TORONTO, Canada — Canada has long been a haven for Americans escaping their wars.
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 with regard to the private member's bill on deportations. That bill has stalled, not died. In addition, Cliff Cornell received his sentence in April 2009.