Three decades after they fled the United States to avoid the Vietnam War, a small group of former draft dodgers gathered in Canada on Thursday, more convinced than ever that their anti-war stand was right.

The start of the four-day “Our Way Home” conference in Castlegar, in southeastern British Columbia, coincided by chance with a White House meeting on Thursday between President George Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Organizers expect several hundred people, including draft dodgers, relatives and veterans who later opposed the war, to attend the event.

It is estimated that more than 50,000 draft-age Americans moved to Canada to avoid U.S. prosecution for refusing military service. Many returned after U.S. President Jimmy Carter granted them amnesty in 1977.

Those gathered at Castlegar — now men in their 50s – refer to themselves as war resisters, not draft dodgers. Their views are still strongly held.

Craig Wiester, who moved to Montreal in 1968 after being drafted into the military, said Americans have amnesia about the men who left their families rather than fight in a war that even some U.S. officials now say was wrong.

“Why are we still dishonored in American society … those of us who said (the war was wrong) and knew it, and acted out our feelings on that,” said Wiester, 59, who now lives in Minneapolis, Minn.

He said although his father, a World War Two veteran, personally hated the Vietnam War, he nonetheless reported his own son to the FBI after learning he was planning to refuse military service.

“I think he would have rather had me come home in a body bag from the jungles than go to Canada.”

The Liberal Canadian government of the Vietnam era welcomed the war opponents as potential immigrants, but Harper’s recently elected Conservative government has opposed the idea of Canada being sanctuary for U.S. soldiers opposed to the Iraq war.

“I would like the government of Canada to assist American war resisters who wish to stop serving the U.S. military if that is their personal choice,” said David James Brown, 59, who moved north in 1968 and now lives in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Wiester said politicians who supported going to war in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction should have learned lessons from some of the claims that were made for sending troops to Vietnam but later turned out to be false.

“Somebody should have smelled a rat,” he said.

Peace activist Isaac Romano, who moved to Canada from the United States in 2001, said he helped organize the conference to honor both the Americans who opposed the war and Canadians who helped them establish new lives.

The event – whose speakers will include former U.S. Senator and anti-war 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern – is being held in British Columbia’s Kootenay region because it is still home to many of the draft dodgers.

Organizers will also unveil a sculpture this weekend in Nelson, British Columbia.

The sculpture was first proposed in 2004, but the plan was quickly dropped after it was denounced by conservative media commentators in the United States and the U.S. Veterans of Foreign wars.

By contrast, plans for this gathering and sculpture have gone almost unnoticed in the U.S. media, and there have been no public protests.

“It could be that (the 2004 announcement) was at the beginning of the Iraq War, before people discovered what was going to unfold,” Romanow said.

© Reuters 2006