ever regretted your decision to go to Canada?
Not for a moment. It was the smartest thing I ever did. And when I visit the States I go down there to visit my mom every time, I can see that the United States has basically gone sour. Its noticeable. It makes me very sad and angry, and glad when I see the Canadian flag again, when I come across the border.