Crunch Time For U.S. War Resisters In Canada
Z MAGAZINE ONLINE-ONLY ARTICLE
When Private Jeremy Hinzman crossed the border into Canada in January 2004, he became the first AWOL GI to seek refugee status there. The U.S. Army had denied his request to serve in a non-combat role as a Conscientious Objector. They forced him into a tour in Afghanistan, and then ordered him to deploy to Iraq. Four years after fleeing the country, Hinzman, his wife and one-year-old son are facing the possibility of deportation back to the United States.
In March 2005 Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board denied Hinzman’s refugee claim. Notoriously conservative in its determinations, the Refugee Board refused to consider the illegality of the Iraq War and declared that the court-martial and imprisonment that awaited Hinzman in the U.S. did not amount to “persecution” for his political beliefs.
Brandon Hughey, the second AWOL GI to seek refuge in Canada, was also denied refugee status, as have at least a dozen other U.S. war resisters—and counting.
Although Canada has never granted refugee status to anyone fleeing persecution in the United States, Hinzman, Hughey, and their Canadian supporters continued undaunted in their quest for political refugee status. Their lawyer, Vietnam War resister Jeffry House, appealed in Canada’s Federal Courts, eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court. But on November 15, 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada announced that it would not hear the war resisters’ appeals.
Seeking refugee status, however, “was never the only arrow in our quiver,” says Lee Zaslofsky, coordinator of the War Resisters Support Campaign, and one of 30,000 Vietnam War resisters who have become Canadian citizens. “We have pursued a two-track strategy from the beginning. Even while we fought in the courts for refugee status, we were working on the political front to build popular support for sanctuary and to win the support of the various political parties.”
The war resisters’ political strategy bore its first fruit last December 6 in Canada’s House of Commons. After hearing eloquent testimony from former U.S. Army Sergeant Phillip McDowell, along with representatives of the Mennonites and Quakers, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration adopted a motion calling on the government to allow war resisters to stay in Canada. The motion, which also calls for a halt to deportation proceedings, passed by a 7-4 vote, with all of the opposition parties united against the ruling Conservatives.
The Committee’s motion, which was broadened to include resisters of all wars not sanctioned by the UN, reads as follows: “The Committee recommends that the government immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents), who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already com- menced against such individuals.
The passage of this motion was the first good news they had received in some time. “This shows a willingness of the opposition parties in Canada’s Parliament to come together to ensure that none of these resisters is returned to the U.S. where they face court martials, incarceration, and possible deployment to Iraq,” said Zaslofsky.
Campaign organizer Michelle Robidoux sounded a more cautionary note. “I want to make sure that nobody leaves thinking that this is won. It’s very important that we understand that now the work begins…. [The passage of this motion] does not mean that people can stay immediately. It means that there is a political opening here—it’s a significant poli- tical opening.”
“What we need,” continued Zaslofsky, “is for the Liberal Party as a whole to take a stance on this. Together (the three parties) have a majority and if they act together they can put something through the House of Commons.
Poll Reveals Support
Coming only weeks after the disappointing decision by the Supreme Court, the Committee’s affirmative vote felt like a miracle. But it was no fluke. For four years the War Resisters Support Campaign, comprised of unions, churches, artists, and activists, has been organizing across Canada with the slogan “Let Them Stay.” The war resisters themselves have spoken hundreds of times, collectively, in community meetings and in the media.
Demonstrations were held across Canada and the U.S. in support of war resisters, January 25-26, 2007—photo from www.resisters.ca
The extent of the Campaign’s success was demonstrated in a June 2007 poll showing that nearly two-thirds of the people of Ontario supported the war resisters. Of the 605 Ontarians who responded to the pollsters’ questions, 64.6 percent said U.S. soldiers should be allowed to settle in Canada while only 27.2 percent said they should be sent home. The poll results were broken down by gender, age, location, and party support. Each demographic was supportive of the war resisters, with 74 percent of NDP voters, 71 percent of Liberal voters, and even 53 percent of Conservative voters saying, “Let them settle in Canada.”
Shirley Douglas, a Canadian actor and mother of actor Keifer Sutherland, agreed. “This poll shows that the Canadian tradition of welcoming Americans who dissent from the policies of war is still important to us,” said Douglas. “The Canadian government should move now to make it possible for war resisters to settle in this country as so many did during the Vietnam War.”
U.S. war resisters in Canada are very encouraged by this showing of popular and parliamentary support. The Committee’s motion must now be put before the entire House of Commons where it is hoped that the opposition parties will once again unite to pass it.
In the meantime, Jeremy Hinzman has received his Pre-Removal Risk Assessment. His case is being reviewed and within months he may be given an order to leave Canada. On yet another track, Hinzman is appealing to the Immigration Minister to allow him to remain in Canada on “Humanitarian and Compassionate” grounds, along with his wife, Nga Nguyen, and their son, Liam, now five, who has spent most of his life in Canada.
“It’s great that people all across Canada and the U.S. are coming out to show support for the war resisters,” said Patrick Hart, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who came to Canada in 2005 with his family. “My family could be told we have to go back to the States anytime now. My wife Jill and I just want to be able to live here in peace and raise our son, Rian. We hope that the politicians will let us do that.”
Hart and fellow resisters Robin Long and Corey Glass have all received their Pre-Removal Risk Assessments, a step toward deportation.
While a majority of Conservative party voters in the Ontario poll were sympathetic to the plight of U.S. war resisters, that is not the position of the minority Conservative government. In 2003, Stephen Harper, Canada’s current prime minister, was a vocal proponent of Canada joining the U.S. war against Iraq. Fortunately, a sizable majority of the Canadian people saw things differently and the Liberal government at the time declined President Bush’s invitation to join the “Coalition of the Willing.” Harper now denies he ever supported the Iraq War.
But Canada’s Conservative prime minister is an ardent advocate for the U.S.-initiated war in Afghansistan, where Canadian soldiers are an important part of the NATO deployment. The previous Liberal government first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Harper’s Conservatives have extended that mission until February 2009 and are pursuing an additional extension, while exhorting the European members of NATO to send additional troops.
With more and more Canadian troops dying in Afghanistan, and a scandal raging over the torture of prisoners captured by Canadians and handed over to Afghan (and possibly U.S.) forces, the majority of Canadians are against this war. In fact, opposition to the Afghanistan War may be a major factor in forcing a federal election, possibly as early as this spring. Ultimately, it may take a change at the top of the Canadian government to ensure a safe haven for war resisters. With the Liberal Party in disarray, however, progressive Canadians worry that the Conservatives might return to power.
U.S. Antiwar Movement Joins Sanctuary Campaign
So it was with a mixture of optimism and urgency that the War Resisters Support Campaign organized a “pan-Canadian” day of action on Saturday, January 26, two days before the Parliament would reconvene. Events were held in at least 11 Canadian cities—from Victoria, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia. People listened to speeches, watched antiwar films, and wrote letters to government officials and party leaders. In several cities, they marched to the post office and made a show of mailing the letters.
In Toronto, the Bloor Street United Church filled up with hundreds of supporters. When Jeremy Hinzman was introduced, the crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation. He then reminded listeners of the reasons he came to Canada in the first place and thanked the Canadian people for their tremendous support.
In the U.S., the war resister advocacy group Courage To Resist coordinated solidarity actions on Friday, January 25 to coincide with the pan-Canadian actions. Vigils were held outside Canadian Consulates in New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. Delegations met with Consular officials and delivered copies of thousands of names of people in the U.S. who have signed petitions and letters to the Canadian government.
Significantly, the January 25 vigils and delegations were the first nationally coordinated actions in the U.S. in support of our war resisters in Canada. Groups that joined Courage to Resist and the War Resisters Support Campaign in making this a successful day included Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, War Resisters League, Iraq Veterans Against the War, DECOI, Veterans for Peace, Raging Grannies, Project Safe Haven, Twin Cities Peace Campaign, Truth in Recruiting, Payday men’s network, Global Women’s Strike, North Texas for Justice and Peace, United for Peace and Justice, and others.
United For Peace and Justice promoted these actions via email to its entire national membership. Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) did the same, and IVAW members were front and center at many of the vigils around the country.
“As veterans of the Iraq war, we have a special role to play in supporting our war resisters,” said Chanan Suarez-Diaz, president of the Seattle chapter of IVAW. “Whether they are in Canada, Germany, or the U.S., whether they are AWOL, in the brig, on active duty, or in legal limbo like Lt. Ehren Watada, they need and deserve all of our support.”
Many of the resisters are, of course, also Iraq veterans themselves. They survived one tour but went AWOL when ordered back a second time. IVAW members have made several trips to Canada to visit their fellow veterans and they are making arrangements for some of them to testify via satellite television at the Winter Soldier hearings being organized for March 13-16 in Washington, DC. Iraq veterans are also mobilizing members and supporters to reach out to active duty GI’s, including at Fort Lewis, Washington.
War Resisters Still Coming To Canada
Estimates of the number of U.S. war resisters in Canada range from 200-300. Approximately 50 of them have applied for refugee status.
AWOL GIs continue to make the trek north. They can still enter Canada as visitors and then apply for refugee status, which gives them immediate legal status in Canada as long as their refugee claim is pending, possibly a year or more. Refugee claimants are eligible for social assistance in some provinces and for Canada’s free national healthcare.
War resisters thinking of coming to Canada are advised to call the War Resisters Support Campaign so that Canadian supporters know they are on their way. This is increasingly important because Canadian border guards at some points of entry are reportedly profiling AWOL soldiers and discouraging them from entering, even putting them on the phone with their commanding officers. In such a case, a war resister can claim refugee status right at the border, and the Canadian authorities will respect this. Otherwise, it is preferable to enter Canada and see a Canadian lawyer before making a refugee claim.
“This is a complicated business,” says Zaslofsky. “Actually, the first thing we tell people who call for advice is to call the GI Rights Hotline and find out all their options.”
Some AWOL GIs may actually be eligible to be discharged from the military without further punishment, and experienced counselors can help them do that. Such an outcome is arguably preferable to an uncertain future in Canada without the ability to travel home to the U.S. to visit family or friends.
In case Canada does deport war resisters back to the U.S., the antiwar movement must be prepared to defend them, legally and politically. Some might call it amnesty. Some might call it justice or human rights or solidarity. The bottom line is that nobody should be punished for refusing to fight in an unjust war. By energetically supporting all war resisters, we can help bring an end to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and make it more difficult to launch such wars in the future. That should be our goal.
Gerry Condon, a Vietnam-era veteran and war resister, is the director of Project Safe Haven (projectsafehaven@hot mail.com), which has been working for four years in support of U.S. war resisters in Canada. He also serves on the national steering committee of the Friends and Family of Lt. Watada.