The struggles through Canadian courts and prisons by young American soldiers opposed to the war in Iraq has naturally raised the memory of another time, the arrival in our midst of thousands of young men resisting the draft and Vietnam War.
Forty years ago, American conscription created a lottery that meant a generation -- my exact contemporaries -- did not have the luxury I had of expressing political opinions without having to disobey the law. Many were able to get their requirement of service deferred. Some enlisted and then deserted, others just came to Canada as visitors and never left.
It was a different time then. Immigrants were not legally barred from applying for landed immigrant status from within Canada, and immigration officials were given much discretion in allowing young men through without asking too many questions about draft status or military service. That is not to say that decisions were taken lightly.
At the time, those coming over as draft dodgers and deserters knew they would not be able to return home without facing arrest. It would be years before a general amnesty would allow that to happen, and it applied just to the draft dodgers; deserters are still arrested if they return.
There was a sense of a deep inner conflict in each decision. Families left behind, parents bewildered, loyalties and values divided, often in ways that proved impossible to resolve.
The Pearson and Trudeau governments kept the border open, despite U.S. objections, and refused to allow Canadian border officials to become agents of American military policy. It strained the relationship -- as did public statements by Canadian officials about the war itself -- but it did not break it.
The Vietnam generation has made an extraordinary contribution to the life of the country. In every walk of life, in every profession, in every community, Canada is a better place because we decided to become a place of refuge for those seeking a different political home, even those who were defying American military law to do so.
How different life seems today. The young Americans and their families who have come to Canada because of their refusal to obey military orders in Iraq are being given no quarter or refuge by the Harper government. Robin Long is being held in a prison cell in British Columbia. Corey Glass hopes for some solace from a renewed application for refugee status after a judgment of the Federal Court.
What's changed? One argument is that the fact that the U.S., like Canada, now has a volunteer army. There is no draft, no conscription, so young women and men who sign up have no excuse, the argument goes. The war in Iraq was authorized by Congress, and that ends the argument. If you're unhappy with what the army is making you do, tough luck. You joined up, face the music.
The second argument is that after 9/11 we're all in this together. We didn't send troops to Iraq, but we are together in Afghanistan, and the depth of this alliance and common cause is such that we can't provide safe haven any more to war resisters. They're not refugees because they won't face undue harm or persecution for their views, just the consequences of breaking the law.
Yet there's something missing here. As in Vietnam, Canadian and American positions on the war in Iraq are quite different. Canada made it very clear that it did not think there was justification under international law for the invasion. There were no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was not an ally of Osama bin Laden. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the UN at the time, made it clear that the invasion was "illegal."
A soldier who is told to fight faces a conflict of values and loyalties. His president has told him things that he later discovers are quite untrue. His congressman and senator say they were misled, and would not have authorized the invasion had they been given accurate information. He realizes that what he's being asked to do is in no way authorized by international law. Political support for the mission is drying up. Hence the refusal to serve, or even the refusal to follow orders, or the refusal to show up for reserve duty when the call-up comes once again.
Putting things in perspective, the flow across the border -- in Vietnam times more than 50,000 strong -- is a trickle today. There is no draft, and it is a different time.
But the claim of conscience is as strong today as it was then. The people who are returned will face harassment, opprobrium, a criminal record. Their lives will be changed forever, and not for the better.
There is provision in our system to allow the minister of immigration to exercise discretion "on humanitarian and compassionate grounds" to those even denied refugee status to stay legally in Canada as permanent residents.
Canadian immigration law has changed -- people can no longer apply for landing from within the country -- but more than that our government's attitude has changed. And here lies the core of the matter. Last month Parliament expressed its view that those resisting a war Canada itself sees as unlawful should be permitted asylum and residence in the country.
But the Harper government takes a different view. Our prisons become an extension of American martial law. The same government that won't lift a finger for Omar Khadr, that won't raise its voice on behalf of those Canadians on death row in the U.S., acts more and more like a Republican farm team than a sovereign government.
The price for this is very high. Young people of conscience, judgment and talent are denied the chance to make Canada their home. We as a country are denied the chance to benefit from their joining us as members of our family. And our own sense of capacity and dignity is diminished once again by a government that is less than what Canadians need and deserve.
Bob Rae is the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre and the party's foreign affairs critic.
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