Toronto – Indo-Chinese Women’s Conference, 1971
Anti-War Action: Indochinese Women’s Conference
Introduction: The Toronto Indochinese Women’s Conference (ICWC) took place in April 1971. Women from Canada and the United States met with Indochinese women to strategically collaborate on how to persuade the US Government to end the Vietnam War. The conference coincided with peace talks between the North Vietnam and the US Governments taking place in Paris. Three of the organizers of the conference, Maureen Hynes, Carolyn Egan and Nancy Reynolds spoke to Rise Up about the events leading up to the conference and the conduct of the conference itself.
Sue: Can we start with very brief introductions from each of you? Like, just what your names are and where you’re from maybe?
Maureen: I’m Maureen Hynes and I’m from Toronto.
Nancy: Oh. I’m Nancy Reynolds. I was involved in the events we’re going to be discussing, and I was living in Toronto; I live now in Hawaii.
Sue: Thank you.
Carolyn: I’m Carolyn Egan and I live now in Toronto, and I was quite new to the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement when all this took place.
Maureen: Well, we all were.
Maureen: Oh. OK. Because you just said your name and where you’re from. So, I’m Maureen Hynes. I’m from Toronto. I was a member of the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement, probably from – if not its start, the very earliest days. So, I was part of the organizing for the Indochinese women’s conference in 1971.
Sue: Thank you. OK. So, we’re thinking about 1970-71 when you’re all beginning to think about planning this Indochinese conference – women’s conference. So, could you start by describing for us the political context of the time?
Carolyn: Sure. I’ll take a stab at that. I think, really, to understand the Indo-Chinese Women’s Conference it was really, really important to understand the political context, because it was a time of tremendous radicalization, political struggle was happening. I mean, a few years earlier, students and workers in France almost took down the government there. And around the world there were national liberation struggles happening everywhere – throughout Africa, Palestine, Ireland. And of course, there was the war in Vietnam. And the strongest imperialist power in the world was throwing all its military might at a small Asian nation that was involved in a liberation struggle.
And there was huge devastation, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed, carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, of Hanoi, and a very significant international anti-war movement developed, probably in every country around the world. And this was hugely, hugely important, and it was a point of struggle for so many. And we were, of course a part of that.
But also all kinds of other struggles were taking place in that era: The late 60s into the 70s. And, the black power movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the gay liberation movement, the American Indian movement. And these movements, people were really questioning the very system we were living under, fighting racism of course, repression of all sorts. And it was radicalizing many, many, many people, particularly young people, but way beyond young. And I think that, in that process, certainly in the United States, the revolutionary organizations like the Black Panther Party and the I Wor Kuen which was an Asian-American organization, the Young Lords, which was a Hispanic organization – they all viewed themselves to be revolutionary socialists.
And this was extraordinarily important and I think was having a real political impact. And, of course, when people are fighting in this way, I mean, the US government did not want to lose that war, and they surely didn’t want revolutionary forces within their own country. And so whenever that happens there’s repression, very real repression. And we saw it here in Canada with the October crisis. And I won’t go into detail, but the War Measures Act was put in place because of the actions of separatists in Quebec. A cabinet minister was taken hostage; he later died, and a UK envoy as well. And the War Measures Act took away all civil liberties. It was in place just before we were in the organizing and through the process of this conference. And it allowed searching of premises without warrant; it allowed people to be arrested without charge, to be jailed without charge. And I think almost 500 trade unionists, political activists, nationalists, were jailed, and anyone who was seen to be supportive of that separatist movement, the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec). So, that was taking place here and in the United States at the same time there was incredible repression. The murder by police of black activists. Angela Davis was in prison on a trumped-up charge in California. Erica Huggins, another Panther in New Haven. Jackson State students were killed; black students were killed by cops, in an anti-racist demo, and in Kent State four students were murdered by the National Guard. Others wounded. And people like Fred Hampton was an organizer – young, 21 years of age, killed because he was trying to build a multi-racial coalition; he called it a rainbow coalition, foreshadowing others that came later, of black people, Hispanic people, white working-class people, and he was seen to be a real danger, and so he was murdered. And his close associate, who was in the apartment at the time, who had just left, was a police informant.
So, this was really the context in which we were living. I mean, tens of thousands of American war resistors, draft resisters, deserters, came to Canada, and it was an extraordinary time. And even our own office, our headquarters if you want to call it that, was in Praxis. A political organization, a house they rented on Huron here in Downtown Toronto, and it was ransacked and burnt. Destroyed.
And so, this was – this was the world we were living in at the time. We were extremely young, and it was at that – in that context that we were asked to organize a conference of Vietnamese women and Laotian women to meet with counterparts who shared common cause, anti-imperialist women, including the organizations that I mentioned earlier, at a conference here in Toronto. And so, we did.
Sue: Yes, that was great, Carolyn. Thank you. That’s really painted the picture. And how soon we forget, eh? OK. So, the next question is, OK, so, what were the origins of this conference? How did you get – well, first of all, how did you hear about it? How did you get involved in organizing it? And we’ll go from there.
Maureen: So, the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement was approached by the Voice of Women. I don’t remember which person and who but, anyway, we were approached to co-sponsor or organize a joint – not joint-together conference but a second conference that would follow the conference that the Voice of Women was having. And they were also working with some organizations in the United States: the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women’s Strike for Peace.
And so the Voice of Women, a non-governmental, anti-war, nuclear disarmament, social justice organization had also been meeting in Budapest the year before with Indo-Chinese women who asked if, and Voice of Women had done this before, could organize a conference in Canada for them to come to speak. Well, I guess different Indo-Chinese women but, anyway, for them to come and speak in Canada. But they, the Indo-Chinese women in particular, asked if they could have a conference with old friends, and that would mean the Voice of Women, Women’s Strike for Peace, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and new friends.
And they saw those as Women’s Liberation Movement members or activists, and especially Women’s Liberation Movement members from the US, because of course that was the centre of the empire; that’s who they wanted to impact and embolden. And also, they wanted to meet with – the term they used at that time was Third World women; we’d probably say women of colour now. But that’s – they wanted to meet with women of colour in organized groups.
So, from the start, the Voice of Women had been concerned about the war in Vietnam. concerned and happy to move this forward and help set up the joint conference. So, we started organizing in October of 1970. I have my day books from that era, and so I have all the meetings and who attended them and where they were – sort of. It’s a bit sketchy. Because I of course wasn’t keeping this for posterity.
But anyway, we began in October 1970, and one of the things that I had to do was – and I went with two or three other women from Toronto and I can’t remember who. First, we went to Baltimore and then we went to New York and met with women in the American women’s movement – their Women’s Liberation Movement. And so, they were on board. I actually don’t remember the concrete details of the meetings, but they were excited, they were pleased, they were anxious to be part of this, and very enthusiastic, and they got busy organizing.
So, in terms of what we organized, I just – I don’t know who – somebody asked us. I raised my hand and then at meetings I asked other people and they raised their hands, and so we had a small collective of five or six or seven people, and we started doing the organizing.
From the start we knew that the predominant number of attendees should be American women. And so, I think we planned for there to be 100 Canadian women and 300 American women, and so that’s why we started the liaison. And, yeah, I think I’ve covered everything. Is there anything I’ve left out in terms of the beginning of that?
Sue: Sounds good. You’ve sort of – gone over how you got involved. And where you told us that you were part of women’s liberation. Were all three of you part of women’s liberation?
Carolyn: Yes. It was an actual organization: the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement.
Maureen: And would you like to know what collectives we had? We had – it was a very broad-based, multi-pronged organization. I had this list in the back of my notebook too. We had an abortion collective, daycare collective, a course collective, internal education collective, the clinic collective, a small discussion group, a political struggle group – I don’t know what we did there. Marxist study group, a working women group, a coordinating committee, the Quebec group, the office and newsletter group, the Vietnamese Women’s Conference group, and the library and literature group.
And we also – I think one of your questions was – was there any other group involved? And, yes, the Leila Khaled collective was involved, and Rising Up Angry or Red Morning. And they took on the particular task of cooking the food for the conference.
Carolyn: If I may, the political struggle committee had been the coordinating committee, and we changed the name to political struggle, and it’s where all the representatives of the different collectives met. And we would figure out our priorities and what we were going to do. And politically struggled our way through it, I guess.
Sue: So, you must have had a lot of women to have all those collectives.
Maureen: It was a big group. I remember the meeting that Carolyn volunteered, and there was standing–room only in one of the big rooms at Hart House, and Carolyn was standing by the door and waved her hand and said she’d like to. So there were, like, 40 or 50 people there – women there.
Nancy: That was a real banner year – 1970. It was – it’s amazing. I mean, all the number of collectives that Maureen mentioned and then the actions that we took on were quite comprehensive before we agreed to do this. We had outreached to groups in the US already, mostly around reproductive rights which is the area that I was most concerned with. And the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union had approached us, and we had some ongoing contact with them. There were groups around Canada. And I think that the whole process of getting involved in the Abortion Caravan, which Toronto didn’t initiate but for which we played a major role in its culmination in Ottawa, and really basically disrupting the House of Commons with demands for free abortion on demand. And it was a huge success in a lot of ways and it had ongoing impact.
So, we had a sense of agency about our ability to carry things out successfully, and at the same time, the growing conflict within Quebec and our sense that people were fighting there for the right to self-determination made us concerned but feel sort of helpless about being able to do anything. And once in October the War Measures Act was invoked and there could be
arrest and detention without trial – clearly a very broad view was taken of who needed to be arrested – it was a difficult time.
So, and then on top of that, like me, I was the wife of a draft resister, and we’d been politically active against the war in the US and emigrated in 1968. And there were quite a few women like me in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Toronto. And I think that reading Pedestal, I think there were some in Vancouver as well. And we had a great interest in being able to support the struggle, but we were in Canada, and this was a time when there was growing, organized momentum in the US to end the war.
So, I think we had lots of reasons: Quebec, the draft resistors’ desire to make a difference, and our successful actions to date – the fact that we were able to cooperate with other groups and bring things off successfully that were pretty iffy at first, made us want to take this on. I remember the meeting where we debated the pros and cons of doing this, and I don’t think we recognized how much work it was going to be, but I don’t think we would have changed our minds even if we’d known, because it was a way to participate in something meaningfully and to support struggles that we really cared about.
Nancy: It [the War Measures Act] was in effect till April 30th. I mean it was transported into what was the Public Order Act, temporary measures, but it was in effect throughout this whole planning process and, throughout the conference. It was a reality.
Sue: Oh. That’s a really good point. OK.
Maureen: And the other thing was the RCMP was anxious to do surveillance of these conferences in Toronto and Vancouver because of the War Measures Act – I think so they didn’t want Americans coming up fomenting revolution. They saw it that way.
Nancy: Yeah. I think it was brilliant we had the resources to do it, because we knew it meant billeting; it meant keeping people safe. But I think at the time it was really sort of the idea of finding a place to put it on and just the work of it and I’m sure that I don’t remember exactly what we did
– with the fundraising but I know that we were impecunious young women in our early 20s. And most of us had kind of low-paying jobs or were university students. So that would have been it. But I don’t recall. I really have a very clear recollection of it being kind of – without passion – not like we shouldn’t do this and we have other priorities; nothing like that.
And, reading Pedestal, clearly in Vancouver there was a lot more debate about whether this was even worth doing, and I know we did not do that. I mean, I really think we were looking for this kind of opportunity as a group of people, but also, we were a pretty large organization at the time, we had lots of members. I remember quite a few meetings at Hart House – if you got there late you had to sit on the edge of a desk or stand out and peer over people’s shoulders. So, we felt strong, I guess. That’s probably it.
Carolyn: Yeah. I think that’s really true, and I was very new to the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement. I don’t know if that was my first meeting, but it was one of the earlier ones. And I think that, in my memory there was no real debate. I mean, there were obviously questions and things of that nature when Maureen put it forward, but I think, as Nancy is saying, by far and by large, we saw this as, frankly, our political responsibility. It was hugely, hugely important.
And the point of the conference was to bring Indo-Chinese women from Vietnam and Laos who were involved in armed struggle with the United States government to meet with women from the United States – self-defined, anti-imperialist women – and we were asked to do a regulated conference in the sense that it would be not open to everyone; it would be registration and primarily to bring American and Indo-Chinese women together to discuss their commonalities and how to build a broader anti-war movement.
Because the Paris Peace Talks were on at that moment, and Vietnam, obviously, the Vietnamese wanted to win the strongest possible deal out of that, and a strong anti-war movement was critical to that. So, we felt that it was a conference that we were pleased to organize, but it wasn’t a conference for ourselves. It was a conference very, very much for the American women, many of whom, as I say, were in self-defined revolutionary organizations, organizations of colour, and the Vietnamese women, and we would do everything we could to facilitate it.
We weren’t having huge expectations in terms of what our own needs were as a political organization or anything of that nature; we saw this as a hugely important task where there was a lot to win, a lot to lose. And it was our part in playing a role in the international anti-war movement in a very particular way.
Maureen: Well, it wasn’t true in Vancouver. There wasn’t that kind of consensus around this was a conference for American women, and for Indo-Chinese women, and we were facilitating that. It wasn’t – I don’t think that was the understanding in Vancouver.
Nancy: Wasn’t it the idea that the Canadian women were attending as attendees? The idea was that they were there so that they could help do whatever was necessary to support the purpose of the conference, not there to – they weren’t there to instruct anyone in the particular cause that they had. And I’ve never felt that that was the purpose of it at all, and I don’t remember having conversations with Canadian women that suggested, at least the ones, coming to Toronto, that suggested that they felt the purpose of the conference was to benefit Canadian women in some political way. We were facilitators; we were hosts.
Carolyn: Because the war was between the United States and the Vietnamese people, and to be able to have people, women who were actively involved in that liberation struggle from Laos and Vietnam, come to Canada because they could not go to the United States, obviously, and to allow American women, who were actively involved in very serious politics in their own country, building in their own country, to have that ability to come together, it was really important and it was a – it was a very, in our view, a very important political task to take on. And, as Nancy said, quite a few of us were American who came up through the draft resistance movement.
Maureen: And one of the reasons why the organizing got started so late, like October, – for a conference the following year – early in the year, was because the Voice of Women were not sure they were going to be able to get visas for these women to come to Canada, and there was a big hold-up. And so, anyway, October was when they were sure they had the visas; we could go ahead and start organizing.
Sue: So, what did you do? What steps did you take? How many – you obviously had a little, oh well, probably not so little, but a group of women that were concentrated, yes.
Maureen: It was – I have a list of about six women that, I mean, I’m sure we drew in more people. But, I mean, it was organizing a conference, so we had to do the ordinary things that you do in a conference. Well, first of all we were liaising with the Voice of Women and liaising with the women in the United States. We organized a cultural night. The Voice of Women had their conference for the first three (two-and-a-half), three days, and we had ours for the second.
So, we organized a cultural night at St Lawrence Hall to start the conference and there was music; there were speakers. We invited Margaret Atwood; she invited us to her house, and we planned out with her what she was going to do.
Carolyn: You were there; all of us weren’t.
Maureen: A little crew. A little crew was there. I don’t know who else came. So, yeah, we had to organize billeting 300 US women. So, we called on every single friend that we had, not just the women in the movement. Wtranscript-speakere had to organize a registration process and get the list of American women attending and cross-check it with their ID at the door – a regulated conference, as Carolyn said. We organized security, not just at Castle Frank School, which we had had to book, but everywhere trying to keep the Indo-Chinese women safe.
And we were aware of surveillance happening during the conference. People were being followed; people were being photographed. My friends Julie and Tom billeted some Young Lords and they found people taking videos or movies outside their apartment building. So, there was a great deal of surveillance. And just typical conference planning. We booked the Castle Frank High School; we booked the auditorium; we booked the cafeteria for food; we booked classrooms for sessions; we made sure there were projectors and lights at the high school; we made sure the kitchen was available to us for cooking. I have a note about making sure that we can use the staff room as a medical room if we need to.
And then the final evening the Voice of Women organized a small gathering at the Friends House, the Quakers Friends House, in Toronto, to just bring the organizers together, and with the Indo-Chinese women who were very grateful and very pleased with how the conference went, as we recall. And so our impression and our recollection is that the conference was pretty smooth. And, when we read these horror stories from Vancouver it’s like, whoa.
Anyway, I mean, there was some contention. There was, the very first morning, there was a statement that had been read at the Vancouver conference, which happened to before ours, about lesbian women stand up and put forward their issues, and that just happened and then we moved on, whereas it seemed to be a big struggle throughout for the women in Vancouver.
Carolyn: I’ll talk a little bit about outreach that we tried to do. I mean, recognizing that the majority of the women who were going to be there were from the United States, many of them from communities of colour. And we were from a fairly large organization, as we outlined earlier. So, just about everyone, I think, involved in our organization was taking part in the meeting. A lot, as organizers, security, all of that. And the Leila Khaled collective, Rising Up Angry, or Red Morning or whatever its name was at that particular time, people who saw themselves to be anti-imperialists of the new left, I would suppose. But we also recognized that it was important to go beyond, ourselves, and we tried to involve women from communities of colour here.
We did know women, Asian-Canadian women who were at the University of Toronto, and connected with them, and the numbers of them came to the conference. I remember going to a meeting at the Great Wall bookstore, which was a bookstore on Spadina and Chinatown there, which was run by people, Chinese, who were people who were very supportive of the Chinese revolution, and we spoke to them about the conference and if there were women who would like to attend, et cetera, and there were.
And we also were able to connect with the Caribbean-Canadian women who we had not known before – at least I had not known before. And there were a number of meetings. I remember over at an apartment on Bathurst Street, north of Bloor, over a store, a number of meetings there connecting with women about what the plans were. I think they were a little skeptical at first because we seemed so young. You guys are doing this conference, are you? And what was going on, and Indo-Chinese women were coming, women were coming up from the United States and all that. But, beyond that level of skepticism, could this really be pulled off, numbers of women did attend. And there was one woman in particular we worked with quite closely, but those meetings took place.
So we tried to be as inclusive as we could be at, at that particular juncture. And that probably is, if we had the 100 women who were Canadian, that’s probably what made up that 100 women. I don’t see that it would be much beyond that. But I know that there was certainly interest to connect with the women from Vietnam and Laos, but I think that there was also a very real interest to connect with the women from the Black Panthers from the I Wor Kuen, from the Young Lords; that was something that was very, very important as well. And people may or may not know, but groups like the Black Panthers, they were well over half women. One doesn’t always know that in terms of their membership.
And the fact that they were making the effort to come up here and not always using their own ID. They were under, as we mentioned before, incredible repression in the United States. And some flew. An awful lot drove up, and we had to stop the media from taking videos of all the cars in the Castle Frank School parking lot. Though obviously if there was going to be a surveillance, which we know there was, those would be obvious. But we tried to do what we could to make people feel as safe as possible in what could have been extremely difficult circumstances.
And as Maureen or Nancy said someone who I think had Young Lords in the car said that people attempted to run them off the road. And there was a guy who came in a car, and we couldn’t determine his accent, whether it was American or Canadian, who wanted access to the conference, to see what was going on, which we refused, of course. We don’t know where he was from.
And one interesting thing which someone read in one of the accounts was, and this is amusing in some sense, is that the security was so tight that they didn’t have anyone in the conference as an informant. Whether that be true or not, maybe the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement, was not a group that they felt was important earlier than that to infiltrate, perhaps. I don’t know.
Maureen: But just to interrupt to say the source of that is this book here.
Carolyn: There we go.
Maureen: Yeah. Just Watch Us. Where there are – these people, Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt, got access to RCMP files through access to information and protection privacy. And this what they – I mean, they, supposedly, they had a ton of informants at the Vancouver conference, and they have much fewer – many fewer reports on the Toronto conference for them to draw on in terms of getting some information about surveillance of that movement – our movement. So, they said that the security at the Toronto conference was too tight for them to try to infiltrate, and so they didn’t.
Carolyn: Who’s to say? I mean it was quite funny because, I mean, when you think – I mean I was one of the heads of security and I mean, we were barely in our 20s. And some people weren’t, probably, even. But we did everything we could. And the Young Lords women came up but some of their male comrades came up as well, and they did not take part in the conference. And I don’t know if they had intended to or not, but they did not, but they were on premises.
And I’ll just tell a little bit about how we tried to organize the security, and people have to remember, there were no cell phones. I mean, we didn’t even have faxes in those days.
Maureen: No email.
Carolyn: No email. I mean, it was extraordinary when you think back. But what we did do is we, , we obviously went through the premises earlier, and we had an understanding of where the entrance doors were, et cetera, and everyone came through the front door and went through a process, and Nancy can explain that, of being checked in and frisked, I guess, because we were concerned about weapons and other things coming in. And we had women who were in the security detail at every entrance, and we had shifts on that, and we also had a method, just in case something happened – because, gosh only knows, something could, is if something does happen at one entrance, yell to the next person over, to the next, and not have everyone rush to that area and leave the rest of the premises unguarded, if I may say it that way.
And there was only one time, aside from the guy who looked like he was, whatever, some type of a security kind of person. The only other incident that was of significance that I remember is that there were a number of women who had not registered for the conference and, to my mind, had never even been in touch with us regarding the conference, who went around to the side door. They may have tried to get in the front door; I’m not quite sure. They went around to a side door where we did have security, and they knocked on the door, whatever, and I think whoever was there did open it to see what they wanted. There was maybe a half-dozen, maybe more.
And they then tried to push their way in. And this sort of set off the alarm system of yells that we had in place. And I remember running down and some of the Young Lords men who had been sitting in a classroom talking, maybe playing cards or whatever, they leapt up, of course, because they were, oh my god, what is happening here, rushed out. And there was a, like, a maintenance closet there, opened the maintenance closet, and came out with mop handles and broom handles because literally it was the only thing they could get their hands on because, in their minds, they thought it was under attack, potentially by the RCMP, or some federal security force of some sort. And then we got there, and we got there just before the Young Lords got there.
And we realized it was a group of feminists who had not registered and wanted access. And we explained to them that it was a conference that was asked to be regulated. Security was very concerned. It was a very major concern, and one had to have pre-registered, and they wouldn’t budge. And so, to the credit of the Young Lord guys, they let us handle it, though they were right there with their broomsticks still in hand, and we just had to sort of push them out, the other women, because I – they really, at that moment, if my memory tells me, couldn’t really explain why they wanted to be in there except they wanted to be in there and were feeling excluded.
But we, on the other hand, had to prioritize the agreement we had made with the Vietnamese women, the Laotian women, and the American women, particularly the women from the communities of colour – that this would be, as the term was, a regulated conference with their security and their – who they were and all of that would be really respected, and we had no idea who these women were.
So, anyway, that was the only incident that I remember where our security really had to make a determination. And, oddly enough, it worked very smoothly – maybe it wouldn’t have in another circumstance, but it did. And I remember nothing else untoward that sort of happened through that conference.
Maureen: I always love remembering a Black Panther woman saying, just sort of largely to a crowd, that Carolyn Egan, she’s an amazing security. That Canadian security is good here. It’s like, oh, thank you, thank you. But she singled out Carolyn; it was great.
Carolyn: I think I was the first one on the scene.
Maureen: You were head of security.
Carolyn: I was head of security. What can you say? [Laughter]
Nancy: Yeah. We were concerned about people infiltrating with something that could be used as a weapon.
Nancy: I mean, these were paranoid times for good reason. But, what – as it happened, we found the job, those of us who were doing the security detail would be in place when people started to come into the conference. And most of the women from the Black Panthers, then, that I recall, their hair was natural. It was – they used hair picks – fairly large ones for grooming. And we had made a decision, and I don’t know whose decision it was (frisking everyone) – it was not mine – but it did sort of make sense when you – once you saw these hair picks, that if we were going to take away white women’s Swiss army knives, we should be doing something like this – we shouldn’t be looking at anything that could be used as a weapon, and just apply that across the board.
And what was amazing to me was that there were some people who seemed kind of disgruntled by having to do this but nobody, absolutely nobody, resisted or was rude or unpleasant about it. It was something that people thought over and then thought this is not – this is not what this is about, it’s not worth making it an issue. And so, it wasn’t an issue. It was something that we were doing to keep people safe. And whether or not that was absolutely essential, if someone had been hurt, that would have been bad.
So the process of security in Toronto seems to have been something much more peaceful than, I guess, what happened in Vancouver. I’m not sure if they were doing – frisking to the same extent; I just think that was what was done in Toronto.
Sue: Can you tell me about the conference itself and what role the Indo-Chinese women played in the conference?
Maureen: OK. So, during the conference we had that cultural night at St Lawrence Hall. It was progressive entertainment; welcome to everyone. There were plenary sessions on Saturday and Sunday where the Indo-Chinese women were at the front, on stage, and their interpreters. And they talked about their lives and the horrific experiences that they had gone through. One woman had walked three months to get to Hanoi in order to get on a flight to come to Canada; and another woman and her entire family: both parents, two sisters, grandfather killed, seven children.
So, we were learning about their lives and about the devastation that was occurring to Vietnam and also the poisoning with all the chemicals.
Carolyn: Agent Orange. Yeah.
Maureen: Agent Orange and napalm that was being spread across the countryside. And their history, how long they’d been involved in the fight, and families were involved in the fight against imperialism. So those were part of the plenary sessions, that kind of information. It was extraordinarily moving. As organizers, we didn’t get – I didn’t, anyway – get to go to the breakout sessions, and I don’t really recall specifically what the breakout sessions were about. I mean besides perhaps it was meeting with one woman or two women and/or just meeting with Laos the Laotian women. I don’t remember what the content was. So, the breakout sessions happened.
And then, as I said before, there was a social evening on the last night of the conference at the Friends House. So, yeah, the plenary sessions were pretty moving and pretty, I don’t know, pretty smooth. There was no kind of disruption at them that we can recall.
In the Toronto Telegram there was apparently an article that there were fist fights that occurred at the Toronto conference, and none of us have any memory.
Nancy: We would remember that.
Carolyn: It was probably the question at the door. It was probably just the question at the door.
Maureen: That was you, Carolyn.
Carolyn: That was me. Yeah. Well, I was taking taekwondo at the time.
Maureen: Yeah. And so, the women were just talking mostly about their lives and one woman was an obstetrician-gynecologist and that we just learned about their lives and the struggle and what they hoped for, and they were very clear about what they wanted from us – which was to keep pressing our governments to end the war, to get the US to withdraw and let the Indo-Chinese people determine their own future and their lives.
Carolyn: That’s right. And there a was big – I don’t remember but it was probably in Canada too – but I know there was a huge anti-war mobilization planned for the end of April in the United States. And there was a lot of talk about building that as strongly and broadly as possible, and, as Maureen said to press for immediate and complete withdrawal of American troops and that was sort of the political message that was coming through beyond all of the other discussions that did take place.
Nancy: Dr Xiem – I’m not sure how to pronounce her name. It was X-I-E-M. She made a huge impression on me as I was doing the sort of the gopher jobs that most of us ended up doing because there was a great need for the host to be doing all of the – maintaining the process, I didn’t get to hear all of a particular plenary.
I did get to hear Dr Xiem describe the environmental devastation of the war, and just year after year after year. And I don’t think I’d really made the connection between the environmental calamity of the Vietnam War and just the extent of it. The wells that were poisoned, the children with napalm burns, the women miscarrying, and as well as just what was happening to the countryside. I found that extremely moving and difficult to imagine.
But it’s one of the memories I have that started my interest in just looking at environmental issues as fundamentally political issues as well. And that was a point I thought that she made very effectively. I think that people listened very closely and, I remember having to leave the sessions in order to do something. We’d have – someone would come and whisper – can you do this, or do you know where so-and-so is? And then that would be the end of it. We were really at the disposal of whatever was needed to make sure things ran smoothly.
So that’s why if I could have changed anything it would have been a little bit more time to hear people, but it was what we had to do in order to make it work.
Carolyn: We have this little pin that they gave us, and – but I think that the B – the ring made from a downed B-52 bomber, I think, really gives the impact on what we were dealing with, and why I think so many of us there – American or Canadian – appreciated the incredible enormity of the conference and what we were dealing with. As I said before, so much to be won and lost here.
Maureen: Yeah. I wore that ring for years.
Maureen: I hope I still have it. I put it out to show Nancy and Carolyn. I hope I put it back safely.
Carolyn: Put it back safely.
Sue: So, do you think that the conference was a success? You sound like you think it was.
Carolyn: Oh, I would say it was a tremendous success. And I think that – I mean, speaking recently to my partner at the time, the words were it was a grand success. And it was a huge amount of work and a lot of – a lot – a lot of being out of the house and just doing all that had to be done. There was no doubt about that. It took a huge chunk out of people’s lives. But I think, really, it was – we saw it as a hugely important political task. I don’t think there’s anything – anyone who was involved who would probably disagree with that. And I think the interaction with the American women, again, because we were so busy, we didn’t have a tremendous amount of time, but I remember for whatever reason, much more the interaction with the Panthers and the Young Lords and the I Wor Kuen, then
I mean, you didn’t need passports at that time, of course, but getting into Canada was one thing and then going back to the United States was another. And the American border people were pretty strict at that time because so many deserters and resisters had come up. And for the deserters, for sure, and for many of the resisters there were warrants out for these guys, and there was a lot of surveillance going back in. So, I think there was certainly something to worry about.
But the feedback, certainly that I got, that this was hugely important for them to take part in, and they were very much interested in building solidarity and building connection with other anti-imperialist women, because the fight that we were all involved in, more so in the United States perhaps than Canada, but nonetheless was something that they needed as many allies as possible, and that was surely the feeling that we were given as they were leaving. And they were leaving, many of them driving all night to get back from whence they came.
And it was, it was tough. And, as Nancy said earlier, I mean, these weren’t luxurious accommodations. Most of us were in very low-paying jobs et cetera. I mean, Maureen and I, we were working in the same place at that particular point, and I think we were probably not making much more than minimum wage. And obviously where we were putting people up and we tried to give the best accommodation possible, but it surely wasn’t all that comfortable. No. I think people were used to that at that time, of course. But in our view, and I think in the participants’ view, who had come up from the US, it was well worth it and it worked without too many snags.
And I think as you were saying, Maureen, the women from Vietnam and Laos, when we had that gathering, was, they were extremely gracious, extremely happy that it had taken place and thought it was politically important. And I should say, the Voice of Women, like Kay Macpherson, who had been involved in the Voice of Women for a long time, and Moira Armour, a lesbian feminist, and Nancy Pocock with the Friends. I mean, they were significantly older than us and – but, again, they were extremely gracious. I mean, we may have had differences here or there, but there was not a sectarian edge to the organizing, in my memory of it, anyway.
Maybe women who didn’t feel they had access to it or women who didn’t feel they got to attend it, they may have had feelings of that nature. But it was never brought to our attention in the sense of beforehand or after, that I remember, anyway, in our evaluation meetings, which I don’t think any of us had any real notes of at this moment.
Sue: Why were there two separate conferences?
Carolyn: I think one of them was the regulated conference that was to be specifically for anti-imperialist women, and particularly the women from The States, and I think the other one was Voice of Women – more older women, perhaps. I think it was more open. I could be wrong, but I think anyone could have attended that. And there was also an evening event that they did at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) which was open to anyone. So, I think it was two different audiences and the Vietnamese had – yeah.
Maureen: It was what the Vietnamese women had asked for. One conference with the “old friends,” one conference with the “new friends,” with the Third World women.
Sue: In terms of the American women visiting, was it mainly the Young Panthers, the Young Lords? And what was that other group you called?
Carolyn: I Wor Kuen, which was the Asian-Americans. But there were also white anti-imperialist women as they defined themselves.
Carolyn: There were many, many, women of colour. They played a significant role in the conference. And the agenda was really set in the United States. Am I wrong on that? I think that we –
Maureen: No. That’s true. Yeah.
Carolyn: And so, it was the American women and how they did that, and who was involved in setting the agenda we don’t really know. But it was set there. And so hopefully there was agreement between all the different women or among all the different women who were coming up about what that agenda would look like.
Nancy: Yes. And I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question this way before this opportunity arose to discuss the IWC (Indochinese Women’s Conference) in Toronto. And what I would have done differently, and now I really wish we had done this differently, would be to document it much more thoroughly and effectively. I think there are three books that I’ve come across published by university presses, by academics now, that are – that deal with the IWC in Toronto. And they almost invariably assumed that the Toronto conference was a reflection of the Vancouver conference, and they were vastly different. And so what we considered at the time, – and still do – a success has gone down in some academic writing as not – as basically a reflection of Vancouver.
Carolyn: It conflated the two.
Nancy: They documented very effectively what they were doing, and it was more contentious so there’s more points of view in their documentation about whether things worked well or didn’t or what should have been done or what wasn’t done. They had a skit which, apparently, it’s been transcribed completely in their documentation, saying there’s all kinds of data there for academics to look at if they’re interested in covering what happened.
So, yes, I think we should have been aware of that. We were very young. We were not, mostly, headed for academic careers – at least central and in planning and carrying it out. And I think we just neglected to do that documentation. And in trying to augment my memory of what happened, the more I found online about the conference, the more perplexed I was. For example, an interview with Naomi Weinstein, who was a well-known American psychologist – she died in 2015 – but she was recorded in one of these books as saying she had been denied the opportunity to have her band perform. She had a women’s band from Chicago, and because they were white, I think, was the reason.
And that was the night we had the event in St Lawrence Hall with Margaret Atwood, which was definitely planned. I mean, Maureen just described the planning meeting for that. And so, if you don’t document your history, someone else just might come in and do it for you. So, I think that’s – that’s really my only regret.
Maureen: Yeah. I wish I had just sat down for a couple of hours and written out my experiences. Like, not even my evaluation but just a list of what happened. But, yeah, so then what ends up happening is for example, in this book, the document, what becomes a kind of record, is that of informants to the RCMP saying what happened through their lens, trying to make whoever is paying them happy in terms of what they report and what they observed. So, we have people sort of outside the movement documenting it and not ourselves.
Carolyn: Yeah, I think it bespeaks the fact of our youth, and, as Nancy said, and none of us saw ourselves heading into academic careers. We were just doing what we were doing and trying to be good, political activists, and we did it. It worked, it worked well and, all right, on to the next task.
Maureen: On to the next thing. Yeah.
Carolyn: I mean, my own feeling, too, is that I would have loved to have been able to keep connections with some of those Panther women and Young Lords and I Wor Kuen women. But, again, I mean, they came for a purpose, that purpose got accomplished, and they were back in extremely heavy struggles within their own communities. And if we lived in a different world, if there was email and internet and all of those things, then it could have been very, very different, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t that time. And we had phone conversations, but we were so conscious of every phone conversation essentially being tapped by the RCMP or someone. And people may find this hard to believe today, but that we were so conscious of security, simply because people here and there were being jailed, were being tailed, there were informants everywhere. And not to be paranoid as someone might think but that was the reality.
So, sadly, that would have been something that would have been very good to be able to do and sadly we weren’t able to.
Nancy: Ontario was right next to Quebec and British Columbia is a long – thousands of miles away, and that could account for some of the difference in the atmosphere and also in how seriously we took certain attacks.
Carolyn: Yes. Fair enough. Because we had a Quebec collective in the Toronto Women’s Liberation –
Maureen: Yes. Right. Yeah.
Carolyn: Lyba and people were actually translating documents right from Quebec into English, and we had a very real connection with what was going on. And, as you said, Sue, you yourself were arrested. I mean, people were very, very involved in doing all we could to be supportive of political activists in Quebec. And so – and you’re right. So, we had, perhaps, a different reality.
Sue: Yeah. OK. This is fantastic. Thank you. Now I haven’t finished. So, I’d like to ask how the conference helped to build anti-imperialist feminism, if it did.
Carolyn: Well, what we felt, and we looked at that question, is we felt that we were anti-imperialist feminists. I mean, that was the – that was part of the politic of the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement, and so we obviously saw ourselves as a part of that current and a part of a current international anti-war movement, and we wanted to create a connection, solidarity, support for struggles of all sorts around the world. We were fighting for women’s liberation, but we didn’t see that as the only struggle, and we were very, very conscious of fighting against the profound racism that existed, and in support of national liberation struggles and all of those questions.
So, I think that, if a stronger anti-imperialist women’s movement came out of this conference, if it helped in the United States build a stronger consciousness of what imperialism was, and why it has to be fought, then that was – that was great. I don’t think it was the purpose of our doing it. The purpose was to bring as we said before, the Indo-Chinese women and the American women who were self-conscious revolutionaries and saw themselves as part of an anti-imperialist movement together, and that experience, hopefully would broaden that viewpoint. Because I think we all felt, and that was the common cause of everyone who was at that conference, at least, that we felt there had to be, as they say today, real system change. The system that we were all living under bred racism and sexism and homophobia and all of that, and it had to be changed dramatically because imperialism was a part of it.
And so that was our goal, surely, but this conference wasn’t that – if you get the nuance there of how we had a very immediate goal of facilitating the dialogue between those two groups of women.
Maureen: And linking the struggles.
Carolyn: And linking the struggles. Very much so.
Sue: Which was the objective, wasn’t it?
Maureen: Yeah. To link the struggles. And also, just to recognize that, ultimately, I mean, we played a very small part, a tiny, teeny part, but we won. The war did end.
Sue: One of the best victories we’ve had.
Carolyn: I think so. And that, I think, really shapes your whole political consciousness for the rest of your life. Because I think – I mean, I don’t know, people can speak for themselves, but when you have been part of a huge international collective struggle, and of course it was the Vietnamese people who defeated the US militarily. But that huge anti-war movement and all the interrelated struggles, as people said, that were part and parcel of what was happening then, it gives you a sense that you do have the capacity, through collective change, to really make a difference.
And you hear the slogans “they are few and we are many”, which can become sort of meaningless if it’s used without a context, but it’s true. It is true. And we had the experience, and certainly my involvement in the women’s movement as time went on, and certainly in the reproductive justice struggle, the abortion rights struggle, that’s when we and many of us who got involved in the early ’80s – and prior to that too – as Nancy was saying, the abortion caravan. But in ’83, the whole Morgentaler campaign to overturn the law, we knew it was going to be a long, drawn-out struggle and yet we had the confidence if we could organize people. If we couldn’t organize, if there was no resonance, if those people wouldn’t come into the streets, if people wouldn’t do it, then we may not. But once we saw that was happening, we felt we could win.
And so, I think that understanding the power of collective change does stay with you and it gives you confidence and hopefully makes you optimistic about possibilities.
Maureen: That’s right.
Nancy: We had achievable goals. We set achievable goals, and we set – we had a plan. We did not set a goal that was not in our power to achieve or not achieve so we set ourselves on something that was doable, that was needed, and we did it. And that fact, I think we felt a sense of agency and a sense of success – that’s the kind of thing you can carry into your next project, your next struggle. And we were able to do that because I think we were realistic in our ambitions but we also – once we committed to it, we really did; we really made sure that it happened. And even in a supporting role, which was our role, to be able to do that and at the time we were doing it and the way we were doing it, given who we were and what we were dealing with, I think it just amounts to a huge success.
Carolyn: Maureen said it was one conference, on a weekend in Toronto, Ontario. But you know what? If you feel that there are similar, not quite like this, but activities, actions, whatever, worldwide, that’s what builds a movement, right? And so, our conference played that role, but we knew there were many, many, many, many, many others, untold numbers of other things happening all over that would help build. And as Maureen said, the US withdrew. The US lost that war.
Sue: Just a little aside here. Did any of the political strategic differences come up? Like, you probably remember that there was sort of a big bring the troops back home lobby that went on in the US, versus those of us that were anti-imperialists where we were saying, really fighting for a VLF victory. Did any of that come out in the conference?
Carolyn: I don’t know if it came out.
Maureen: I think it was a starting ground for us.
Maureen: We called ourselves anti-imperialist. That’s who we were. It was sort of – I don’t know, if there was any division it was around issues of sexuality that people thought should have much more play. But in terms of that, in terms of the ultimate goal, people understood the depredations that imperialism and colonialism bring, and they wanted an end to that. Of course, the American people were suffering terribly too, and there was a recognition of that.
But it wasn’t framed as ‘bring the boys back home’. It was framed as we are anti-imperialist –
Carolyn: Yeah. I think two things were going on at the same time. I think we were anti-imperialist feminists, and that was part of our world view. I mean, we were informed by Marxism, as many of the organizations who came up were – of one sort or another, one strand or another. But I think at the same time we also appreciated there had to be a broad anti-war movement out there with people like the Voice of Women, with people like United Church types and all of that to build a broad movement. So, yes, that huge mobilization that was going to take place at the end of April, it was important that everybody from every sector be out.
But it was also important that those of us who did have an anti-imperialist perspective be part of that and be able to make it clear why we feel that as important as ending this war is, it’s not going to bring liberation to everyone worldwide. And so, I think the two things were sort of going on at once. But this was, yes, an anti-imperialist conference in the sense that that was the ‘politic’ of the women who were taking part in it, and I think that’s what the Vietnamese women wanted – why they wanted the two conferences.
Maureen: Why they wanted to make new friends. Yeah.
Carolyn: Yeah. They wanted the broad-based conference, and they wanted this one.
Nancy: You know, the role of the draft was very important to the women of colour from the US because they were often partnered with, or sisters, daughters of people who were draftees. And they – their struggle would not be over just by bringing them home, because they had the home struggles going on at the same time: the domestic, anti-imperialist struggle in the US.
Nancy: And so, it was never as narrow as just ending the draft or just bringing people home; it was – there was so much about the draft that pointed up the inequities in the United States for men. And it really made no sense to narrow it, even if we hadn’t been anti-imperialist to begin with: to narrow the focus that much. The focus was on so many struggles going on at the same time, domestically. And I think that was in part what the Vietnamese wanted to do too. It was a two-way communication. And recognizing that there was a struggle going on simultaneously in the US, and in Indo-China, was part of the function, I guess, of bringing these people together.
And so, yeah, it was always a broader brush in terms of what the goal was – the end goal. It was a huge goal, but it was – it made no sense to have a smaller one because nothing is going to change if you can’t change the things we were trying to change.
Carolyn: Yeah. That’s well said.
Carolyn: And I think you can see ourselves as part of a revolutionary movement for change with very many different manifestations in different places.
Sue: Yeah. So, this was 50 years ago, as you say.
Carolyn: 49. Yes.
Sue: 49. Yes. And so most people that probably look at our website now would never even have heard of this.
Sue: What do you think is the most interesting thing about it for people to know? If we were writing a blurb on this for social media, what would you tell them?
Maureen: Well, I think it’s a lot of what we’ve already been discussing around being part of a broad movement that achieved a very important goal of ending a war – that we won that particular battle, long and protracted, as it was. I think that is really the most important thing. And how, as Carolyn was saying, how empowering it is to take it on, and how it leaves a residue of hopefulness and optimism that we can accomplish our political goals. Because we are so surrounded, just looking at what’s happening in the US right now with Trumpism, we’re surrounded by really a lot of despair.
And that was similar then. We were just deploring the US government, and our own government’s complicity, I hasten to add. So, yeah, it’s – I think that’s one of the most important things that people can learn, can glean, from these small conferences, these demonstrations, these organizations, the breadth of all of those things and what they can lead to.
Carolyn: Yeah. And I think, also, is what young people can accomplish, because we were kids.
Maureen: Yeah. We were kids.
Carolyn: If you look at what’s going on in the climate justice movement today, and I think many of the leadership of Black Lives Matter in many areas are quite young. And young people have a capacity of organizing and developing the confidence and the skills to be able to really be politically active in a way that makes a huge, huge difference. I mean when you look at Fred Hampton, he was 21 years old when they murdered him, because he was being so, so successful in building a political project that would really shake the foundations of US capitalism if I may put it that way. Because he appreciated what needed to be done and he was doing it and he was effective.
And so I think that people should not be deterred and determined to do something, as Nancy said, that you actually have achievable goals so you can set out to either overturn a law or win a strike or whatever it might be – defund police or whatever your issue might be – and then build a movement to make that happen.
And you’re not going to win every battle; that’s for sure. And perseverance. I think perseverance is absolutely critical. But if you look historically at movements that have won, and who is involved, ordinary people are involved. And really understanding how they are trying to divide and rule us; they’re trying to do everything possible to derail a progressive agenda, a revolutionary agenda as we surely felt we had at that time. And we just have to keep that up and keep that up and keep that up and hopefully, we’ll get to that better world as we build the smaller struggles that will attach to one of them, may just burst into flames and really spark something really, really, really broad.
Sue: Yeah. Great. Thank you.