Iraq War resisters deserve fair treatment
By Gerard Kennedy
Should someone be imprisoned for sharing the views of most Canadians on the Iraq War? That is the question being posed in part by my Bill C-440, soon to be considered at second reading in the House of Commons.
Iraq War resisters are US military personnel who left their service and came to Canada seeking a country that would be sympathetic to their objections to that war, and the role they were asked—and often coerced—to play in it.
Like the Vietnam War draft dodgers and war resisters of an earlier generation—or even United Empire Loyalists of two centuries past—their conscience caused them to walk away from the society they grew up in, with heavy consequences for their future. They made themselves citizens of no country rather than go against their ethical objection to what they saw.
Can Canada accept such applicants without offending the US?
Undoubtedly it may offend some there, but our friendship will withstand the safe harbouring of 200 to 300 estimated war resisters, a small number compared to the 50,000-plus new citizens we adopted from the Vietnam era.
The essential point is how we in Canada see the role of conscience. The Nuremberg principles shaped after the Second World War make clear that civilized nations expect that soldiers will do more than blindly follow orders if a moral choice is possible.
Respecting the will of the House expressed in earlier motions, Bill C-440 falls short of a full opening for conscientious objectors into Canada, but rather is restricted to those from wars not sanctioned by the United Nations, such as that in Iraq.
As United Nations bodies have affirmed, it is possible for those already in the military to develop a conscientious objection while in service, and that such objection can apply to a specific war the international community regards as illegal.
The act of free will that saw individuals enlist in the military or the National Guard does not extinguish their moral judgement once and for all. Just like many civilians, these soldiers changed their views once they learned that the facts of the Iraq War were very different than what they had been led to believe, often through their firsthand experiences.
What about brave Canadian men and women serving in Afghanistan?
While C-440 does not apply to that conflict, it does affirm a Canadian sensibility that respects all military personnel to retain their moral choice in the conduct of their duties. It also implies that Canada will take the greatest of care as to when and how we commit own military.
Robin Long and Cliff Cornell, the two American war resisters deported from Canada, were subjected to sentences of two years and 18 months, respectively, in military jails on their return, convicted largely based on interviews they gave to Canadian media. They now face lives with felony convictions and harsh judgment from much of US society.
Those who still remain in Canada—from Rodney Watson, in sanctuary in a Vancouver church, to Kimberly Rivera, in my own Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park—have sacrificed much and spent several years with their lives suspended. Many served their whole term despite their objections, only to be "stop-lossed" or compelled to return; a few were even long-serving military personnel who could not go along with the actions of the Iraq War; others are individuals asked to do or condone things in Iraq that the US itself now condemns.
Despite two votes by the House of Commons to accept war resisters in Canada, the Harper government refuses to acknowledge a Canadian sensibility on this question or to engage in open debate.
Instead it abuses its authority in a minority government to impose its own minority view. Its officials, from the Prime Minister's Office to the minister of immigration, have put their thumb on the scale of Canadian justice, poisoning fair immigration hearings with outrageous public comments about the character and eligibility of the war resisters.
A recent Canadian court decision reinforced the essence of Bill C-440 in the case of war resister Jeremy Hinzman, saying that conscientious objection is a legitimate grounds for humanitarian and compassionate consideration that must be considered. (The Harper government response was to send out a one-sided bulletin emphasizing "criminality" so as to intimidate officials who might be more likely to accept applicants.)
Bill C-440 merely seeks to end the merry-go-round of ministerial interference and expensive court jousting to provide basic fairness. All other immigration protections, from criminality, poor health or even bad debt, remain firmly in place. If passed, it will express the feelings of the majority of Canadians: that we should confidently set our own course in determining who gets to be one of us.
Gerard Kennedy is the member of Parliament for Parkdale-High Park.
gerard kennedy: "bill c-440 seeks to end the merry-go-round of ministerial interference to provide basic fairness"