War Resisters May Yet Find Sanctuary in Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be set on embracing George Bush and his occupation of Iraq, but on Tuesday, June 3, the Canadian members of Parliament extended their embrace to the war resisters. By a vote of 137-110, the House of Commons called on the Canadian government to "immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members... to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada." The motion also called on the government to "immediately cease any removal or deportation actions against such individuals."

All the opposition parties -- Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Quebecois -- came together to reject the policy of the ruling Conservative Party. The motion, however, is non-binding and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper may choose to ignore it.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, Canada took in over 50,000 draft dodgers and deserters. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared that "Canada should be a refuge from militarism" (prompting John Lennon to say that "if all politicians were like Pierre Trudeau there would be world peace").

Former Liberal Party Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 2003 refused to send Canadian troops to join the war in Iraq because the invasion wasn't backed by the UN, breaking with Canada's closest allies -- the U.S. and U.K.

But Stephen Harper is a different kettle of fish. Coming to power in 2006, his Conservative government has supported U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, including the war in Iraq, and has refused to advocate asylum for U.S. war resisters.

There are an estimated 200 Iraq War resisters in Canada today. Canadian immigration officials and the courts have denied them refugee status, and several currently face deportation, including 25-year-old Corey Glass.

Glass joined the National Guard in 2002 after assurances he would not see combat. But he was later deployed to Iraq, where he served as a military intelligence officer. He has said that witnessing the killing of civilians by U.S. troops turned him against the war.

"What I saw in Iraq convinced me that the war is illegal and immoral. I could not in good conscience continue to take part in it," Glass said. Glass is still on active duty and considered absent without leave. But on May 21, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board denied him refugee status, ruling that he did not face a "well-founded fear of persecution" such as torture or death if he returned to the United States. He is supposed to voluntarily return to the United States by June 12 or be deported. Glass would be the first Iraq War resister to be deported from Canada.

But Tuesday's Parliamentary vote gave Glass and the other resisters hope. Cheering from the balcony of Parliament when the resolution was passed, Glass thanked the Parliamentarians and the many thousands of Canadians who support the resisters. "We hope the will of the Canadian people as expressed by Parliament will be carried out," he said.

The Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign is also celebrating Tuesday's vote. "This is a great victory for the courageous men and women who have come to Canada because they refuse to take part in the illegal, immoral Iraq War, and for the many organizations and individuals who have supported this campaign over the past four years," said Lee Zaslofsky, Coordinator of the War Resisters Support Campaign and a Vietnam War deserter who came to Canada in 1970.

The Support Campaign is now calling for stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Diane Finley to follow the will of the Canadian people and implement this motion. The U.S. group Courage to Resist is collecting letters of support from people all over the United States, and there will be new vigils and delegations to Canadian Embassies and Consulates around the U.S.

The hope is that the momentum from Tuesday's vote will propel the Conservative government to reflect on its position and realize that it is more important to please the Canadian people, who are overwhelming against the Iraq war, than to please a lame-duck U.S. president.

Medea Benjamin, along with Colonel Ann Wright, went to Canada on June 1 to speak at a gathering honoring war resisters. Both had been denied entry into Canada on a previous visit due to misdemeanor convictions from antiwar demonstrations. This time, thanks to media attention, grassroots support and an insistent Member of Parliament, Libby Davies, we were granted a one-day special entry permit to attend the conference. We took it as another sign that a more positive policy may well be in the offing.

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