Canada's conscience 'in limbo'
by Jeff Schutts
Old news: American soldiers living in Canada seek sanctuary from the Iraq War.
When you heard this news several years ago you probably responded with confusion; unlike during the Vietnam War, the United States now has a volunteer military. And, like most Canadians (64 per cent in a 2008 poll), once you considered the war's controversies, chances are you thought that Canada should allow them to stay.
It hardly seems right that someone should go to jail for refusing to take part in activities like those at Abu Ghraib prison, or otherwise fight in what the United Nations (UN) general secretary deemed an "illegal war." After all, the lack of a UN sanction for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was why the Liberal government of the day declined to participate.
Surely, all that is resolved by now. Barack Obama is president and, as he declared last August, "the American combat mission in Iraq has ended."
From court martials over the illegal use of sniper "bait" to WikiLeaks documentation of needless civilian deaths, the reasons given for soldiers fleeing to Canada have been clearly corroborated. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who wanted Canada to help invade Iraq in 2003, changed his mind five years later and admitted the war "was absolutely an error."
Nonetheless, one American Iraq War veteran turned war resister, Rodney Watson, has been trapped inside a Vancouver church for more than a year, living in sanctuary, his only alternative to avoid being arrested by the RCMP, deported by our government and imprisoned by the U.S. Army.
Jeremy Hinzman, the first American soldier of his generation to seek refuge in Canada, has been living in Toronto for seven years, almost a quarter of his life. He has a steady job and his second child was born here, yet he lives knowing that any day he, too, could be taken across the border to a military prison.
There are about three dozen such Americans living in Canada who have formally applied to be granted refugee status. Realistic estimates suggest a couple hundred others are living here underground. For them, the Iraq War is far from over.
Each of them has their own story of why they joined and then quit the military. Their plight is personal, yet their decision to come to Canada has entangled them in the loftiest dimensions of international law: their right to claim conscientious objection, even as soldiers, is guaranteed by the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights, while refugee conventions support their claim to asylum.
They are in limbo today because Canada's conscience appears to lie dormant behind pretensions of upholding international justice.
While lower courts sometimes rule that the refugee and immigration bureaucracies need to judge cases on their merits, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to consider the issue in 2007. And while Parliament twice, in 2008 and 2009, passed resolutions asking that the Conservative government make provisions for them to stay, a similar but binding bill failed last September by seven votes.
After two deportations in 2008, it seems that such high-profile political controversy has stayed the Harper government's policy of sending the war resisters back.
Until a new election results in either a Harper majority or a new coalition government, it seems both the war resisters and Canada's conscience will remain in limbo.
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, Douglas College's Institute for Ethics and Global Justice will host a brown bag lunch forum about these issues at its Coquitlam campus, at 1250 Pinetree Way. For more information, contact Jeff Schutts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Schutts is a Douglas College history instructor, as well as a former U.S. Army officer and peace activist.
u.s. war resisters in canada: "in limbo because canada's conscience appears to lie dormant"
From Coquitlam Now, with heartfelt thanks to Jeff Schutts.