American Activists, Draft Dodgers Seek Refuge in Canada

Monday Magazine | July 1, 2004
When the United States invaded Iraq, Ann Wilson knew it was time to leave. She was a community organizer working for nonprofits and youth groups in a small town near Santa Barbara, California, and during the weeks leading up to the war, she’d been distributing leaflets criticizing the Bush administration at a local farmers’ market. But when the bombing began, she was told to leave. And when she protested, some of her neighbours got ugly.

“We were spit at, we were called ‘traitors’,” she says. “It was too much.” She and her husband, a building contractor, considered their options. “We kept saying, ‘We’re moving to Canada!’ It was a joke, but as things became more serious, we became more serious.”

So last September the Wilsons sold their house, moved to Salt Spring Island, and applied for permanent residency in Canada. (They haven’t got it yet, so their names have been changed for this story.) “It was a big deal to say, ‘I’m leaving’,” Wilson says, because her family’s been in the States since confederation. “But I’m glad I did.”

Over the past couple of months, as the “war on terror” has spun out of control, articles have started appearing in liberal American media outlets like Utne and Alternet, debating the merits of leaving the United States and going into political exile (even Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore says he’s moving to Canada if George W. Bush is re-elected)—and now, it seems, some Americans are actually doing it. It’s hard to say how many, because Immigration Canada hasn’t released its numbers for 2003. But if you ask B&B owners and realtors, the trend is apparent: one realtor told Monday that half his current American clients cite the Bush administration as a reason why they’re looking for property in Victoria.

Immigration consultants hear this, too. “The primary motivation is lifestyle, but there definitely is an undercurrent of political motivation as well,” says James Norris, a former diplomat who’s provided immigration advice in Victoria since 1982. “Of the Americans I’ve worked for in the last year or two, many are Democrats, and they’re firmly against George Bush and the war in Iraq.”

Georgia Ireland fits Norris’s profile: she worked in information technology in San Francisco, became “appalled” by events in the U.S., took early retirement, and moved to Victoria late last year. “I had it good. But I like the values here,” she says. “You can see where your taxes are going, to health care and schools instead of the military.”

Ireland got citizenship because her mother was Canadian, and the Wilsons have university degrees and experience at skilled jobs, so they’re likely to get permanent residency here too. But it’s difficult for young Americans to make similar claims —especially, for example, for young U.S. soldiers, many of whom joined the army to get job training and a paid university education in the first place. Instead, their only option, aside from marrying a Canadian, is to claim refugee status here—and because of the war in Iraq, some are doing exactly that.

“I signed up to defend my country, not to be a pawn in some sort of political ideology,” says Jeremy Hinzman, 25, who was in Victoria recently to speak to peace groups. Hinzman joined the U.S. Army in January 2001, enticed by its promises of up to $50,000 for college. But he was horrified by basic training designed to turn recruits into mindless killers, and he started attending a Quaker church. He claimed he was a conscientious objector, but his application was refused and he was sent to Afghanistan. He returned home, but when his unit was deployed again this January, to Iraq, he fled to Toronto with his Vietnamese wife and son, and claimed that he is a political refugee—facing at least five years in prison in the U.S., or possibly the death penalty for deserting during wartime.

There will be more like him. So far, only one other U.S. soldier has claimed refugee status in Canada, but the U.S. Army is stretched so thin it’s continually extending the tours of duty of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and morale is suffering. Jeffry House, Hinzman’s lawyer, says 60 U.S. soldiers have contacted him for advice; several have told him that they’ve already deserted and are planning to come to this country. If the U.S. reinstates the draft—which many military analysts say will be necessary by early 2005 if the U.S. hopes to maintain the numbers of troops it has in Iraq—the numbers of young Americans seeking refuge in Canada will explode.

How should Canada respond? In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when as many as 50,000 American men came here to escape service in Vietnam, they could get landed immigrant status right at the Canadian border, which is impossible to do today. No one has ever successfully claimed to be a political refugee from the United States, and it’s unlikely a Liberal or Conservative government would rewrite the definition and risk incurring the wrath of our biggest trading partner.

There is a solution, however. Canada’s Immigration Act allows the government to grant landed immigrant status to newcomers for “humanitarian and compassionate” reasons, even if their refugee claims fail—and if Canadians pressure the government to use that discretion, it could let deserters and draft-dodgers stay in the country.

It’s happened before. According to John Hagan’s book Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada (Harvard University Press, 2001), even after Pierre Trudeau became prime minister in 1968, the government waffled on the status of the arriving Americans—until the NDP, the United Church, newspaper editorials, and hundreds of letters to federal ministers demanded that Canada refuse to act as America’s “military policeman” and admit all deserters and draft-dodgers. A year later, Trudeau told church leaders, “Those who make the conscientions 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.”

Very soon we may find out whether Canada is as politically courageous as it was 35 years ago.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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