Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In Canada once more, U.S. troops fleeing war

Iraq war deserter Kimberly Rivera, with one of her children, attends a war resisters support meeting in Toronto with Charlie Diamond, center, a Vietnam War objector, and Phil McDowell, who went AWOL after being ordered back to Iraq under the Army's "stop-loss" policy.

By Judy Keen - USA Today via Associated Press

TORONTO — Patrick Hart came here in 2005, when he couldn't face a second deployment to Iraq. An Army sergeant with almost 10 years of active duty, he would rather stay in Canada forever than return to a war he thinks is wrong.

Hart, 36, knows that some people think he is a traitor, but he has no regrets. "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 judgment on me have done," he says. "I would rather go sit in prison than go to Iraq."

Deportation, court-martial and prison are imminent threats to Hart and about 200 other U.S. troops seeking sanctuary in Canada. Despite being members of an all-voluntary military, some oppose the war in Iraq so strongly they are willing to leave their country behind — much like Americans of an earlier generation who crossed the border in the 1960s and '70s to avoid serving in Vietnam and built new lives here.

Some of the draft dodgers and deserters of the Vietnam era, most of them now graying Canadian citizens, are helping the young deserters fight legal battles and find work and housing.

"They understand," Hart says.

In Canada today, the political climate and immigration policies are less hospitable for the new deserters than during the Vietnam era. The conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to give asylum or refugee status to those U.S. troops seeking sanctuary here, although Parliament on Tuesday will debate a bill that would let them stay.

Reminiscent of Vietnam

Charlie Diamond was 23 when he fled to Canada from Connecticut in 1968 to avoid going to Vietnam. By then, the war was unpopular in both countries. Americans were marching in the streets in protest, and young men were burning their draft cards.

Now 64 and a Canadian, he is reciprocating for the welcome he found here.

"I want my country once again to be a refuge from militarism," says Diamond, who has joined others who refused to fight in Vietnam — they prefer the term "resisters" — in the War Resisters Support Campaign.

Canada did not support the American invasion of Iraq, and polls show that most Americans also believe the war was a mistake. Today's deserters enlisted "in good conscience," Diamond says, "thinking they were defending America when in fact the whole thing was a lie."

Young men who left the USA to avoid serving in Vietnam were widely accepted by Canadians and a network of fellow war opponents who helped them find shelter and jobs. Under Harper, Canada's government has tightened immigration policies, and every Iraq deserter who has applied for refugee status has been turned down. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says that "being a deserter from voluntary military service in a democracy does not, in any way, meet the ... definition of a refugee."

In March, Kenney proposed more limits: Immigration appeals for people from countries with good human rights records would be heard only by the Federal Court, ending deserters' chances of winning in lower courts, and failed claimants would be deported in a year instead of the current four years.

Most of the Iraq war deserters in Canada are in hiding, says Michelle Robidoux, spokeswoman for the War Resisters Support Campaign. The group is in touch with more than 40 of them. Two others were deported, tried and sentenced to prison in the USA. Some returned home voluntarily.

More than 50,000 Americans old enough for military service came to Canada to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War, says John Hagan, a Northwestern University sociology and law professor who was among them and wrote a 2001 book, Northern Passages, about the exodus. About half remain in Canada today, he says, despite President Carter's 1977 amnesty offer, which applied to draft dodgers but not deserters.

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