When Lee Zaslofsky joined the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC) in April 2004, the campaign was barely two months old, launched shortly after an American deserter from the Iraq War named Jeremy Hinzman arrived in Canada seeking asylum that January.
Toronto lawyer Jeffry House agreed to take Hinzman's case, Zaslofsky said, but House also realized that a legal effort was not enough—there needed to be a political effort as well.
And he was right.
Zaslofsky and House were among the approximately 50,000 Americans who fled to Canada between 1965 and 1973, refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. They were welcomed by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who declared his "complete sympathy" for their "conscientious judgment."
"Indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism," he said.
Jane Orion Smith, General Secretary of the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC), which is a member of the WRSC, recalls that at that time resisters could apply for status from within Canada. "Often they were just processed right at the border."
They were given a permit to stay, and after two years they could get permanent resident status. But nowadays, Smith notes that resistors must apply from outside Canada, despite that fact that they risk arrest if they remain in the U.S.
The legal and political climates have changed.
In December 2004, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin intervened in Hinzman's case before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
Whereas House's argument, consistent with many expert legal opinions, was that the Iraq War is illegal under international law and that conscientious objectors should not face punishment, the government ensured that information about the legality of the war would be inadmissible.
To date the IRB has denied all war resisters' applications for refugee status.
Supreme Court Bid
After being refused by the IRB, Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, who came to Canada in March 2004, took their cases first to the Federal Court and then to the Federal Court of Appeal (FCA), but without success. Last month their lawyer Jeffry House sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The FCA additionally stated that "the lawfulness of a conflict could well be relevant where a refugee claimant is a high-level policy-maker or planner of the military conflict in issue," but may be inapplicable in the case of "a mere foot soldier" like Hinzman or Hughey.
The CFSC asks the question: "Can rights of conscience (usually considered a universal right for every human being) be limited by rank?"
Smith says the FCA statement implies that "if you've been ordered to plan and execute a mission that would violate international law, you have a right of conscience. But if you're one of the ground troops, sorry you don't have this right of conscience."
She said this is very problematic and doesn't make sense. "It sets up a class strata on the right of conscience; it should be universal." Moreover, this right exists "very clearly and strongly" regardless of whether a war is illegal, she said.
"How the Court responds to this question is of importance to all concerned with rights of conscience in relation to the military," the CFSC's website states.
NDP MP Bill Siksay said the case is significant, and he hopes the Supreme Court will hear it and provide an opportunity for all the surrounding issues to be fully aired. "I think the Supreme Court is probably the place to do that."
The Supreme Court's decision whether to hear the case is expected late September or early October, Zaslofsky said.
Special Provision Needed
Zaslofsky, who now coordinates the WRSC, estimates there are currently about 200 war resisters in Canada. The WRSC has nearly 40 endorsing organizations and has enlisted the support of thousands of Canadians. It currently works with about 40 resisters, helping them get status to stay in Canada.
"We also know there are many others who are living 'under the radar,'" said Zaslofsky, adding that many resisters contact House to ask what their options are.
They don't want their names to be known while they proceed with their legal cases quietly, Zaslofsky said, but "it's been difficult for them."
Smith points out that the lives of Iraq war resisters are very uncertain. "You're just in waiting mode to see what will happen."
CFSC provides expertise around the issue of rights of conscience and access to resources, she explained. "We try to tap into our community around housing, funds, clothing, and other churches to help get a broader base of support in the faith community."
Obtaining refugee status is "the immediate thing," Zaslofsky says, but the WRSC would like the war resisters to just be able to get permanent resident status without having to apply from outside Canada. He said the WRSC agrees with House that "it's really more a political problem than just a legal problem."
"We think the government should intervene and make some provision that would make it possible for them to stay in Canada."
Siksay agrees. He hopes that the Canadian government will create "a special program for American war resisters as people of conscience" so that "after a number of years in Canada, and after security checks and health checks, the usual things that immigrants go through, they'd be allowed to settle permanently."
'People of Conscience'
To those critical of the war resisters for changing their minds after volunteering for the military, Zaslofsky maintains that "most of them were recruited by being told lies," both by U.S. President George Bush about the situation in Iraq, and by the recruiters.
They were told they would not be going to a war zone but would be doing other kinds of jobs, he said, but after entering the army they learned they had to go into the infantry or combat.
"Why should they risk their lives in a war that is unpopular and illegal? Basically America has no right to be in Iraq," he said.
A July 2007 USA Today Gallup poll found that 62 per cent of Americans say the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. Moreover, 71 per cent favour a proposal to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq by April 2008.
Canada made "a very clear and principled decision" not to participate in the Iraq war, Siksay said. The decision had overwhelming support by Canadians, and "it's very important that we follow through," he remarked.
"We should make sure there is a welcome for [the war resisters] here in Canada, and a haven for them as people of conscience who have taken a principled stand about that war," said Siksay.