The battle to keep U.S. Iraq war resisters in Canada has been ongoing since January 2004 when Jeremy Hinzman first arrived in Canada and filed a refugee claim as a conscientious objector.
Hinzman was the first U.S. Iraq resister to seek sanctuary in Canada as he and others face punishment under a charge of being Absent Without Official Leave (“going AWOL”) or for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for refusing to participate in the Iraq war for moral reasons.
As of July 2009, there are at least 28 public cases of US Iraq War resisters in Canada, some of whom have either brought their families or started new ones in Canada. They live legally as refugee claimants awaiting legal decisions from Immigration Canada from, for example, Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds (H + C) applications. An unknown number — the War Resister Support Campaign (WRSC) estimate the number to be around 200– have also come to Canada but have remained underground.
They have been embraced kindly by the Canadian public and the current opposition parties in Parliament, who have united twice on motions voting to support resisters, on both June 3, 2008 and March 30, 2009.
These motions were supported by the Canadian public, as proven through an Angus Reid Strategies poll taken on June 6 and 7, 2008 which showed that 64 per cent of Canadians agreed with the premise of the motion, which would allow soldiers of conscience objecting to any non-United Nation sanctioned war to seek refugee status here in Canada and to stop all pending deportation cases. While both motions passed, their recommendations were non-binding and never implemented by the minority Conservative government under the leadership of Stephen Harper.
Commenting on the resister’s immigration situation in Canada, on January 7, 2009, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, referred to Iraq war resisters as, “bogus refugee claimants” and later commented that “war resistance is futile.”
Opposition to allowing U.S. war resisters to seek sanctuary in Canada has also come from the United States. For example, in 2004, the BBC analysis of the situation reported that U.S. political pundit commentators such as Bill O’Reilly of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News TV network, “… seized on the case [of Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey], even calling for a boycott of Canadian goods if the pair [were] not extradited quickly.”
It also reported on the types of comments resisters were receiving from their fellow Americans. “‘I’m coming for you,’ reads one threatening e-mail, laced with racism and obscenities. ‘Desserters [sic] should get shot in the back especially at war time,’ reads another.”
The case of Rodney Watson
The latest flashpoint in the battle has been the case of Rodney Watson who on Monday October 19, 2009, decided to seek sanctuary in a B.C. church rather than face deportation to the United States to face desertion charges. Watson, who is originally from Kansas City, Kansas, enlisted in the US Army in 2004 for a three-year contract with the intentions of becoming a cook since he wanted to serve the troops in a non-combat capacity.
In 2005, he was deployed to Iraq just north of Mosul, where he was put in charge of searching vehicles and Iraqi civilians for explosives, contraband and weapons before they entered the base. He was also expected to “keep the peace” by monitoring Iraqi civilians who worked on the base and fire his weapon at Iraqi children who approached the perimeter.
After his first tour was over, Watson was informed that he was instead being Stop-Lossed as the Army intended to have his serve beyond the date of his contractual obligation with the military. On two-week leave, he decided not to return to his base at Fort Hood, Texas, and instead fled to Vancouver, B.C. in 2006, where he lives with his Canadian born partner and their infant son.
In a September 2009 press conference, Watson — who is African-American — described his experience in Iraq, “I witnessed racism and the physical abuse from soldiers towards the civilians. On one occasion, a soldier was beating an Iraqi civilian, calling him a sand-nigger and threw his Qur’an on the ground and spit on it. The man was unarmed and he was just looking for work on the base. He posed no type of threat. He was beaten because soldiers brought their personal racist hatred to Iraq.”
It was experiences like these — plus coming to understand that the motivation behind going to war was based on lies — that led to his decision to come to Canada. He has been living in refuge at the First United Church in Vancouver, B.C., since September 18, 2009. He was welcomed with open arms and publicly declared sanctuary on Monday. Sarah Bjorknas from the Vancouver arm of the WRSC notes that Watson was issued his deportation order before his H + C case could be resolved through the courts.
Watson wishes to remain in Canada because of his objection to the Iraq War but his passion for his infant son remains the strongest pull — two heartbeats desperate to remain as one.
At the press conference, Watson’s voice trembled, “I don’t want to be torn away from him. I want to be there for him during his first steps, every waking moment, I want to be there. And I know if I’m deported, it is to prison and I will not be able to see any of those moments for who knows how long, for God knows how long.” If convicted of desertion as a felony charge he will not be able to cross the border to visit his son.
While Watson made the decision to seek sanctuary on his own, he has been receiving support from across the country. Bjorknas defended his choice. “Rodney was Stop-Lossed, he had served his time, he fulfilled his contractual obligation, and the fact that he is being sent back to the United States to stand trial is outrageous.”
In the U.S. military, the Stop Loss policy allows for the involuntary extension of a service member’s active duty service under their enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond their initial end of term of service date.
The policy remains in effect despite numerous court challenges from military service members challenging their extension and affects 12, 000 personnel, though in March 2009, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates ordered deep reductions in its enactment against service personnel by fifty per cent by June 2010.
In 2005 during the presidential election, Democrat John Kerry accused President Bush of creating a “backdoor draft” through the use of Stop Loss.
Commenting on Watson’s case of seeking sanctuary in Canada to resist a Stop Loss order, Michelle Robidoux from Toronto’s WRSC said, “Rodney’s case is a clear example of how the notion that the U.S. military is an all volunteer army is actually false. Rodney completed his contractual obligations and was facing redeployment to Iraq despite this and his objections to the war.”
Now Watson sits and waits in a B.C. Church, hoping the government will intervene or enact Parliament’s motion to stop him from being deported and separated from his partner and newborn son.