U.S. war objectors are seeking sanctuary in Canada:
What will be their fate?

by Gerry Condon, September 2004

 The presence of U.S. war resisters in Canada is being widely reported in the international media.  Just look on the websites of Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, the first two U.S. soldiers to seek refugee status in Canada rather than go to war in Iraq (www.jeremyhinzman.net and www.brandonhughey.org)

 Hinzman, a 25-year-old from South Dakota, and Hughey, a 20-year-old from west Texas, have been interviewed by scores of media in Canada and around the globe.  Increasingly, the U.S. media is acknowledging their presence in Canada, prompting others caught up in George Bush's war to look northward.  But what is the reality facing war resisters who come to Canada?  What would you advise a soldier who is looking at all his/her options?

 Is Canada a viable option for U.S. war resisters?

 During the Vietnam War, upwards of 50,000 U.S. draft resisters and military deserters found refuge in Canada.  It wasn't only the unpopularity of the war that made this possible.  In the 60's and early 70's, Canada had perhaps the most open immigration policy in the world.  You could show up at the Canadian border with a job offer and be granted "landed immigrant" status on the spot.  Or you could decide to apply for immigrant status after arriving in Canada.  In 1969, Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, instructed immigration authorities were not to discriminate against applicants who may not have fulfilled their military obligations in other countries.

 Much of this has changed.  Due to a tightened job market, immigration to Canada is now much more restricted.  Prospective immigrants must apply from outside Canada and await an answer, a requirement not tailor-made for those on the run from the military.

 But it is still possible for war objectors to come to Canada, as Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey are demonstrating.  They each went AWOL from the U.S. Army after receiving orders for Iraq.  Hinzman arrived in Canada in early January 2004 with his wife and 1-year-old son.  Hughey arrived two months later, in March 2004.  Both young men drove across the border as tourists, answering routine questions as to the purpose of their entry.  Jeremy said he was visiting "friends," in part a reference to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, with which Jeremy is associated.  Brandon said he was coming to watch a professional basketball game.  He watched it on TV after crossing the border.

 Applying for Refugee Status Brings Immediate Protections in Canada

 Unlike their Vietnam-era predecessors, Jeremy and Brandon cannot easily apply for immigration from within Canada (rare exceptions are made).  Instead, both young men have applied for refugee status. Their claims are pending before Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which is semi-autonomous from the government.  Upon applying for refugee status in Canada, they automatically came under the protections this process provides.  They are allowed to remain in Canada until the IRB can decide whether they would face persecution in their home country because of their religious or political beliefs. Refugee claimants who do not have financial resources may even be granted work permits.

 It is virtually unprecedented for Canada to grant refugee status to someone from the United States, which it considers a democracy and its closest and most powerful ally.  "But this is an unprecedented case," answers Jeffry House, lawyer for Hinzman and Hughey.  House came to Canada as a draft resister during the Vietnam War.  He is a highly respected Toronto attorney, with 15 years of immigration law experience and 10 years as a judge on Ontario's Human Rights Court. He also practices criminal law.  (jeffryhouse@hotmail.com)

Jeffry House and Jeremy Hinzman have put together a strong case for Jeremy's refugee claim.  It is based on Jeremy's conscientious objection to fighting in war, and the U.S. Army's wrongful denial of Jeremy's request for non-combat status.  Hinzman's claim to refugee status is also based on the illegality of the U.S. war against Iraq. It cites the Geneva Conventions on War and the Nuremberg Principles; they maintain it is a soldier's obligation to refuse illegal orders, and to refuse to participate in war crimes.  Jeremy Hinzman's refugee claims also points to the case of a Russian soldier who was granted refugee status in Great Britain after refusing to fight in Chechnya. It cites the UN Handbook on Refugees, which includes in its refugee definitions, soldiers who refuse to participate in wars that have been "condemned by the international community as contrary to the basic rules of human conduct."

 A key question that the Immigration and Refugee Board will have to answer is whether the jail sentences surely awaiting war resisters in the U.S. would amount to "persecution for their political or religious beliefs," as outlined in the UN Handbook on Refugees.  Jeffry House gives an unequivocal affirmative on this point.

 "To imprison someone for doing the right thing and refusing to participate in war crimes is persecution, pure and simple," says House.

 Jeremy Hinzman's hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board, which was scheduled for July 7, turned into a "pre-hearing conference" in which the presiding officer, Brian Goodman, carefully clarified the process, and decided issues raised by the many media requests to attend the hearing.  The public and the media can attend the hearing, but no filming or photography will be allowed while the hearing is in session.  The hearing was rescheduled for three full days, October 20-22, 2004.

 The Canadian government has intervened in the hearing, as they do in about 5% of refugee claim cases, usually to oppose them.  Although the government has not yet revealed its stance, it maintains that the illegality of the war should not be at issue.  Canada did not send troops to Iraq, but does have troops in Afghanistan.

 Immigration Minister Judy Sgro recently announced that she wants to "streamline" the refugee application process by eliminating alternative courses of action for those who are denied.  She also called on Canadian churches to end their practice of providing sanctuary to refugees they believe are being wrongfully deported by the government.  These moves have alarmed churches and refugee advocates, who are pushing for a merit-based appeal process.  The current appeal process looks for procedural errors but not does not review decisions or allow new information to be presented.

 Jeremy Hinzman may have to wait several months beyond his October hearing before he will receive a decision from the Immigration and Refugee Board.  If he is denied refugee status, he plans to appeal. About 10% of denied claims are accepted for appeal.  The appeal process could take as long as two years or more, during which time Jeremy would continue to enjoy the protections of Canadian refugee law, in effect, at least a temporary alternative to war or prison. This said, the refugee and appeal processes can be stressful, given that the outcome is uncertain, and that it is therefore difficult to plan one's life and livelihood.

 Other Options Can Be Pursued If Refugee Status Is Not Granted

 If Jeremy and/or Brandon are granted refugee status, a significant precedent will have been set.  Even so, war resisters would be considered for refugee status on a case-by-case basis. The War Resister Support Campaign is mobilizing political support across Canada for the war resisters along with a network that can help with housing and practical needs.  The Campaign is calling on the Canadian government to grant war objectors some form of sanctuary, whether or not they are granted refugee status.  (See their online petition at www.resisters.ca.)

 "Canadians do not want to send war objectors to prison in the U.S. for refusing to fight in a blatantly illegal war that has outraged all the entire world," says Carolyn Egan, president of the Steelworker Toronto Area Council and herself a Vietnam-era immigrant from the U.S.  The Canadian Labour Council, the equivalent of the AFL-CIO, has endorsed the War Resister Support Campaign, as have many prominent Canadians.

 If Hinzman and Hughey are ultimately denied refugee status in Canada, they will not have exhausted their legal bids to remain in Canada. They may still petition the government to remain in Canada on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds.  By this time they may be well established in Canada, one of the criteria for granting this residency.  Or they could ask for permission to apply from within Canada for immigrant status, due to "special circumstances" (if they were to apply from the U.S., they could be arrested and imprisoned for desertion).

 If all of his attempts to remain in Canada were ultimately rebuffed, a war objector with a valid U.S. passport would be able to travel to a third country, rather than be deported to the United States.  Or, theoretically, he could decide to return to the United States and "face the music" in a different postwar political climate.  But like 30,000 Vietnam-era war resisters who have become Canadian citizens, neither Jeremy nor Brandon appear anxious to return to the U.S.  As expatriate actor Steven Bush puts it in his one-man show on coming to Canada:  "How can I put it it's better here." (stevenbushtheatre@yahoo.ca)

 It is strongly advised that before leaving the U.S., war resisters apply for a U.S. passport if they don't already have one.  In 1969, this writer went AWOL from the U.S. Army after refusing orders to Vietnam.  I secured a copy of my birth certificate, applied for a U.S. passport, and left for Canada the same day, lest I was somehow discovered in the process.  But my passport was mailed to friends in New York City, who promptly mailed it to me in Montreal.  That turned out to be a godsend.  Exiled war objectors without passports often had difficulty traveling, needing exit and re-entry visas from the country where they were living, as well as visas to the countries they were hoping to visit.

 Stress of Exile Is Not for Everyone

 U.S. soldiers looking for alternatives to war or prison should not expect that going to Canada will be an easy process, legally or personally. They may be leaving the U.S. for a long time, during which they will be unable to return for visits.  (During the Vietnam War, it was common for FBI agents to haunt the funerals of family members of war resisters.) Ideally, they will have funds to support themselves, and to pay some legal expenses, at least for their first few months in Canada.  It will take some time before they are able to receive work permits.

 A nascent network is developing in Toronto and across Canada to help antiwar refugees find housing, food, and other forms of support, but some war resisters may find themselves accessing overburdened community services. As much as possible, war resisters need to think in advance about where in Canada they will "land" and what resources they can take with them to support themselves.

 War resisters heading for Canada should also prepare themselves psychologically.  They need to be serious, mature, and ready for a long, uncertain process.  At this early stage of the legal and political struggle on their behalf, they should anticipate considerable media exposure and be able to show a positive, conscientious example to Canadians considering their fate.

 In summary, it can be said:

 1.  War objectors who come to Canada and apply for refugee status will automatically be granted protection under Canada's refugee claim process.  They will be allowed to remain in Canada at least as long as their claim is being heard (months to years).

 2.  Jeremy Hinzman's and Brandon Hughey's long-term prospects for remaining in Canada are quite good, though not guaranteed.  If they are denied refugee status, they can pursue other avenues to remain in Canada.

 3.  If ultimately denied residency in Canada, war objectors with US passports may travel to a third country, rather than be deported to the U.S.

 4.  There is considerable support in Canada for U.S. war objectors; a growing network of supporters is mobilizing politically and organizing to provide for housing and practical needs.

 5.  Canada is a safe haven from where U.S. war resisters can speak out against the war to an international community interested in hearing what they have to say.

 There Are Many Ways to Resist an Unjust War

 Going AWOL and "underground" in the United States or seeking sanctuary in other countries are time-honored traditions for peace-loving soldiers. But there are many ways to resist an immoral war.  Staying out of the military in the first place is advisable, although there is a noble tradition of resistance from within the military itself.  GI newspapers, coffeehouses, and even mutinies helped to end the Vietnam War.

 There are also a number of ways to seek a discharge from the military. A conscientious objector discharge, or even non-combat status within the military, can be difficult to achieve because it is often arbitrarily denied.  Such arbitrary denials can be appealed to federal courts, however, and have been successfully overturned there. Military discharges can also be sought on grounds of family hardship or for medical reasons, including mental health, among others.

 Even submitting to prison sentences, as did Marine Reservist Stephen Funk (6 months and a Bad Conduct Discharge) and Florida National Guardsman Camilo Mejia (1 year and a Bad Conduct Discharge), is an honorable alternative to killing or being killed in an unjust war. Their relatively mild sentences (the death penalty is still on the books as the maximum penalty for desertion during wartime) may be preferable to indefinite years in exile for some war objectors.

 So, clearly, seeking refugee status in Canada is only one among a number of options for U.S. war resisters.  It is important that they learn all of their options and consider them carefully.  Evidence that objectors have exhausted their legal options in the U.S. may also become a consideration when they apply for refugee status in Canada.

 Well-versed counselors are available at the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of nonprofit, non-governmental organizations who provide information to members of the military about discharges, grievance and complaint procedures, and other civil rights.  Counselors will inform war objectors of all their options and allow them to make their own decisions. The GI Rights Hotline can be reached at their toll free number, 800-394-9544, or through their website, www.girights.objector.org.

 Although it is possible to apply for refugee status at the Canadian border, there is always the danger at border crossings of arbitrary treatment by individual authorities.  It would be preferable to enter Canada as a visitor and apply from within.  In either case, war resisters should seek legal advice before attempting to cross the border.  The law office of Jeffry House, who has the most current experience in representing U.S. war objectors in Canada, is located in downtown Toronto, Ontario.  He can be reached by telephone at 416-926-9402 x152 or by email at JeffryHouse@hotmail.com. (Note spelling of "Jeffry.")

 Whoever said that fleeing from war or one's own country would be easy?  Historically, though, many can attest that finding a new home, whether temporary or permanent, is preferable to going to war or to prison.  Jeremy Hinzman is riding his bicycle around Toronto this summer, with his son Liam, now two, on the back.  He and his Vietnamese-American wife, Nga, frequently socialize with the many new friends they have made in Canada. "We have a life here," he says.  War resisters who come to Canada can expect, at a minimum, to find a temporary safe haven, a viable alternative to fighting in an unjust war.

Gerry Condon deserted from the U.S. Army in 1969 after refusing orders to Vietnam.  He lived for three years in Sweden and three years in Canada before returning to the U.S. in 1975, campaigning for amnesty for war resisters.  He is director of Project Safe Haven and the Right to Resist network, "resisters of past wars standing with war resisters today." For more information or to support his work with war resisters in Canada, email him at right2resist2004@yahoo.com