Different powers are fighting over the fate of US war resisters in Canada. On one side, it is the Harper government’s hostility towards war resisters that has lead to the government’s refusal to grant them refugee status, triggering their deportation back to the United States to stand trial for desertion. On the other, 63 per cent of Canadians and the three Opposition parties in unison want war resisters to stay.

The power of war resisters lies in their refusal to fight; their negation of a military system that dishonours its own soldiers and violates international law.

These resisters are warriors not because they are soldiers trained to kill, but because they are individuals who are strong enough to defend their moral beliefs despite the threat of severe penalty. They are warriors because they refuse to fight. Their courage lies in their resistance.

Following the principles of innocent until proven guilty, war resisters are not deserters until they are formerly convicted of a desertion charge under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Article 85 on Desertions goes further to state regarding punishment: “c) Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.”

Conscientious objectors – UN vs. U.S. definitions

A conscientious objector (C.O.) is broadly defined by the United Nations as an “individual who, on religious, moral or ethical grounds, refuses to participate as a combatant in war or, in some cases, to take any role that would support a military organization.

Amnesty International believes that the right to refuse military service for reasons of conscience is inherent in the notion of freedom of thought, conscience and religion as recognized in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Jeremy Hinzman, the first Iraq war resister to come to Canada, said of his moral refusal to fight in the Iraq war. “Just because you volunteer to do something, it doesn’t mean that your ability to be a moral being should become static.”

Before deciding to come to Canada in 2004, Hinzman attempted to apply for C.O. status while still enlisted in the United States Army as a paratrooper with the 82th Airborne Division. He enlisted in early 2001 and his unit was deployed to the Afghanistan theatre in 2002. Hinzman was placed in a non-combat role while his conscientious objector application was being processed. He was ultimately denied C.O. status, forcing him to return to his regular unit. It is when his unit received orders to join in the Iraq War that Hinzman fled to Canada with his wife and son.

According to blogger Laura Kaminker, Jeremy Hinzman was in Federal Court again on May 25, 2010 where the Federal Court of Appeal “certified a question” regarding whether Hinzman got a fair Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds Appeal hearing. This gives his lawyer, Alyssa Manning, another shot at securing Hinzman’s right to remain in Canada as a refugee.

Amnesty International released a statement on May 15, 2005, supporting Hinzman as a prisoner of conscience if he were to be deported back to the United States to face a court martial Hinzman spent months wrapped up in the C.O. process, nullifying the cynical notion of a soldier hastily deserting their post, slipping away in the middle of the night.

Regarding the attitude of the American government towards conscience objectors, the U.S. Selective Service System states, “Beliefs which qualify a registrant for conscientious objector status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest.”

With this U.S. definition, a C.O. applicant must show a complete severance between their morality and politics, as if war exists in a sort of political vacuum devoid of national interests and patriotism — just two old generals settling a personal grudge.

The United States also currently imposes the criteria that conscientious objectors must show evidentiary proof of their ‘pacifist’ nature, faith or lifestyle before service, as if a soldier could never change his mind regarding his own concept of morality, but that his moral compass must remain fixed upon enlistment. Hinzman credits the moral and spiritual development he went through while in service for his change of heart. He explains, “Life is dynamic and if you’re confronted with doing something wrong, it’s not right to abdicate your duty and obligation to be a moral being.”

In fact, America still holds fast to this stance more than ten years after the United Nations broadened its official definition of conscientious objection to recognize that, “persons already performing military service may develop conscientious objections.”

Other soldiers serving in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts have expressed similar shifts of consciousness that lead them to leave the U.S. military.

Rodney Watson stated it was racism and the poor treatment of Iraqis that changed his conscience regarding the Iraq war. This included witnessing the unprovoked beating of an Iraqi civilian where a fellow U.S. soldier called the man a sand-nigger and threw his Qur’an on the ground and spit on it.

Kim Rivera was an Army Private from Texas who grew up proud of the American way of life. It was her experiences in the Iraq theatre that began a radical change in consciousness, especially the treatment of women and children.

Joshua Key stated he chose to resist the Iraq war stating he would have been forced by his commanding officers to commit systematic war crimes as a soldier serving in Iraq if he had continued serving. While deployed he once witnessed American soldiers kicking around the decapitated head of an Iraqi like a soccer ball.

The Canadian front

The experiences of these resisters, just a few of the estimated twenty-eight public cases since July 2009 (an unknown number of soldiers have come to Canada and are living underground) speaks of the very proud and patriotic need to ‘do the right thing’, which in this case meant refusing the fight. Canada should be rewarding these warriors of conscience, not punishing them through deportations.

At risk for deportation right now include Hinzman and his family, Watson, Hart and his family, Rivera and her family, Dean Walcott and others among the roughly 200 resisters assumed to be in Canada and the roughly 45 who have claimed refugee status.

Canada’s immigration process is changing. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney (no friend to US war resisters), is proposing changes to Canada’s refugee determination system under Bill C-11. This bill is already passed its second reading in the House of Commons and is now before a Parliamentary committee.

Bill C-11 has the potential to affect war resisters claiming refugee status here in Canada by limiting the availability to review mechanisms such as Pre-Removal Risk Assessments and Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds applications; both have been used extensively by Council representing war resisters in Federal Courts in an attempt to stop deportations.

Also, if Bill C-11 passed, this empowers the ministry to designate certain countries as “safe” with the assumption that no refugee would need to seek sanctuary from these nations. War resisters are fleeing from the United States, which would most certainly fall under Kenney’s Safe Country of Origin list.

In an attempt to secure safety for war resisters seeking refuge in Canada, anti-war activists brought their fight to Canadian Parliament on June 3, 2008. Parliament voted to pass this motion — presented by NDP MP Olivia Chow — by a vote of 137 to 110.

But the motion was non-binding and the minority Harper government chose to ignore it. The motion was again brought to vote in Parliament the following year on March 30, 2009, and while it too was passed, the Conservatives again chose to ignore it.

Still seeking a Parliamentary solution to the war resister’s situation, on September 17, 2009, Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy introduced Bill C-440 as a private member’s bill to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection, thus allowing war resisters to stay.

On May 25, 2010, Bill C-440 had its second reading in the House of Commons. Passing any private member’s bill is a long process, but resisters and their allies feel this political intervention is necessary; especially since the current minority Conservative government has ignored the last two pro-resister motions and ignoring the will of over half of Canada.

When presenting his bill, Kennedy addressed members of Parliament with this quote, “As John F. Kennedy said, ‘war will be less available when conscientious objectors have the same status as warriors in our society’. Canada is not afraid to be a refuge against a militarism that is unthinking and that does not trade off against the rights and needs of individuals.”

In response, Conservative MP David Sweet (Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale) asked,” How can the member possibly do this to President Barack Obama, who has actually sustained the troops in Iraq? How could the member possibly say that we would give them safe haven when they are shirking the duty and responsibility they volunteered for in the United States military?”

In a May 31, 2010 interview for USA Today, resister Patrick Hart — who arrived in Canada with his family in 2005 after serving almost 10 years of active duty as a sergeant in the US Army — used the interview to address his own people (and Canadians).

“I’ve bled for my country, I’ve sweated for my country, I’ve cried myself to sleep for my country — which is a lot more than some people who are passing judgement on me have done,” he said. “I would rather go sit in prison.”


Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...