Canada no haven for US military deserters

The Canadian government is ignoring a parliamentary motion that would allow those refusing to serve in Iraq to apply to remain in the country.

Patrick Hart and his wife, Jill, pose together in Toronto, Canada, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2006.  Hart, who calls himself a war resister, crossed the border from Buffalo, N.Y., into Canada, where he became one of at least 25 U.S. troops who have applied for refugee status. His wife brought their 3-year-old young son and joined Patrick in September 2005,  a month after her husband crossed the border. (AP Photo/Harry Rosettani)
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TORONTO // Kimberly Rivera came to Canada in Feb 2007 to escape her US military service in Iraq. Assigned to an artillery unit that deployed in Oct 2006, she said she saw people lose their lives for what she described as a country's greed and her fellow soldiers afflicted with physical and mental injuries. Rather than return to Iraq, Ms Rivera, her husband and two children left their home in Texas to find a new future in Toronto. The family's third child, a Canadian citizen, was born here late last year.

"After a huge awakening in the lives of [Iraqi] civilians who don't get to escape the trauma or the pain and loss of people they love, I was seeing the truth and it wasn't what we'd been led to believe," Ms Rivera said in a press release this month from the group War Resisters Support Campaign. "My goal is to find a better future for my kids. Coming to Canada gave my family opportunities and hope."

However, the Canadian government does not want Ms Rivera and her family to stay and immigration officials have rejected her appeal to remain here, ordering the family to leave by Tuesday. She is one of five Iraq deserters and their families who face deportation or removal from Canada this month. What unites Ms Rivera with Cliff Cornell, Chris Teske, Patrick Hart and his family and Dean Walcott is not their reasons for joining the military, but their collective disgust over their participation in what they consider an illegal war. They and their supporters are concerned that they will be punished by the US government for the refusal to serve in Iraq.

Olivia Chow, a member of parliament from Toronto with the Left-leaning New Democratic Party, said the deserters will end up serving an 18-month jail sentence if they are returned home. The Canadian government "is doing George Bush's work in deporting these resisters to jail", she said. "It's Bush's war in Iraq or you're on the side of the Canadian citizens who oppose it." Despite Canada's multibillion-dollar trade with the United States and its role as Washington's largest oil supplier, Jean Chrétien kept his country out of Iraq when he was prime minister. Three-quarters of Canadians believed their government made the right decision, according to a March 2004 Ipsos-Reid/CTV/Globe and Mail poll.

Lee Zaslofsky, the co-ordinator of the War Resisters Support Campaign, said Canadians can accept that US soldiers would come here because they refused to fight in Iraq. His campaign knows of 40 to 50 deserters in Canada, but he suggested there could be more than 100. Yet the Conservative-led government of Stephen Harper maintains that US military deserters not genuine refugees under the internationally accepted meaning of the term. Numerous attempts to contact government officials to explain that policy went unanswered.

Mr Zaslofsky, however, summarised the government's stance on the Iraq war deserters as being they are either refugees or will be kicked out. "They [government officials] insist on tormenting these people and trying desperately to get them out of the country to satisfy some inner urge they have, which is not shared by the Canadian public," he said. "We have to remember Canada has a tradition of welcoming people like this."

According to Ms Chow, Canada's absorption of 50,000 conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War offers a precedent. In the 1960s and 1970s, Canada welcomed deserters at the border as immigrants, allowing them to apply for residency and citizenship. That enabled people such as Mr Zaslofsky, a native of the New York City area who deserted the US army in 1970, to settle here. Ms Chow said Canada needs a similar political process and programme to accommodate the Iraq war deserters. The refugee process, she said, is not working for them since all of their appeals have been denied.

"I never got refugee status. None of us ever did," Mr Zaslofsky said. "Canada has the discretion to welcome people in a variety of different ways." He hopes for the implementation of a motion presented in June in parliament that was approved by a margin of 137-110. The motion recommends that conscientious objectors and their immediate family members who do not have a criminal record and who have refused or deserted military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations be allowed to remain in Canada and apply for permanent resident status.

But Mr Zaslofsky is not optimistic about the motion's chances for success. "The outlier here is the Conservative government, which, as we all know, is the last neoconservative government standing." Critics of the Iraq deserters point out they volunteered for military service, while Vietnam involved conscription. But Mr Zaslofsky said there is a "poverty draft" with recruits using their service to escape from the lower rungs of society.

For Ms Chow, the situation is easily resolved: Mr Harper should obey the will of Parliament and let the deserters stay. "They have chosen Canada; we should welcome them."