Keep Canada's doors open to war resisters

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"I should have been in New Orleans, not in Iraq." This was the conclusion that Corey Glass, former sergeant in the US National Guard, came to after several months in Balad, Iraq.

Glass, 25, joined the National Guard in Indiana in 2002 on the understanding that he would be involved in responding to national emergencies. His recruiter assured him that the only way he would be involved in combat was if the US was invaded by foreign troops.

Instead in 2005 he was shipped to Camp Anaconda where as a military intelligence specialist he provided support to "Operation Iraqi Freedom". What he witnessed led him to conclude the war was based on lies and was illegal.

While he was deployed to Iraq, residents of Louisiana were left to deal with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Thousands, primarily African-Americans, lost their lives. In an echo of Muhammad Ali, an anti-war placard at a Washington rally read, "No Iraqis left me on a roof to die."

The turning point for Glass was watching a video of Iraqi children saying they wanted to grow up to be suicide bombers because the US had killed their parents. That was when he tried to quit the military. His commander told him he was suffering from stress and ordered him back to the US on leave, where he went AWOL. After months of hiding out in Indiana, he googled "deserter" and found the War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada. He arrived in Toronto in August 2006, where he sought refugee status.

Corey is part of a growing number of US troops who are refusing to deploy or re-deploy to Iraq in opposition to the war. In 2007 close to 5,000 US troops deserted. This figure is up 42 percent over 2006. An estimated 200 of these war resisters are currently in Canada.

The reason for this is not simply proximity. During the Vietnam War tens of thousands of young Americans who refused the draft or deserted from the US military came to Canada.

This history, along with Canada not sending troops to Iraq, has been the basis for many people's decision to travel north. But while polls show a majority of Canadians support war resisters staying in Canada, successive Canadian governments have been less than welcoming.

A battle is now in full swing to determine whether resisters will be allowed to stay in Canada or be sent home to face prison. On 14 July a federal court judge ruled that Robin Long, a tank driver from Boise, Idaho, had not proven that he faced "irreparable harm" if returned to the US. Robin was deported and on 22 August was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment and a dishonourable discharge.

On 13 August the first US Iraq war resister to seek refuge in Canada, Jeremy Hinzman, was ordered by the Conservative government to leave. In response he said, "I'm disappointed, but I think that every soldier that has refused to fight in Iraq has done a good thing and I'm not ashamed."

But there have also been important steps forward. On 3 June, Canada's parliament adopted a motion in favour of allowing conscientious objectors who refuse to participate in wars not sanctioned by the United Nations to stay in Canada.

All three opposition parties in parliament voted unanimously in support of the motion, which also called on the government to cease deportation proceedings against these war resisters.

This was a historic breakthrough, despite the refusal of the minority Conservative government to implement it. But the motion's impact is already being felt. On 4 July, in the first positive legal decision in the resisters' favour, the Federal Court ruled that US war resister Joshua Key should be granted a new hearing at the Refugee Board.

In his decision the judge stated, "Officially condoned military misconduct falling well short of a war crime may support a claim to refugee protection."

A few days later the Federal Court ruled that a deportation order against Corey Glass should be stayed pending a judicial review of his case.

These legal decisions, along with the other developments, are the product of intense organising and mobilising. The fight for asylum has created a breathing space for US war resisters. In his book, The Deserter's Tale, former US soldier Joshua Key, who spent seven months in Fallujah and Ramadi, stated, "I will never apologise for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq."

Fighting to keep Canada's doors open to Iraq war resisters has provided a renewed impetus to the anti-war movement. With growing numbers of Canadian soldiers deploying to Afghanistan, and growing casualties, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see the potential impact of soldiers saying no to endless war.