The hippie exodus to Canada from the United States was not a mass migration, but it was close. Is it time to rethink this period, then and now?
· illustration by Liz Markus
In the summer of 1970, six young people, all of them former students at the University of Maryland, left suburban Washington DC bound for Vancouver. Four of them — a native Marylander named Dave Buhrman, his new wife, Joan, their Canadian friend, Bill Irwin, and a fourth (probably a young American named Warren Litzinger, though recollections are hazy) — packed themselves into a Volkswagen Microbus. The other two — an older guy they called “Army Bob” because he’d come to the university after a stint in the US military, and a younger dude named Tim Arnold — left a little later by car. Behind them, as they headed west, lay unfinished undergraduate degrees, abandoned career paths, and a semester’s worth of experiments in consciousness expansion. Some of them had joined the half-million protesters on the Mall for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. They’d seen friends tear-gassed and heard the news of the massacre at My Lai and the shootings at Kent State. They weren’t really activists, but they were surely hippies, and DC in 1970 was not their scene. Like Thoreau walking off into the woods to live deliberately, they were headed back to the land. Ahead of them, they hoped, lay adventure, clean air, open space, the promise of a fresh start, and the fulfillment of a spiritual quest. Ahead, at any rate, lay the unknown: Canada, a country only two of them had ever set foot in but that all of them hoped was a saner place. It was, after all, a country whose youthful prime minister had granted an audience to John and Yoko and declared that his nation should be “a refuge from militarism.”
Along the way, the VW bus lost a cylinder, and in Seattle, during a rest stop at Bill Irwin’s parents’ house, it gained a new paint job (Day-Glo orange) and a new nickname (“Galactibus”). In Vancouver, they bunkered down for the winter with some like-minded folks who’d gathered around a Gestalt therapy group at the University of British Columbia. A sympathetic environmentalist lent them a few rooms in his house in Surrey; Dave and Joan saw the birth of a daughter, Terra; and word on the tuned-in street was that there was a valley deep in the mountains called the Slocan, which was where it was at for a back-to-the-land trip.
In the spring of 1971, their numbers swelled to maybe ten, they drove east into the BC interior. At Nelson, they turned north onto Highway 6, and onward into the Slocan Valley.
Look. I realize that this all eventually morphed into a bloated capital-S Sixties cliché, a mix of boomer nostalgia and self-aggrandizing half-truth that presumed to inflate a little youthful exuberance and affluent adventurism into the explosive stuff of revolution. A VW Microbus, a dog-eared Timothy Leary tome, long hair and leather vests and Cream on the tape deck — it could almost be a montage in a sloppy documentary. It’s easy to dismiss it — especially if, like me, you were born after the putative revolution ended and you grew up in a pop culture awash in its overbearing mythology.
But then you hike up through the forested hillside behind your mother-in-law’s country house deep in the BC interior to find the ruins of a full-blown homestead standing there in stoic rebuttal. And you start to wonder if maybe it was the distorted, oversimplifying lens of three decades of mass media and not the participants themselves that reduced this time and the people who shaped it to sappy caricature. And you wonder, too, if a significant chapter in Canadian history isn’t on the verge of being lost.
Immigration figures offer no clue as to the destination of new arrivals, and so there’s no reliable number to attach to the Slocan migration of the Vietnam War era. The same holds true for the war-resister influx as a whole: contemporary media estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000, and John Hagan’s 2001 study, Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, makes a conservative extrapolation of about 53,000 from Canadian immigration data. But the truth is that nobody knows for sure how many young Americans fled the United States to avoid the draft, desert the military, or simply escape a nation in dire crisis. Still, as Hagan asserts, this collective northward-ho amounted to “the largest politically motivated migration from the United States since the United Empire Loyalists moved north to oppose the American Revolution.” (The Loyalists numbered an estimated 100,000.) This was a major demographic shift of young and well-educated Americans into Canada, a signal event in the history of Canadian-American relations, and — particularly in concentrated pockets such as the Slocan — a significant reconfiguration of the social fabric.
The tangible traces of this unique chapter in Canadian history, however, are all but gone. Baldwin Street in Toronto — once the epicentre of Canada’s largest war-resister community — is known these days for its cozy cafés. And even the unmistakably offbeat vibe of the Slocan reveals few overt signs of its Vietnam-era roots.
The mountains looming over the valley are great, hulking, tree-covered masses that enclose it like the battlements of some god-sized fortress. These are the mighty Selkirk Mountains, a mass of rock that even the tireless surveyors of Canada’s national railway thought impenetrable until a strange, obsessive American military veteran named A. B. Rogers was hired and discovered the pass that now bears his name. The isolation the mountains impose upon the valley remains its defining feature. Nobody ever comes to the Slocan by accident.
When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the population of the Slocan Valley was just over 100. Since then, it has grown mainly in sudden bursts, swelled by seekers of silver, timber, or refuge. The pioneers of this last group were the Doukhobors, fleeing the czar’s army in Russia around the turn of the century. During World War II, the Canadian government interned 8,000 Japanese-Canadians in camps throughout the Slocan (though very few stayed after their release). In the McCarthyite 1950s, several hundred American Quakers relocated to Argenta, on Kootenay Lake. And then, in the 1960s and ’70s, came the Vietnam war resisters, plus a retinue of Canadian sympathizers and seekers.
My mother-in-law came to the Slocan in the mid-1990s — to Nakusp, a logging town and administrative hub that is technically just beyond the valley’s northern rim but psychologically very much a Slocan kind of place. She had a steady job with the provincial government, and not long after her arrival she bought a homestead just off Highway 6, a place known locally as Strawberry Hill. The property boasts a cozy, modernized log house, a small apple orchard, and one-and-a-half hectares of wilderness spilling up a steep hillside. When my wife and I first came to visit, we were told of the ecological riches somewhere up that hill: cougar tracks and old-growth cedar, two pure mountain springs, and a collapsing Aframe house that some hippies built back in the 1970s.