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When Tagging Goes Too Far

Just prior to the first public tour of Montreal’s oldest country house last August, someone splattered giant graffiti tags across two of its four 300-year-old stone walls.

Twenty days later—after many phone calls, advice from Montreal’s pre-eminent heritage art restorer, and 40 hours of careful nylon brushing by a blue collar employee—a pristine building greeted visitors for the archaeology week celebration.

The incident was the first time anyone has damaged Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier, a two-storey stone cottage built by Gilbert Maillet for the Congregation of Notre Dame nuns in 1710. Yet similar vandalism occurs too often in Montreal, says Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director at Heritage Montreal. “In the past, there’s been a general consensus that the graffiti guys wouldn’t damage historic monuments. This unsaid convention has broken down.”

All public institutions with property on the island of Montreal—including 19 boroughs, the STCUM, five school boards, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments—have different protocols for handling typical graffiti removal on their territories. When a designated heritage building or monument is tagged, however, an expert art restorer has to approve the removal to protect historic value and prevent permanent damage. The graffiti on Maison Dizier put extra pressure on Verdun’s arts and culture head Nancy Raymond, who was already busy finalizing plans for Maison Diziers’ anniversary celebration this month and next, and who normally wouldn’t deal with graffiti.

Verdun’s protocol calls for removing graffiti from all structures, whether publicly or privately-owned. A local bylaw, and a strong partnership with the Montreal police, enables graffiti-prevention experts to meet with parents and shopkeepers, visit schools, and recover costs from anyone convicted of defacing property. Fines go to parents of taggers younger than 18 years.

The three-pronged approach (education, prevention, control) was developed as a pilot project three years ago. It has since been deemed so successful, that the Montreal police are expanding it across the island. “If every borough could imitate what Verdun does here and could clean all the graffiti in all the public and private places, Montreal would be much better off,” says Commandant Eric Lalonde, chief of police for Verdun’s neighbourhood office 16, who also heads Project Graffiti. “They understand very well the “broken window theory” in that everyone feels safe when it’s clean.”

Removing graffiti as soon as it occurs is expensive, and can’t be handled solely by borough blue collars. At their September meeting, the borough awarded four contracts to three companies (Hydrotech NHP Inc., Solutions Graffiti, and S.R. Vapeur Inc.) to cover graffiti removal for the next five years at an estimated cost of $295,277.94, despite having already awarded a $220,423.89 contract to Hydrotech NHP Inc. last May. None of these contracts include removing graffiti from Maison Dizier or any other historic monument or sculpture.

“When it’s a historic building, they want to make sure that the removal won’t hurt the structure,” says Sebastien Pitre, from Solutions Graffiti in Lasalle. “I’m in charge of the projects for the Lachine Canal, and there are historic buildings there, but I don’t do historic buildings in Verdun.”

“Removing graffiti on this isn’t the same as taking it off an overpass built in the ‘70’s. It is a very precious and fragile monument,” said Bumbaru. “There are sections with mortar and sections with stone. When this house was built, they were taking rocks from the fields and they can be limestone, granite and sandstone mixed together.”

“When the house was restored a few years back, the outside of the house was repointed,” said Gina Garcia, the art restorer who consulted with Verdun on the project. “The old mortar between the stones was removed and replaced by a new historically-correct mortar using traditional lime based mortars, which are much more fragile than cement based mortars.”

To advise on how to clean off the graffiti, Garcia spent a day testing different solvent mixes and strippers which could be used without a high pressure water jet. Then she trained Verdun’s regular maintenance team to apply them properly, leave them rest for the ideal length of time and then rinse them without damaging the mortar or the stones. “The technique was gentle and time consuming but it was done using eco-friendly paint strippers, small plastic brushes and water rinsing at very low pressure. And more importantly, it didn’t attack the fragile lime mortars.”

Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier was supposed to open fully next month, but the permanent exhibition won’t be ready until spring 2012. Instead, Verdun has arranged for costumed interpreters, story-tellers and simulated archaeology digs to occur every Saturday and Sunday from now until October 23 to commemorate the structure’s 300th anniversary.

(A version of this story published on Open File on September 11, 2011)

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I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember

I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember (ISBN: 1896239145 Paperback, 175pp) covers the story about individual Canadians who fought in the Vietnam War. We will remember them. Order the book.

I Volunteered – Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember fills a significant gap in Canada’s military history—I strongly recommend it.

Les Peate, Esprit de Corps

…a moving first-hand account of a little known aspect of Canadian military and social experience.

Max Hancock, Ottawa Citizen

Did you know?

 For each of the 30,000 Americans that Canada sheltered during the Vietnam War, a Canadian citizen volunteered to serve with the U.S. Army.

Canada Provided Security Clearance for U.S. Recruits

Canadians who served with the U.S. needed security clearance from the R.C.M.P, but the organization refuses to clarify how many such clearances they performed in those years.

Canadian Peacekeeping and Aid

Five Canadian peacekeepers died in Vietnam because of their perceived role as spies for the American Forces. Four were military soldiers serving with the Canadian Armed Forces. The fifth, a clerk, was found hanged with his hands tied behind his back in Saigon.

Canada gave aid to Southeast Asia from 1950 until at least 1975 under the Columbo Plan. Columbo was set up under the auspices of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee on South and Southeast Asia. Members included Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, Pakistan and New Zealand. Until 1975, Canada’s portion of the aid went only to South Vietnam.

The Walker was Canadian

 John W. Blake, the “walker” who marched 3,200 miles from Fort Lewis, Seattle to Yorktown, Virginia in full combat gear in 1982 to commemorate the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington was born in Newfoundland.

After struggling for years with PTSD, Blake killed himself in Hilo, Hawaii on February 13, 1996, when he was 47 years old. His family then spent five years fighting to have him buried in the “Field of Honour” in St. John’s. When that proved impossible, they buried him in the military section of Forest Lawn Ocean View Memorial Park in Burnaby, British Columbia.

His funeral, which took place on April 7, 2001, was attended by representatives from his unit and a two-person honour guard from Fort Lewis.

His sister Cathy published a book, One for the Boys, about his life last year. I spoke with Cathy about her awesome book on Unapologetically Canadian last year.

Vietnam Veterans Associations Still Active

Today, veterans and their family members join together in Canadian Vietnam Veteran Associations across the country. Members work actively to support veterans struggling with PTSD and war-time health issues. They also fundraise for memorials in Windsor, Ottawa, Melocheville and elsewhere. Look for them at Remembrance Day parades, during “Rolling Thunder” on Memorial Day and where-ever else veterans are honoured.

Canada and the Vietnam War

When 19-year-old Robert Beattie crossed the border between Nova Scotia and Maine late in 1967, border officials probably thought he was just another Canadian looking for inexpensive Christmas gifts.

Instead, he visited recruiting office for the U.S. Marines and signed up to go to Vietnam.

He joined some 30,000 Canadian men and women agreed to serve in Vietnam as diplomats, soldiers, doctors, nurses and aid workers between 1954 and 1975.

What made him do it?

That’s the most common question I’m asked whenever people hear that I featured Beattie and others in my first book, “I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember.”

After interviewing 218 veterans for the book and multiple other experts over the years since writing it in 1996, I have narrowed the key reasons people go to war down to three: a family history of military service, a desire to escape abuse and poverty, and a need to make the world better.

Family history of military service

Most Canadians count ancestor warriors who went to Afghanistan, Britain, Crimea Cyprus, Iraq, France, Korea, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Africa, Spain and the United States during historic wars.

Even those who don’t remember family warriors probably have a military past somewhere. Many Quebeckers, including me, descend from one of the 1,200 soldiers in the Carignan-Salières Regiment who came to New France in 1665 to protect settlers from attacks by the Iroquois Nation.

Europe brought many wars to the new world, including Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), Father Rale’s War (also known as Dummer’s War), King George’s War, also called the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), and Father Le Loutre’s War (1749–1755) in Acadia and Nova Scotia,

Others share DNA with those who served with the Troupes de Terre and the Compagnies franches de la marine, both of which participated at the battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

Still others have ancestors within the 30,000 German Hessians who served in the colonies under King George II of England between 1776 and 1783. Many of us have family members among the American, Aboriginal and British soldiers who fought during four intercolonial wars between 1688 and 1773 or later during the War of 1812.

We also have family members participating in more recent wars too, including the Afghan, Gulf, Korean and Kosovo wars. We are justifiably proud of these heroes for sacrificing themselves for a greater good.

So why is Vietnam any different? People tend to describe the Vietnam War as though every soldier who went was drafted. The Canadians prove the lie to this assumption, which is why their story often gets hidden. Then again, governments don’t set up conscription processes unless they believe a conflict should be fought.


Escape abuse and poverty

Some of the veterans I interviewed joined the U.S. military because they needed a job, but others went to escape bad situations at home. Perhaps their families lived in poverty or they witnessed or suffered abuse.

That makes them all mercenaries I’m often told, usually by someone with an incredibly angry tone. These individuals seem to assume that all Canadian soldiers purposely give up their ethics to fight for foreign powers in return for a paycheque and escape.

None of them knew that their actions were technically illegal either, in part because so many Canadian institutions helped make their actions possible. For example, the RCMP provided security clearance reports for any Canadian who joined the U.S. military.

A few of the men I spoke to admitted that they were ashamed of somethings they did when serving in Vietnam, but often they felt like they had little choice by then. They certainly didn’t intend to give up their ethics.

One person told me he thought he wanted to kill before he got to Vietnam, but he said that feeling was based on his training and a misunderstanding of what killing actually meant. The first dead person he saw changed his mind, but it was too late to go home then.

Make the world better

For many, the horrific events at My Lai (Sơn Mỹ) on March 16, 1968 epitomize soldier action in Vietnam. There’s no doubt that 26 American soldiers raped and murdered 504 unarmed civilians. They even reported the event as a justified enemy kill.

We rarely hear about Hugh Thompson, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, the helicopter crew that tried to stop the killing and physically saved people by flying them away.

Thompson and his colleagues prevented an enormous lie from being believed, but he paid a huge personal price for his valour, especially in the early days. People put dead animals on his balcony. He got death threats. Eventually, he got the appropriate appreciation for his work, but that took time.

A Canadian woman got similar treatment from her government. Claire Culhane worked as a librarian at the tuberculosis hospital in Quang Ngai City from 1967 until February 1968. She left her post when she realized that the Canadian medical team head passed along patient information to the American Embassy and CIA.

She understood then that the Canadian government only served in Vietnam to bolster the American war effort.

Her efforts to stop the government continued for years, but the politicians ignored her. During the year that Culhane served in Vienam, Canada gave $2.7 million dollars to South Vietnam, a figure that surpassed the previous year. Every year, the Canadian Government gave similar amounts, with aid going up to $3.9 million in ’72 ’73.

Canadian Peace Efforts in Vietnam

All in all, our federal politicians voted to give almost $30 million in funds and technical expertise to South Vietnam between1957 and 1975. We sent 497 experts to South Vietnam. Canadian corporations supplied the U.S. military with $2.5 billion worth of goods during that same period. The Canadian military tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick.

During the same years, several reporters announced that the Canadian Government attempted to block private funds from going to North Vietnam. We trained 2,997 South Vietnamese students in Canadian colleges and universities.

In many ways, Canada fell into supporting the American effort during the Vietnam War as a side effect to their efforts to pull India and Pakistan out of an economic depression after WWII.

Pearson and the Colombo Plan

The project began on January 9, 1950, when External Affairs Minister Lester B.(Mike) Pearson joined six of his compatriots at a five-day meeting in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The meeting was the first time that Commonwealth foreign ministers met in Asia. It also marked the first meeting in which India, Pakistan and then Ceylon attended international meetings based on their own sovereignty.

The other foreign ministers at the meeting were:

  • Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, Australia;
  • Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, Britain;
  • Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs, India;
  • Fredrick Doidge, Minister for External Affairs, New Zealand;
  • Chaudhry Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Foreign Minister of Pakistan; and
  • Don Stephen Senanayake, Prime Minister of Ceylon.

A meeting of commonwealth finance ministers took place at the same time. Douglas LePan, a civil servant who served in External Affairs but frequently worked for the Ministry of Finance, participated in those meetings for Canada until the two meetings were linked half-way through the week.[1] Leaders of note in the second meeting included Ghulam Mohammed, Pakistan’s Minister of Finance, Pakistan; and Junius Richard Jayewardene, Ceylon’s Finance Minister.

The Colombo Plan continues to exist today, although Canada left the organization under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1992. Britain had already left a year earlier.

The project the men created via the two series of meetings involved cooperation, mutual economic development and the defeat of communism. None of them wanted the British Sterling to collapse. In addition, India and Pakistan still hadn’t recovered from the world-wide economic depression most other countries came out of during World War II. The communist threat was also top of mind, given the Chinese Communist Party’s defeat of the Nationalists, who retreated to Taiwan the year before.

Colombo Plan funds went to the building of the Mayurakshi Dam in West Bengal, the Hulule Airport in the Maldives, the Da Nhim Hydropower Plant in South Vietnam, and India’s first nuclear power plant, which went online in 1960.

David McGee and Rian Manson describe how the Colombo Plan changed the relationship between Canada and India in chapter 4 of the book Objects in Motion: Globalizing Technology. [2]

When you look at the actions of these politicians and civil servants, it’s hard not to understand that soldiers also wanted to do everything they could to prevent communist forces from over-taking South Vietnam.

People tell me that this is due to some sort of need to exploit countries through colonialism, but I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect that most people who got involved in Vietnam believed that they were sacrificing themselves to make the world a little better. Or at the very least, they thought they could keep it from getting worse.

There’s no doubt that the Vietnam War featured human brutality in the form of civilian rapes, beatings, dispersions, massacres, military corruption, bestiality, live burials, human burnings, political expedience and incompetence.

It was also atrociously long—lasting from 1954 until 1975 for the American portion. Even longer, if you include France’s attempt to hold onto the provinces of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China along with Laos and Cambodia between 1946 and 1954. Longer still, when you realize that Vietnam was occupied by Japan after France lost to the Germans on May 10, 1940. We can even go back further, to the beginning of French occupation in Vietnam from the Cochin China Campaign in 1858.

Every war features despicable behaviour by bullies and despots. Sometimes, people go to war to stop them, and in this case, many people thought that that’s what they were doing.

Vietnam has a particularly bad reputation because we lost. If we hadn’t, perhaps our many sacrifices might have felt worthwhile.

Then again, it’s possible they were.

We don’t know what might have happened if we’d never been involved in the first place.

[1] Whiteside, Heather. (2015). Canada’s Reluctant Acceptance of the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia. Waterloo Historical Review. 7. 10.15353/whr.v7.34.

[2] McGee, David and Rian Manson, “Canada, Communism and the Columbo Plan,” in Objects in Motion: Globalizing Technology, edited by Nina Mollers and Bryan Dewalt (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2016), 46-64,, accessed November 18, 2019.

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"I Volunteered" tells the story of Canadians who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

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