Conscientious objectors given a lifeline by private member's bill

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An Iraq War protest in San Fransisco in 2008. Photo: Alex Robinson/Flickr

When "Kevin" joined the U.S. army nine years ago, he never imagined he'd be living as a fugitive in Canada today. In 2006, the U.S. Iraq war resister drove halfway across the United States, boarded a plane for Calgary and convinced a border agent to let him in. He's been hiding ever since.

"I don't go out to places and hang out and just strike up conversations with strangers," he says, sitting on his living-room couch. "There's too much on the line."

If caught, Kevin -- not his real name -- could be deported to the U.S. and face jail time for deserting a war he considers to be immoral.

"I'm not the only one who thinks the war is illegal," he says.

In 2003, Canada refused to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq -- a war the United Nations did not sanction.

According to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when a war is deemed illegal, conscientious objectors (those who abstain from war on religious, moral or ethical grounds) can seek refuge elsewhere if they face repercussions at home.

But the Canadian government sent a different message to war deserters. Last month, the Harper government sent an "operational bulletin" to immigration officers telling them to flag American war resisters who seek refuge in Canada. The bulletin states that "desertion is an offence in Canada" and that war refugees could be prosecuted under the National Defence Act. The new directive could make it harder for war resisters to become permanent residents.

"I think it's kind of funny that they can tell Immigration to treat every war resister as a criminal, but you can't argue the legality of the occupation of Iraq," says Kevin.

On Sept. 27, the House of Commons will debate Bill C-440, a private member's bill that would stop the deportation of U.S. Iraq war resisters and give them eligibility for permanent residency in Canada, provided they pass criminal and medical checks. War resisters must also prove they're conscientious objectors to qualify.

Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy says he tabled Bill C-440 because parliament should reflect the will of Canadians.

In 2008, an Angus-Reid poll found that 64 per cent of Canadians want Iraq war resisters to be allowed to stay in Canada.

"When there's a discretionary decision like this to be made, it shouldn't just be the minority decision of the government of the day," says Kennedy. "However, the [Harper] government refuses to respect that."

Harper's latest instructions are keeping in line with the Conservative government's attitude toward war deserters. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney has referred to them as "bogus refugees." In 2008 and 2009, the House of Commons passed two motions calling on the Canadian government to allow conscientious objectors of illegal wars to remain in Canada, but both non-binding motions have been ignored. After the first motion, the Harper government deported war resisters Robin Long and Clifford Cornell. Both were jailed in the United States.

Kennedy says the government has prejudiced the ability of U.S. war resisters to get a fair hearing from immigration tribunals by speaking publicly against them.

In July, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in favour of U.S. war resister Jeremy Hinzman, whose application for permanent residency in Canada was denied. The three-judge decision concluded that the immigration officer in charge of Hinzman's case failed to consider his "strong moral and religious beliefs" when she denied his application, and therefore the denial was "significantly flawed" and "unreasonable."

About 50 U.S. Iraq war resisters are waiting to find out if they'll be granted permanent residency in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds or through their Canadian spouses. Kevin isn't one of them. A few months ago, Kevin downloaded the immigration forms to apply for spousal citizenship, but he and his Canadian fiancée have yet to send them in. Unlike the others who are waiting for their applications to move through the system, Kevin has spent the past four years living under the radar.

Kevin's story

It was an unusually cold morning in a small town in the southern United States when Kevin's car broke down. An army recruiter pulled over and offered him a ride to work. Kevin climbed in and listened to his pitch.

Working in the service industry at a job he hated, Kevin was an easy sell; the army would pay his college debt.

"I was sold - no ifs, ands or buts," he says.

Three weeks later, Kevin was on a bus to his first duty station.

"When I joined the army, I thought for sure there was no way in hell I was going to war," he says.

The night before he was deployed, Kevin reassured his mother he wouldn't be sent to Afghanistan. He was wrong.

For nearly a year, Kevin was stationed at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base and later volunteered to go to Iraq.

In both war zones, he says the troops weren't given adequate supplies.

"Basically they gave us enough ammo that if we got into a firefight we would have a minute and a half to get fire superiority or we were pretty much sitting ducks," he says.

In Iraq, the only thing protecting the soldiers at times was a piece of plywood stuffed between the rear of a vehicle and sandbags.

Kevin told himself over and over "the army knows best." But eventually he started questioning what he saw: hooded Afghani prisoners being dealt hits to the head with rifle butts; U.S.-backed warlords paying locals $2 per week for their labour; soldiers feeding Iraqi prisoners pork rinds for laughs; and stray dogs in Iraq being used for target practice. Walking among the debris from blown-up buildings, Kevin cringed when he saw children's toys mixed in with the rubble.

"Don't get me wrong, after 9/11, I was sold -- hook, line and sinker -- that it was the right thing to do," he says. "Everyone wanted revenge; I was no different. You go over there and see what's going on and as much as we say we're helping people, I don't see where the help is. To me, it seems like we're perpetuating the system we're [meant to be] replacing."

With six years left on his contract, and expecting to be sent back to Iraq, Kevin decided to flee. He'd met a Canadian woman through an online dating site and had asked her to marry him. Once in Canada, he destroyed his cell phone so he couldn't be traced, stopped checking his e-mail, and didn't speak to his family in the United States for two years. A few years after moving in with his fiancée, the couple had two, young, Canadian-born daughters.

A day in the life

Sitting in his Calgary home, four years after going AWOL, Kevin has mixed feelings about leaving. He feels sickened by the behaviour of the U.S. troops and describes the army as "one big fraternity with guns." On the other hand, he and his fiancée are living in fear.

Each morning, Kevin's fiancée wakes up and wonders if today is the day that Kevin gets taken away.

"I'm afraid almost every day," she says, fighting back tears.

Her mind races: "What's going to happen if they take him away? Are they going to take him away? Are they going to take him away in front of the girls?"

Kevin's two-year-old daughter is blowing bubbles in the backyard with her mom. She doesn't understand what's going on, but Kevin worries she can sense the tension.

"I cringe sometimes at the idea that maybe the stress that mommy and daddy have goes down to our kids," he says.

When Kevin came back from Afghanistan, he suffered from insomnia, sleeping only 45 minutes a night, and was diagnosed with depression. He wonders if he has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but can't afford to go to the doctor without health insurance.

Kevin's fiancée says they are coping. The sole income-earner in the family, she works 16-hour days - and then some. If the kids need milk, only she can drive to the store to get it. Kevin doesn't have a driver's license and won't risk taking public transit. Even being at home has proven to be risky. He points to a fresh scab on his foot where he caught his pinky toe on the corner of a wall and split the skin open between his toes. The wound is a quarter-inch deep. "I had to sit here and just shove a bunch of Polysporin and gauze in it and tape it up and see if anyone knew a doctor that wouldn't mind me coming, because I don't really have the $300 to go to a medical centre," he says.


When Kevin submits his application for spousal citizenship, he'll alert the government of his whereabouts. He'll also be the first Calgary-based U.S. Iraq war resister to come forward.

Living in the Canadian city that was most on side with the invasion of Iraq, Kevin doesn't anticipate a warm welcome.

Some people will say Kevin deserves to be deported, that he's a coward or a traitor.

"You can say what you want," says Kevin. "As far as I'm concerned, the reasons behind the Iraqi war have never come to pass."

"If they could walk a mile in his shoes, would they?" says Kevin's fiancée. "It's a tough life when you give up everything to do something you believe [in] and then be betrayed by it."

Even Kevin's in-laws aren't fully on side. When Kevin's fiancée asked her sister to collect signatures for a petition in support of Bill C-440, she returned the forms saying she was only helping for the children's sake.

"So it's pretty hard to tell people," says Kevin's fiancée, "and the people that you do tell, you always wonder, could they come back and use that against you?"

If Bill C-440 passes second reading, the Bill will be sent to Committee and return to the House for a third reading and vote.

Kevin's fiancée says she'd be "thrilled."

But the vote is expected to be tight.

The Conservatives are planning to vote on block against the bill, says Kennedy, who needs as much support as he can get from the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. He's encouraging constituents to call or write their member of parliament.

"It's close enough that a few people either way can make a heck of a difference," he says.

Jenn Ruddy is a freelance journalist living in Toronto.

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