When I was young, I would head down to the nearby park to play one of two games. The first was the ever-popular Cops and Robbers, and the second game was called War.
We always played with a certain level of decency, even for a game named War. If your ‘General’ or ‘Commander-in-Chief’ was a real idiot or tyrant, or if the game was severely flawed, you simply took you bike (tank) and went home. No one called you a coward.
Things are not as simple in the world of grownups. There is a big difference between having the enemy throw sand in your face and being shot at or crushed by an armoured vehicle, a big difference between running home with skinned knees and coming home in a box.
War is not a game.
But we Canadians know that. Every time we open the morning paper and see that another NATO solider has died in Afghanistan or elsewhere, suddenly our coffee does not taste so good anymore, as our eyes linger over the soldier’s photograph.
The adult version of war
For real soldiers, there are ranks and rules of conduct. There are recruiters and enlistment drives, deployments, engagements, combat, hospitals and the Highway of Heroes. Enemy territory does not include a wooden tower with a plastic slide. The enemy is not armed with fistfuls of sand.
If there are objections concerning the nature of the mission, a sense that perhaps the current Iraq war is unjustified or illegal, these thoughts are wrapped in metal and kept hidden under the tongue. Once enrolled in the army, it is extremely hard to leave. That’s Army Strong.
Courage to resist
There are many different reasons for wanting to leave the military. And not just when the going gets tough, because it is a professional given that war is tough. It is tough on the soldiers, their spouses, their families and friends.
Since 2004, some of these U.S. soldiers, now war resisters, have sought refuge in Canada as the solution to their objection to their deployment. This along with their objection to being mislead by their Commander and Chief.
A Canadian legacy
According to Lee Zaslofsky, a key organizer for the War Resisters Support Campaign and a Vietnam resister himself, he believes that Canada has a certain historical legacy to live up to by accepting war resisters.
It was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the Liberal Party who opened Canada’s doors during the Vietnam war to thousands of Americans war resisters, who were often motivated by the same feeling of objection to an unjust and illegal war.
“Of course, Canada’s legacy extends back further to the [American] Civil War and before that when slaves came north via the underground railroad, and even before that with the United Empire Loyalists, so there is sort of a Canadian tradition of welcoming dissenters from the United States and this is another part of that,” Zaslofsky explains.
The current War Resisters Support Campaign was established four years ago when American soldier Jeremy Hinzman first came to Canada after contacting a lawyer, Jeff House. House agreed to take on his case for refugee status as a war resister, but felt that a public mobilization was also needed.
The Canadian Peace Alliance became involved in 2004 and the campaign has grown from there, to cities including Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, London, Thunder Bay, Marathon, Saskatoon, Vancouver and Nelson.
Legal and political struggles
The campaign’s approach has been two-fold, looking to both the judicial and political systems for the right to stay within Canada and be considered legally and political as a refugee.
On November 15, 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected hearing the deportation appeal by Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, both of whom had first been rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board in 2005. War resisters, such as Hinzman and Hughey and others, are currently facing the risk of deportation.
On the political front, with the help of NDP MP Olivia Chow, the war resisters’ case was brought to the federal Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. On December 6, 2007, the Committee voted seven to four in favour of allowing war resisters refugee status and to immediately halt all deportations.
The motion sets the political stage to allow “âe¦conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents) who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations” sanctuary in Canada in the future. The issue is now up for a full three-hour debate before the complete House of Commons.
The War Resisters Support Campaign expects that a united opposition could be the majority force to get the motion passed.
With the ghost of Trudeau pirouetting above them, many are expecting the Liberals to support the motion as well, although party leader Stephane Dion has yet to make a formal statement.
Zaslofsky offers his prognostication for the actions of the parties when the House of Commons resumes, “We know the Tories will oppose itâe¦if Prime Minister Harper wants an election on this, he would be showing that he’d rather call an election and risk his government than offend George Bush.”
Courage and cowardice in context
In an address to the war resisters’ supporters in Toronto on Saturday, January 26, MP Chow cheered on the resisters for their courage.
She thanked them and praised their strength, “It does take courage, it takes determination, it takes strength, because it is a sacrifice to leave your family back home and come to Canadaâe¦And that is why I thank you because I know you will make us proud when you become Canadian citizens.”
These war resisters are ordinary soldiers who made a choice to enter the military on, many claim, false pretences, and are now choosing to leave it, dignity intact. According to Zaslofsky, the war resisters “realized their [choice] was wrong and they decided they wouldn’t participateâe¦I think that facing up to that is something a lot of human beings have trouble with,” he said.
Their bravery in making that difficult decision should be rewarded.