Conscientious objectors from the U.S. military who are seeking refuge in Canada are rightly confused about the rules when it comes to being able to stay. The stories of Pfc. Robin Long and Pfc. Joshua Key won’t clarify much but they do provide some clues.
Long and Key have much in common. Both joined the U.S. Army looking to better their lives; both deserted their posts and fled to Canada; both sought refugee status.
But Long, currently in custody at Fort Carlson military base in Colorado, is the first U.S. conscientious objector to be sent back from Canada, while Key sits at home in Saskatchewan, awaiting a new hearing on his claim for refugee status.
“It didn’t sit right in my stomach,” Long told the Boise Weekly in May 2006, about going to Iraq. “I morally couldn’t do it.”
Long, 25, fled to Canada in June 2005 after being ordered to Iraq earlier that year. He told the media and Canada’s Federal Court that despite joining the Army at age 19 and planning on a career in the military, he decided, based on conversations with soldiers returning from Iraq, that “when these people came back and were telling these horrific stories and our superiors were egging people on, some people were actually volunteering to go over there and it just seemed like justified homicide. It didn’t seem right to me.”
Long argued that if Canada returned him to the United States, he would be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and be denied justice.
On July 17 – after hearings before a Refugee Determination Board and an unsuccessful appeal to the Federal Court in Vancouver – Canadian officials deported Long, handing him over to U.S. authorities in Washington state.
Key, 30, fled to Canada in March 2005 while on a two-week leave from a tour of duty in Iraq. He says he joined the military in 2002 in order to make a living and support his wife and children. In his autobiography, A Deserter’s Tale, Key recounts that his recruiter promised him he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq when he enlisted.
When he applied for refugee status, Key told the refugee board – according to transcripts used in the Federal Court appeal – that his role in Iraq was “to blow open the doors with explosives and then to assist in both securing the premises and detaining the adult male occupants.”
Key also alleged during his hearing that “during these searches, he witnessed several instances of unjustified abuse, unwarranted detention, humiliation and looting by fellow soldiers, much of which he said was ignored by his superior officers.”
Key argued that to be sent back to Iraq would mean being forced to commit war crimes. The refugee board rejected that assertion and denied his claim. But Canada’s Federal Court ruled that while Key couldn’t prove he was being ordered to commit war crimes, he could make a legitimate argument that he was being forced to violate the Geneva Conventions, and that alone could qualify him for refugee status.
Some observers in Canada, including Key’s lawyer, Jeffry House – who himself fled to Canada in the ’60s to escape the Vietnam War – explain that a conscientious objector who has been in Iraq has a stronger case than one who leaves before serving in the war. In other words, being forced to participate in an unjust war is different from fearing that the U.S. justice system is flawed.
Says House: “The Key decision is of use to soldiers who have their boots on the ground and are ordered to commit acts [that] violate their consciences, and also violate international norms.”
Canadian pollster Angus Reid recently found that 64 percent of Canadians want military deserters to be allowed to remain in Canada. In June, the Canadian Parliament passed a non-binding motion urging the government to follow the precedent set during the Vietnam War, when Canada allowed 50,000 draft resisters and conscientious objectors to settle there.
But the Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has rejected the parliamentary motion and ignored the poll numbers, arguing against a parallel between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War because soldiers today are volunteers.
“People do not join with their eyes closed,” Laurie Hawn, a Conservative member of Parliament and a former lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Air Force, said at a June 3 House of Commons debate. “If they do, then they have their own problems.”
Roughly 200 U.S. war resisters in Canada are awaiting word on their applications for refugee status, and possibly twice as many are in hiding in the country, according to the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC), a group of former U.S. deserters who stayed in Canada even after the Carter administration granted them amnesty.
The WRSC is mounting a campaign throughout Canada to clarify the confusion left by the court rulings.
In a July 14 statement, Bob Ages, chair of Vancouver’s WRSC, said: “We are calling on Canadians to take immediate action to tell the government that its attempts to overturn Canada’s longstanding tradition of sanctuary will be met with challenges everywhere.”