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Modern-Day Army Deserters Can’t Count on Canada

“Hell no, we won't go.” Active duty service people, reservists and members of the National Guard are acting on this battle cry from the Vietnam era. The number is not great – it might be larger but for the many service people who have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism and heroin addiction and are kicked out the military with diagnoses like “personality disorder” – but it is large enough to embarrass the military and help to intimidate the Canadian government.

“Hell no, we won't go.”

Active duty service people, reservists and members of the National Guard are acting on this battle cry from the Vietnam era. The number is not great – it might be larger but for the many service people who have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcoholism and heroin addiction and are kicked out the military with diagnoses like “personality disorder” – but it is large enough to embarrass the military and help to intimidate the Canadian government.

Military resisters have two choices: seek conscientious objector (CO) status, or flee to Canada. Surprisingly, according to Bill Galvin, counseling coordinator of the Center for Conscience and War (CCW), the Pentagon admits that 50 percent of applications for CO status are approved. Most of the folks I talked with who help military personnel negotiate the process acknowledge that this number is about right and suggest it would be 70-80 percent if all would-be COs had the help of groups like Galvin's, a pacifist organization that has been in existence since 1940.

How does a service person obtain CO status? Jeff Patterson of Courage to Resist (CTR) walked me through the steps:

  • The first step is to link up with CTR, CCW or GI Hotline;
  • Second, the service person fills out a sheaf of papers;
  • Third, the applicant's commanding officer assigns an officer with the rank of captain or major to oversee the execution of the application;
  • Fourth, the applicant must be interviewed by a chaplain, even though formal religious belief is not required for CO status; ethical or moral opposition to war are equally acceptable. Galvin warned that the visit to the chaplain is the most precarious step in the application process because the chaplain verdict carries a lot of weight in the ultimate decision;
  • Fifth comes a visit to the shrink; it is not known how many applicants are disposed of, but the military would obviously rather kick an applicant out for psychiatric reasons than admit war contravenes religious, ethical or moral principles;
  • Then, the “investigating officer” writes up a report for his commanding officer. The applicant has the opportunity to rebut whatever may be in the report – that is, if he or she is still around to rebut it, because Patterson and Galvin told me some horror stories about the way commanding officers get rid of applicants who do not have a counselor – and, if need be, a lawyer. The application process takes many months, plenty of time to ship the applicant off to a combat zone. Once in the thick of the fighting, the GI may be handed a rifle by his superior officer – but, because s/he applied for conscientious objector status – no ammunition. And, since the GI won't fight, he or she surely doesn't need body armor.

These outrages notwithstanding, most service men and women with expert help do win CO status and an honorable discharge.

And, then, there is the fate of service people who are denied CO status and who face a second, third or fourth deployment – with the possibility of having their legs blown off by an improvised explosive device or a bullet hole courtesy of our allies in the Afghan Army, whom we are training in weaponry. If you don't want to give up your legs or your life, you may determine your only choice is Canada.

For centuries, the “Peaceable Kingdom” to the north has been a sanctuary for Americans in trouble with the prevailing powers. During the American Revolution, United Empire Loyalists – prosperous landowners who sided with the British over Washington's guerrilla army – were given the choice, “Hell or Halifax.” They generally opted for the latter … including some of my own remote ancestors. Then, in the years before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad terminated in Halifax, and to this day, Halifax has the largest black community in Canada, comprised largely of descendants of those slaves. And in the 1960s and '70s, the government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau offered a refuge to tens of thousands of draft resisters and deserters, not to mention anywhere from 50,000 to 125,000 former American citizens who were revolted by the Vietnam War. Canada's new citizens may have been inspired by one of Trudeau's most famous quotes: “Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war … have my complete sympathy and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.”

Canada has changed, or at any rate its governments have. Liberal Premier Jean Chrétien sent several thousand Canadian troops into Afghanistan in 2001; between then and now, the Liberals have gone through one party leader after another, until in 2006, they were defeated by Stephen Harper's hawkish Conservatives. In the process, the Liberals slipped from second place to third, being replaced by the social democratic New Democratic Party, the NDP.

The Liberals did not exactly welcome deserters with open arms, but it remained for the Harper government to deport two of them, Robin Long and Clifford Cornell, back to the United States – where they were court-martialed, convicted and imprisoned. Canadians were outraged; a poll showed that 64 percent of them believed deserters should be allowed to remain … and the Harper government has not deported another American since 2009.

Deportation usually spells about one year in an American jail unless a deserter is foolish enough to talk to the press: in which case he or she is looking at three years behind bars. Those who go AWOL in the US may face as few as 100 days in the brig, but the dishonorable discharge makes future employment difficult. Perhaps these realities explain why deserters under cover are so reluctant to speak to journalists even off the record.

Canadian government policy has been consistently to deny refugee status to deserters, but not to go so far as to deport any more of them – not just because of public opinion, but because of a number of court decisions ordering immigration officials to rehear cases for the purpose of taking into account the deserter's ethical, moral or religious values. Though each court decision applies only to a single case, the sum of cases is probably reining in Harper and his Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney. During the Vietnam War, draft resisters and deserters were granted landed immigrant status – even if there were a warrant for their arrest on the American side. But because of Kenney's insistence upon enforcing the extradition treaty that exists between Canada and the United States, deserters – who are technically criminals – apply for refugee status and immigration officials generally deny their applications.

In contrast to the Conservatives and their friends the Liberals, the NDP is staunchly in favor of harboring deserters in Canada. Olivia Chow, an member of Parliament from Toronto and widow of firebrand NDP leader Jack Layton, introduced two nonbinding resolutions calling on the government to grant refugee status to deserters. Both bills passed; but since they were nonbinding, Harper chose to ignore them. Then, on September 17, 2009, a most liberal of Liberals, Gerard Kennedy, introduced a binding bill. The result: 24 members of his own party, including the hawkish leader, Michael Issikoff, walked out when the roll call was being taken. Despite these disappointments, Chow told me that she is optimistic about the outcome of the next election in 2015 – and if the NDP wins, it will spell a new day for US military resisters' reception in Canada.

Until – or, at the risk of tempting fate, if – the NDP captures Parliament, most deserters in Canada exist in a state of limbo. They may remain in Canada while their application for refugee status is being processed, but, in the highly probable event that the application is rejected, they must either leave Canada or appeal to the courts. They are manifestly not going to leave, and the Harper government – a minority government – is not about to pour more fuel on the fires of anti-war sentiment.

Help IS available to deserters in Canada. The War Resisters Support Campaign provides counseling in working the soldier's way through immigration, and lawyers like Alyssa Manning of the Refugee Law Office slug out the appeals for rejected applications in the courts. And some military resisters are lucky enough to fall in love and marry a Canadian who will allow them spousal sponsorship.

Not all deserters apply for refugee status. Some enter as tourists: others cross one of the back roads along the thousands of miles of open border and disappear in the swim of Canada's multicultural society. But in the Internet age, when virtually every ID card gets swiped, it is hard to create a new identity.

Figures for “out of the closet” deserters range from 100 to 300, with an unknown number living under cover – but it is a hot issue for that majority of Canadians who demand that their country return to its traditional sanctuary status. It is an even hotter issue for American service men and women who have turned on wars, the major casualties of which are civilians. From what Galvin and Patterson told me, a soldier's best odds are probably to link up with CCW or CTR and seek CO status with the help of a skilled counselor. Canada under Stephen Harper does not seem like a very healthy place to go.

I spoke with Stephen N. Xenakis MD, brigadier general United States Army (ret.), who has been crossing the country speaking out against torture by the military and the CIA, and whom I thought might have an interesting take on COs and deserters. He remarked that many military men and women join up as adolescents. But, he said, soldiers evolve after a couple of deployments. What they see on the battlefield changes them and many of them very sincerely become COs; while others just want out. Xenakis sought to remember a quote; we checked it out later and were able to find the attribution. On January 10, 1946 at the Canada Club in Ottawa, Dwight Eisenhower said:

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”


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