Daring to object: Iraq war resisters, though often veterans themselves, have been met with a cool reception, much different from the draft dodgers of the 1960s
by Nicholas Keung
It was the dead of winter when a buddy from Cornell University drove war deserter Dick Cotterill through the Maine-New Brunswick border for a new life of freedom and peace in Canada.
At the border station near St. Stephen, N.B., a Canadian official hassled the young Marine officer but within minutes let him in as a permanent resident, with the papers of a job offer from a beef farm.
That was March 1972, on the eve of Cotterill’s deployment to the Vietnam War.
“The Canadian government and people welcomed us in those days,” recalled Cotterill, 60, who now runs his own yard and garden equipment business in Truro, N.S.
A very different welcome has greeted Iraq war resisters, who have been coming to Canada since the war began in 2003.
These U.S. service men and women have met with roadblocks in seeking status in Canada, for fleeing from a war they consider illegal and immoral.
Their asylum claims, and immigration applications made on humanitarian grounds have been rejected, under review or challenged in court; some of the applicants have been deported and jailed in the U.S. including Robin Long, 26, sentenced to 15 months in 2008, and Clifford Cornell, 29, to 12 months last year.
“What bothers me is this is going against the strong Canadian tradition as a haven from militarism,” Cotterill lamented.
What a difference in the years between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, neither of which Canada had participated in, due to public, and finally, very official opposition.
“We have always made clear that Canada will require the approval of the U.N. Security Council if we were to participate in a military campaign,” Prime Minister Jean Chretien then said of Canada’s decision not to support the Iraq invasion.
History suggests that by refusing to join the Iraq war, Canada implicitly opened the door to others who felt likewise. At the Nuremberg trials of Nazi members following the WWII, the United Nations recognized that foot soldiers cannot justify their participation in war crimes on the excuse of following their superiors’ order.
The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that conscientious objectors (those who refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience and religion) can apply for asylum in another country if they face persecution in their own country for refusing to participate in an illegal war.
Thus, critics of the Harper government’s current harsh policy argue, U.S. court marshal and jail sentences for desertion constitute persecution, and are grounds for asylum.
On Sept. 27, Parliament will debate and vote on Bill C-440, a private member’s bill that would cease deportation of these war resisters and create a program to give them landed status if they get medical and criminal clearances – their last hope to remain in Canada.
Two non-biding motions seeking the same thing were adopted by the House of Commons in 2008 and 2009, but have been ignored by Harper’s minority government, forcing the opposition parties to go through the tedious – and binding – route by submitting a formal bill.
If it passes second reading in the House, it will then go to the immigration standing committee for reviews and return for a final vote in the parliament.
All three opposition parties have expressed support for the bill, and chances appear better-than-average that it can actually pass into law.
That is, provided there is no fall election to push the bill to start from zero again under a new government.
The story includes thumbnail profiles of six men "who said no to war": Canadians (and former Vietnam War deserters) Michael Klein, Andy Barrie, Michael Wolfson, and Iraq War resisters Chuck Wiley, Phil McDowell and Robin Long.