12 January 2010
by: Sandro Contenta
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to send back the some 200
American asylum-seekers who have fled the Iraq war.
Toronto, Canada - Canada has long been a haven for Americans escaping
During the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, an estimated
50,000 colonists who wanted to remain loyal to Britain fled north to
what would later become Canada. Thousands more crossed the border
during the Civil War, using an underground railroad that led escaped
slaves to freedom.
Canada's role as a sanctuary during the Vietnam War is well known.
The conflict spurred an estimated 50,000 Americans old enough for
military service to immigrate north, according to sociologist John
Hagan, author of "Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in
Canada." Hagan was among the draft dodgers and military deserters that did so.
Many Canadians would consider this tradition a noble one. But it has
come to an end.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 200 American soldiers
have fled to Canada looking for asylum. The Conservative government
of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to send them back.
Most war resisters in Canada are in hiding. The few who have applied
for refugee status have been turned down and ordered deported.
Two have so far been sent back: Robin Long, of Boise, Idaho, was
convicted of desertion by a military court in August 2008, sentenced
to 15 months in military prison and given a dishonorable discharge;
Cliff Cornell, of Mountain Home, Ark., pleaded guilty to desertion in
April and received a year sentence and a bad conduct discharge.
To avoid a similar fate, deserter Rodney Watson, a native of Kansas
City, was given sanctuary at Vancouver's First United Church on Sept.
18, a day after his request for refugee status was denied. Church
officials say Watson can stay as long as he likes.
On Christmas Eve, Watson published a letter in the Toronto Star. He
said he joined the army "for financial reasons" in 2004, after losing
his job. A recruiter, he says, promised he could work as a cook and
stay out of combat duty.
However, once deployed to Iraq in 2005, he spent a year scanning
vehicles and civilians for explosives. He says he witnessed incidents
where American soldiers treated Iraqis in a racist and physically abusive way.
Back in the U.S., he was told he would be "stop-lossed" redeployed
to Iraq and forced to stay beyond the time he signed on for. He fled
to Vancouver in 2007 and has since fathered a son with a Canadian he
plans to marry.
"I think being punished as a prisoner of conscience for doing what I
felt morally obligated to do is a great injustice," he wrote of his
failure to receive refugee status.
"I appeal to the Canadian government to honor your country's great
traditions of being a place of refuge from militarism and a place
that respects human rights by supporting my decision, and the
decisions taken by my fellow resisters to refuse any further
participation in this unjust war," he added.
Resisters commonly describe themselves as conscientious objectors to
an unjust war, one launched on false pretext, without the backing of
the United Nations. Amnesty International Canada describes freedom of
conscience as a fundamental human right, protected by international treaties.
Stephen Harper, when in opposition, supported the Iraq war. Now he
says it was "absolutely an error." But that doesn't cut war resisters
any slack with his government.
"Being a deserter from voluntary military service in a democracy does
not, in anyway, meet the standard international U.N. definition of a
refugee," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told reporters recently.
On another occasion, he said: "We're not talking about draft dodgers,
we're talking about resisters. We're talking about people who
volunteer to serve in the armed forces of a democratic country and
simply change their mind to desert and that's fine, that's the
decision they have made, but they are not refugees."
Kenney has backed decisions made by the Immigration and Refugee Board
whose adjudicators are appointed by the government and shrugged
off widespread support to have the resisters stay.
An Angus Reid poll from June 2008 said 64 percent of Canadians
favored giving these U.S. soldiers the opportunity to remain in
Canada as permanent residents.
Harper's minority government is also disregarding two non-binding
motions passed by a majority of Members of Parliament in June 2008
and again in March calling on the government to stop all
deportation proceedings and allow resisters to stay.
A private member's bill that would have bound the government to do so
was stalled when Harper suspended Parliament last week until March 3.
Bills presented by individual Members of Parliament have
significantly fewer chances of being approved than government sponsored bills.
The Vietnam War years in Canada were a time of active nationalism.
The Liberal governments of the day made a point of demonstrating the
country's sovereignty, and its autonomy from American policy. Those
days are long gone.
Since 2003, when then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused to join
the Iraq war, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have
bent over backward to assure American administrations that Canada
isn't a weak link in the "war on terror." American war resisters are
one of the groups paying the price.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected. The private member's
bill on deportations has stalled, not died. In addition, Cliff
Cornell received his sentence in April 2009.