Vermont Residents Understand Canada's anti-war stance

SO, HAS IT come down to that? Canada refuses to join the U.S. in the war in Iraq and U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci utters thinly veiled threats of reprisal; Montreal fans boo the Star-Spangled Banner at a hockey game; Canadian truckers get harassed on U.S.

Vermont Residents Understand Canada's anti-war stance

SO, HAS IT come down to that? Canada refuses to join the U.S. in the war in Iraq and U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci utters thinly veiled threats of reprisal; Montreal fans boo the Star-Spangled Banner at a hockey game; Canadian truckers get harassed on U.S. highways; a busload of peewees from the Boston area get snarled in an anti-war rally in Montreal; Canadian journalists are made to cool their heels for nearly two hours at a border crossing into the U.S.? The short answer is: no, not as far as most people in Vermont are concerned. But with some U.S. immigration officials, well, maybe ...

Maclean's Chief Photographer Peter Bregg and I went to Vermont to assess the changing atmospherics of Canadian-American relations. We got off to a bad start. U.S. officials took my passport, and we were instructed to wait in an immigration office at the border crossing near Philipsburg, Que. The scene had a weird Third World feel to it, as a half-dozen gun-packing, black-shirted officials busied themselves with paperwork, studiously avoiding eye contact with us. No explanation was given for why we were delayed for almost two hours. No apologies either. "Is this a new policy of tighter scrutiny of Canadian travellers?" we asked an officer. "Nah! It must be one of those random things," he said off-handedly.

As it was, it was the only difficult moment of this whole trip, in which we zipped around in a car flaunting Quebec plates and, in the case of this reporter, an impossible-to-conceal French accent. We headed to Burlington - where we heard not a peep of resentment, scorn or, God forbid, hostility, while talking to war veterans and peace activists, scholars, even the mother of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq five days before.

It could be that Burlington is just too proper, nice and polite to be in-your-face frank about what it really thinks of us. Or is it cultural? This very white, tweedy, quaint, fashionable college town is the bourgeois-bohemian capital of the Subaru-left. And Montreal is the nearest big city, where Vermont residents go to catch an international flight, a hockey game, an opera, a strip show, or the latest in food or fashion trends.

That, or they just don't give a hoot about us. They are ignorant of - or totally indifferent to - Canadian politics, says Susan Reid, a former Toronto Star reporter and now an editorial writer with the Burlington Free Press. "The only time there has been a discussion of Canada, it was started either by me, or by another Canadian."

"GET OUT of Burlington, come to the real Vermont - come to Rutland!" said Tim Philbin. It's far into the mountains, 100 km south of Burlington. Rutland is to Vermont what Shawinigan is to Quebec, a mid-size industrial town that has known better days. And Philbin - a fast-talking, fire-breathing, right-wing demagogue - is the host of the morning call-in program on WSYB, Rutland. I wanted to interview him. I ended up fielding calls, live, in the hot seat of his small studio.

"You'll get an earful" he promised as he primed his listeners. "The booing of our national anthem, the harassment of our peewees, we remember that," he said on the air. "As we remember how you welcomed our draft-dodgers in the Vietnam War." A television showed images of a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad as Philbin continued: "You shied away as we sent our men to fight to liberate Iraq, and now you'd want to make money helping rebuild it? Well, I say, screw you, Canada, this is an American show! First caller - hi, what's your name?"

Great baiting, but nobody really bit. The Joes, Pauls, Tims, Jakes and Ernies who called were not as shocked-and-awed by Canada as the radio jock was. Joe: "It is more like a family disagreement; our ties with Canada remain strong." Jake: "Many Canadians served in Vietnam and never got recognition from us; besides, they have troops in Afghanistan." Paul: "I have a history of going to Canada to hunt moose for 20 years. I think it is the other way around, the Canadians are the ones who resent us for our lifestyle, our money, our military power." Tim: "I was offended by our friends sitting on their hands, but I am more hurt than angry and I will keep going to Montreal." Ernie: "There is animosity, but it has little to do with Iraq. It is a big brother-little brother thing. They make cars up there, but they don't have Canadian cars."

PEOPLE OF VERMONT pride themselves on being politically open and tolerant, but there is more, says André Senécal, eating a delicious and not-so-American meal in a Burlington trattoria. Born in Canada, educated in Massachusetts, the bilingual Senécal is the director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Vermont. "Vermont is the most Canadian state in the union, so if you hear Canada-bashing here, it means it has gone really bad everywhere else," he says. "At least one-third of people here have French-Canadian ancestors; if you add those of English Canadian extraction, you have half the population of the state."

"Tolerance to dissidence is what defines these parts," says Abbas Alnasrawi, an Iraq-born economist at the university who has publicly criticized U.S. involvement in Iraq. He says that in Burlington he has never been singled out for his ethnic origin or his political positions, "though it may have been different had I lived in other parts of the country. Here, you see, many people, probably a majority, oppose the war, and were somewhat grateful to countries like Canada or even France for saying there are other ways to resolve conflicts than military action."

France? Indeed. A few weeks ago, while Lake Champlain was still frozen, a hundred or so peace activists fanned out on the ice to form a peace sign, to be photographed from the air. "Then we all lunched on French wine, French bread and French cheese, to make a statement," says Kimberly Ead, a project director of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington.

People opposing war, and those supporting it, have held meetings and rallies, but each on their own; they have never met to debate, much less to clash. "There has never been a comprehensive, democratic debate in this country over our foreign policy," Ead says, adding that a good part of the blame rests with the media. "In Canada, in Europe, people get a much more comprehensive, and critical, coverage of the war, but here, it is totally one-sided. People critical of the administration are just not represented at the moment." Surfing channels in a hotel room offered some insight into Ead's observation. Five stations were providing live war coverage and, apart from a few offering golf, basketball or weather, most others had shows that all seemed more violent than real war, revolving around wronged heroes righting things with firearms.

THE WAR struck home here when Cpl. Mark Evnin, 21, a Marine scout sniper from south Burlington, was killed in combat on April 3. I met his grieving mother, Mindy, in her living room, as she leafed through pictures of her only child while bracing herself for the funeral to be conducted with full military honours on April 15. After he finished high school, Mark Evnin decided to bide his time before going to college, she says, and he lost his gamble. "When he graduated as a Marine I said: I am a Jewish mother, so I will go and tell President Bush not to go to war for a few years," she recalls. But, even in her grief, Mindy Evnin refuses to give her opinion of the conflict. "This is not about politics, this is about Mark. The people who believe in this war say he is a hero. But everybody else is just sorry for me."

A few blocks away, the flag flew at half mast in the South Burlington High School where Mark Evnin had been a student. How have the kids felt about this war? "Just like the grown-ups, some are totally opposed, but the silent majority is in favour, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm," says Patrick Burke, the school principal. And what about Canada's position? "We held a forum in which the students could debate. One of them explained that Canada stayed out of Iraq for legitimate philosophical reasons, while other countries, like France, were more opportunistic. His point was very well made."

Maclean's April 21, 2003