BOOKS: Canada's Agent Orange Victims Still Seeking Justice

  • by Matthew Berger (new york)
  • Thursday, May 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Doreen Thomas says her friends and family lasted until their forties and sixties, but 'everybody’s household was full of cancer. The people who didn’t have internal cancer, we had outside cancer. I’ve had 11 [tumors] removed.'

Thomas had moved to Enniskillen, New Brunswick, in 1953. Two years later, the Canadian military started spraying Agent Orange and other chemicals at nearby Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, and kept doing so until at least 1984.

In 1964, four years after Kissinger’s family moved to Oromocto, where the base is headquartered, 'the spray planes would go over head all summer long and they’d come right over the house, you could almost touch them... Our front lawn would be green one morning and brown the next. It was just everywhere, on the clothes on the clothesline.'

'It' is Agent Orange mixed with kerosene or diesel so that it sticks better to the trees and brush it is meant to kill - or whatever else happens to be on the ground.

The negligence and secrecy with which the Canadian Department of National Defence conducted these tests is laid out in precise detail in Chris Arsenault’s first book, 'Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home' (Fernwood, 2009).

Arsenault, a history fellow at the University of British Columbia and IPS Canadian correspondent, has pored over documents obtained through access to information requests and interviewed numerous veterans and former villagers to piece together what he sees as a 'national tragedy' that only within the last decade has really started to come to light.

'Blowback' has only been a part of the modern lexicon since Chalmers Johnson used it to describe the unintended consequences of covert action in a 2001 book of the same name. Arsenault endows it with a double meaning - the drift of sprayed chemicals onto cropland and towns and the political repercussions of Canada covering up these spraying activities.

His approach is thoroughly journalistic and the book reads like an extended feature, only with sources carefully cited at the end of each chapter. The book reaches its most narrative form in the chapter on how Canada allowed the U.S. to test chemicals at CFB Gagetown, in which he traces the chronology of how a government entrusted with protecting its people allowed them to be doused with such compounds as Agent Purple, which contained arsenic and three times the level of toxic dioxin as Agent Orange and had been banned from use in Vietnam.

For the most part, though, the story jumps around, albeit skillfully, between anecdotes, historical evidence, and, most interestingly, root causes.

Arsenault characterises his study as 'a story of the military and economic currents that allowed Agent Orange to blow through trees and into rivers in New Brunswick' and of the ongoing fight of the soldiers and civilians affected - what he terms the 'blowback against militarism and inevitable home-front destruction caused by the chemical fog of war.'

The profit drive of companies like Dow Chemical and the cost-cutting measures of the DND and others, like power companies, that chose to use Agent Orange rather than human labour to clear brush must be seen within their historical and economic context.

'In free market logic,' he observes, 'where money is power, governments will do anything to save the former to maintain the latter.'

The largest class-action suit in U.S. history was filed in 1977 over the Agent Orange exposure of Vietnam veterans, but it targeted the chemical companies. The Canadian approach has been different.

'We don’t say there should be damages because Agent Orange exists,' says lawyer Tony Merchant in the book. 'Our case is against the government for the use of these products.'

In this way, the Canadian class-action suit, filed in July 2005 and, Merchant hopes, due to be wrapped up in two years, has taken aim at the government’s failure to protect its own citizens and its putting a desire to save money ahead of a desire to ensure public health.

'The feeling of betrayal, that you lived all your life being sprayed with that Agent Orange and you subjected your children to it; there will probably never be closure in our lives,' says Thomas in the book. 'You only get one chance at life in this world and you’ve got to give it over to Agent Orange or Agent Purple.'

The case, along with another filed in Saskatchewan, are still forging ahead. Lawyers are accusing the government of stalling, Arsenault told IPS by phone. Compounding this, the government has counter-sued Dow Chemical and other companies involved, and the companies 'are dragging it out as much as possible,' according to Arsenault.

His main message in writing the book, he said, is that 'you can’t really separate geopolitical events, whether it be the Vietnam War or the war on terror, from events back home.'

'Gagetown is just a microcosm of things that are happening at other bases around the country and probably the world. I wanted to tell the story of one base as a sort of metaphor for all these,' he said.

He specifically mentioned mustard gas tests that took place at CFB Suffield in Alberta in the 1960s, and which were only officially acknowledged by the government in 2004. 'Gagetown is not an anomaly,' he said.

At a book event in Ottawa, a man who clearly did not look like he came to many such events sat silently in the back. Afterward, Arsenault found out it was the new commander of CFB Gagetown, and that he had come to learn about the history and past problems at the base. He cites this as a sign that things are slowly beginning to change.

Still, these past events cannot simply be moved on from. Earlier this month, in St. Stephen, N.B., a group of 30 U.S. and Canadian veterans and civilians marched to the constituency office Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, according to the (Saint John) Telegraph-Journal. They were demanding a public judicial inquiry into the sprayings at CFB Gagetown, and Thompson’s office says there is currently no plan for one.

Clearly, there are more chapters to come.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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