Canada's Status as a Safe Haven for War Resisters Is Under Attack
On the Fourth of July, as Americans everywhere tossed burgers on the grill, lit firecrackers and saluted service members past and present, Robin Long, a former soldier from Boise, Idaho, was taken into police custody in the small town of Nelson, British Columbia, just 30 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border. He has lived there since June 2004, when he deserted his platoon as it prepared to ship off for Iraq. Long has since married a Canadian woman and has a 2-year-old Canadian-born son. But unless federal courts grant a stay of deportation requested last week by his attorney, Long could become the first U.S. war resister to face deportation -- as early as Monday, July 14.
Just last week, another war resister, Corey Glass, narrowly averted deportation -- for the time being -- when a federal court granted him a stay while his case makes its way through the Canadian legal system. Dozens of other cases remain in a similar state of legal limbo. Eight could result in imminent deportation.
An estimated 200 former U.S. military personnel have sought sanctuary in Canada since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. However, thus far, not one has been forcibly returned to U.S. soil -- and remain in U.S. military custody, where they are likely to face charges for desertion. Long's deportation, if it goes through, would mark an official end to Canada's tradition of welcoming American war resisters, a practice that began during the Vietnam War and has continued, albeit informally, to this day.
Long, 25, applied for refugee status shortly after his arrival in Canada, on the grounds that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was "illegal" and his participation would therefore make him complicit in international war crimes. In 2007, the Immigration Refugee Board rejected his application but sidestepped taking a position on the legality of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, ruling instead that the "illegality of the war was not relevant" to the board's decision. After Bob Ages of the Vancouver War Resisters Support Campaign put up $5,000, Long was released on the condition that he inform the Canadian Border Services Agency of his whereabouts once a month. Lacking a worker's permit, however, Long testified at last week's immigration hearing that he has been unable to pay rent and was "couch surfing" among friends and supporters in the small town of Nelson. The CBSA issued a warrant for him on the basis of his not reporting his whereabouts and thus was in noncompliance with the terms of his release.
Long's supporters fear that, despite strong support from the Canadian public and their representatives, his possible deportation would be the first of many. It is a repercussion they have feared ever since Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a staunch supporter of the "coalition of the willing," took office in February 2006.
Last week, as Glass faced deportation, demonstrators in at least six Canadian and 14 U.S. cities held vigils outside immigration centers and Canadian embassies, urging immigration officials to adopt a blanket sanctuary policy rather than allow each case to trickle through the legal process, one that costs Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars and imposes immeasurable duress on war resisters and their families.
"It seems almost as if they grabbed Robin Long for insurance in case we succeeded in stopping the deportation of Corey Glass," said Gerry Condon, a former Canadian resident and founder of Project Safe Haven, a network of Vietnam War resisters who advocate for and support war resisters today.
Derek Giffin, an Iraq veteran from Schererville, Ind., traveled to Chicago for a vigil held there on July 9 that attracted approximately 50 Vietnam veterans, high school students and recently returned Iraq vets. Giffin said he made the trip in honor of a member of his platoon who was recalled after serving one year in Iraq, but decided instead to defect and now resides in Canada. "I'm here to stand in solidarity with my friend," he told AlterNet.
Adam Navarro-Lowery, spokesperson for the Chicago chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which organized the Chicago vigil along with Veterans for Peace, the War Resister Support Campaign and the American Friends Service Committee, said he and other members came to the vigil both the support their fellow service members who oppose the war and "to thank the Canadian Parliament and the people of Canada for welcoming war resisters."
"It is our hope that the Harper government will acknowledge the will of the people and seal the deal," he said.
Canadians Support War Resisters
According to a national poll released by Angus Reid Strategies on June 27, "a majority (67 percent) of Canadians would agree with the decision to let American deserters stay in Canada as permanent residents." On June 3, the House of Commons passed a nonbinding resolution mirroring that position, calling on the Immigration Ministry to freeze the deportation of U.S. war resisters and allow them to apply for permanent residency within Canada.
However, the move, which has no official standing, was immediately followed by a statement from the Immigration Ministry distancing itself from the resolution and stating that it would continue to assess each case separately, based on "individual merits," as opposed to allowing sanctuary as a class.
Critics claim that, since service members volunteer for duty and are not drafted, as many were during the Vietnam War, they should abide by their legal agreements regardless of personal political beliefs. It is a stipulation citied in the Immigration and Refugee Board's denial of many war resisters' applications for refugee status. However, as most denials have been appealed or taken to the federal courts, none have yet to prompt a forced deportation.
Liz Rivera Goldstein, a counter-recruitment activist who attended a July 9 vigil in Seattle, argues that the service members' legal contracts should be annulled because of the circumstances surrounding the Iraq War. "The particular situation that we're in now is very different because so much information has come out that the war is illegal and that we were lied to," she said. "I think that many of the soldiers that enlist went in for wonderful reasons. They want to serve their country and protect the people they love and protect their country -- but going to Iraq is not the mission where they will accomplish that," she told AlterNet.
Goldstein, who sat in on the civilian hearings for war resister Lt. Ehren Watada in 2007, said she didn't realize how much Watada "really loved the military." "It was his career, his choice. He wanted all of it, and he lost all of it," she said. "But he refused to serve in a war that he saw as illegal and immoral."
Watada is now working a desk job at Fort Lewis, awaiting the results of an Army challenge to a civilian court injunction against his second court-martial. "He should have been out a year ago in December," said Goldstein. "There's no justice in the military."
Patty McCann, a member of the Chicago chapter of IVAW, told AlterNet that it is harder to get out of military service than people might think. "The chain of command tells us, 'You can't apply for conscientious objector status.'" she said. "Our captain told us that, and we believed what he told us." On top of that, she said, service members face harassment, ostracism and even physical abuse. "I don't know anybody who managed to apply for CO status and had a smooth ride," she said.
A Victory in the Courts
In Canada, absent a change in immigration policy that would grant U.S. war resisters a smoother path to legal residence, the battle is likely to play out in federal courts, where the greatest victory to date for the campaign in support of U.S. resisters came less than two weeks ago. Joshua Key, an Iraq war veteran who, according to court documents, participated in more than 70 nighttime raids on the homes of Iraqi civilians, appealed and won a reconsideration of his refugee application on July 4, when Federal Court Justice Robert Barnes sent his case back to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Barnes ruled that the IRB applied too narrow of an interpretation of international law to Key's case when it rejected his application, and that it should base his status not only on whether he would be forced to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity, but also whether he would fit within the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Handbook's definition of a refugee. Specifically, Barnes ruled that "military action which systematically degrades, abuses or humiliates either combatants or noncombatants is capable of supporting a refugee claim where that is the proven reason for refusing to serve." He ordered the IRB to reconsider Key's application, which would also allow his wife, Brandi Key, and their four children to remain with him in Canada.
Key's lawyer, Jeffrey House, himself a Vietnam-era war resister who has remained in Canada, told AlterNet that Key's ruling set a precedent that he hopes will be applicable in similar claims. He said it was unclear as to whether Key's case resulted in Glass' stay of deportation last week, as the court did not release an opinion. But, when asked whether he intends to use the Key ruling to defend other war resister clients, he said, "It's the law, so we expect to be allowed to use the law."
But, for now, regardless of how long war resisters in Canada are allowed to stay, the real question for many is how soon they can return. Key says his family and friends are in the United States, as well as his children's grandparents, and every year that he has to wait before going home -- and potentially leaving his family to serve time in a military prison -- is a hardship.
Although most war resisters thus far have served sentences of three months to one year, the Uniform Code of Military Justice proscribes "such other punishment as a court-martial may direct," including capital punishment "if the offense is committed in time of war."
However, it is highly unlikely that such a severe punishment will be doled out in the foreseeable future, particularly with the number of deserters the Iraq War has thus far produced. Since 2003, the Pentagon has reported at least 15,718 Army, 4,957 Marine, 9,037 Navy and 177 Air Force deserters.
During the Chicago vigil, the U.S. State Department, rather than Canadian officials, came to the front of the building that houses the Canadian Embassy, where they informed the crowd that they would not be granted an audience with Canadian officials. They would, however, permit two representatives of the crowd to meet with two Canadian officials in the lobby.
Patty McCann went inside with "Lobo," a vocal anti-war veteran and member of Veterans for Peace. After emerging from the brief encounter, McCann told the crowd that all the officials could do was bring back her message, which, she said, was that "resistance should not be considered a crime, but an act of heroism and of patriotism."
Lobo echoed her words, adding that he and others like him will continue to demonstrate "until we can bring them home as the law-abiding and honorable individuals they are."
"They honored their oath to preserve and defend the Constitution," he said. "They refused to follow unlawful orders -- and that's the key."