By MICHAEL WINERIP
Published: June 5, 2009
IN the spring of 1968, Michael Wolfson, a 20-year-old Vietnam draft
resister, crossed the border to live in Canada. The following
January, he was one of nine men indicted by a federal grand jury in
Buffalo for failing to report for military duty.
He had applied for conscientious objector status but was rejected,
based on an extensive investigation by F.B.I. agents in three cities:
Buffalo, where Mr. Wolfson went to high school; Pittsburgh, where
he'd attended Carnegie Mellon as a freshman; and Berkeley, Calif.,
where he'd spent his sophomore year before dropping out and working
in a research lab.
Though Mr. Wolfson was a run-of-the-mill protester with no
connections to groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the
F.B.I. interviewed 19 people and produced an 11-page single-spaced
summary of its dossier on him. His high school principal told the
agents that while "very gifted," Mr. Wolfson had received seven
detentions for infractions like cutting classes and was "in need of
correction and discipline in some of his thinking."
One neighbor described him as a loner, another said he'd adopted a
"beatnik style of life and would dress accordingly." A relative
reported he was a typical "peacenik." A third neighbor claimed his
"basic problem" was he worried about what is "principle and what is
morality to an unusual extent." A high school teacher forecast doom:
"He would not be able to succeed in some of his pursuits due to his
rebellious nature and his reluctance to accept any responsibility or
It did not turn out that way. Mr. Wolfson, now 61, rose to be a top
federal bureaucrat in Canada, an assistant chief statistician for the
government agency that tracks census and employment data, Statistics
Canada. Last week, he flew to Geneva to represent Canada at a United
Nations gathering and this week he will be host to an international
conference on microsimulation.
He's been with his wife, Eleanor, since 1974. They have four grown
children and own two lovely homes, here and on a lake. In a few
months he will retire with 35 years of government service. As his
wife, a native Canadian, said, "Canada did very well by the draft
we got a lot of very fine young men." About 25,000 draft-age men left
the United States for Canada in those years, and even after President
Jimmy Carter granted amnesty, half have remained, according to John
Hagan, a Northwestern professor and author of "Northern Passage:
American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada" (Harvard Press). For his
2001 book, Mr. Hagan, who himself moved to Canada to avoid the draft,
interviewed about 100 who did not return to the United States.
He found that they did not live on the margins of Canadian society;
instead, they typically prospered, earning on average about $65,000 a
year (at the time of the decade-old survey). "It's not surprising,"
Mr. Hagan said, "they were an atypically well-educated group."
Indeed, Mr. Hagan, a sociology professor who now has dual
citizenship, will share the 2009 Stockholm Prize in Criminology in a few weeks.
When Mr. Wolfson left for Canada, he said, "I assumed I'd be lucky to
get a job driving a forklift."
He'd always been a top math student but never fully applied himself,
and that only got worse when he arrived in Berkeley that summer of
'66. Country Joe and the Fish were playing at Berkeley Park, the
Cream, Vanilla Fudge and Jefferson Airplane were at the Fillmore, and
at his boarding house lived the real Melinda from Bob Dylan's
"Highway 61" album. "School seemed utterly boring," he said. He'd
ride public transit back from San Francisco with a shopping bag full
of pot and "started doing a lot of acid." When he dropped out that
fall, he was classified 1A for the draft.
Still, a piece of him remained grounded. He took a job at Lawrence
Radiation Laboratory and long before most heard of it, was building
computer simulation models. He made an exploratory trip to Canada,
meeting with counselors at the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, who
explained that he could stay legally if he had a job. They kept lists
of sympathetic Canadians and sent him to Leslie Mezei at the
University of Toronto, a professor in computer graphics who hired Mr.
Wolfson as a research assistant.
On Oct. 1, 1968, he wrote his draft board from Toronto: "The reason I
did not comply with your order is that I did not, on that particular
day, feel like it. It was a nice sunny day here and I enjoyed a
pleasant walk on the campus." He concluded by asking the Selective
Service System to "cancel my subscription to SSS Death and take my
name off your mailing list."
Sitting in his Statistics Canada office recently, on the 26th floor
overlooking the Ottawa River, he noted, "That's not how I would have
written that letter today."
He's not sure, but he thinks a few times during those years, United
States officials, who he assumed were hostile, actually might have
been sympathetic. During a visit to the United States consul in
Toronto, he recalled: "I said, 'I want to renounce my citizenship.'
He said, 'No you don't, get out of here.' " Mr. Wolfson listened;
today, he has dual citizenship.
In January 1975, a few years before amnesty, Mr. Wolfson got a letter
from the federal prosecutor in Buffalo stating, "Your file was found
to be procedurally incorrect and prosecution was declined." In other
words, case dismissed. Still, for 10 years, whenever he crossed the
border to visit his parents or attend a business conference, he
carried that letter.
Shortly after arriving, he enrolled at the University of Toronto, and
at first continued to do poorly ("Too much smoking pot and listening
to Leonard Cohen albums at 3 a.m.") But in his junior year, he
changed, for reasons he cannot explain, beyond maturity. "I just
became a more serious student," he said. "I stopped smoking, went to
the library in the morning, did my homework." After graduating he
earned a doctorate in economics from Kings College at Cambridge
University in England.
He knows of draft resisters who went to prison, has friends who
destroyed their minds with drugs and can't explain why he landed on
his feet. "Is it luck? Instinct? Self preservation? I don't know," he
said. "Could I have had a different outcome? Yes."
These days, he has a reputation as a workaholic. "He's considered a
very serious person," said Mr. Hagan, who knows of Mr. Wolfson from a
Statistics Canada research project. "He's very careful what he says
about his work."
He has always been open about his background. "I made no efforts to
hide it," he said. "People either didn't care, thought it was very
cool or didn't bother asking."
He has long considered Canada his home, and is critical of the
military role of the United States in the world. As a lifelong
government worker, he believes Canadians put more value on public
service than Americans.
Mr. Hagan has found that the draft resisters who stayed in Canada
have maintained a commitment to social issues, although they're
quieter about it than they were in the day, and this seems true of Mr. Wolfson.
He is environmentally conscious and year round commutes three miles
to work by bike.
He created a landmark mortality study in the early 1990s using Social
Security data for 500,000 Canadians, which showed that the wealthier
people are, the longer they tend to live.
He initiated a Joint Canadian-United States Survey of Health in 2003
that has been used to argue the benefits of universal health care.
The survey showed that in Canada which has universal care 23
percent of the poorest Canadians complained of bad health, compared
with 31 percent of the poorest Americans. Asked if the topic
selection for his government surveys reflected his social concerns,
Mr. Wolfson said, "It was all done very scientifically."