Harper Government Barring Door To U.S. War Deserters

Harper government barring door to U.S. war deserters

By Norma Greenaway
Canwest News Service
June 29, 2009

OTTAWA Jason Kenney's most memorable assault on U.S. war deserters seeking refuge in Canada occurred soon after he became immigration minister in October 2008.

Kenney dismissed them as bogus refugee claimants, a phrase that set off loud alarm bells among the deserters supporters because it was more loaded than anything said before by his Tory predecessors in the job.

The phrase cannot be found in more than 300 pages of department briefing notes, e-mails and other documents relating to the issue obtained by Canwest News Service under Access to Information legislation.

Not surprisingly, the language in the documents, including background briefing notes for the minister and his parliamentary secretary written by bureaucrats, is decidedly more neutral than the words chosen by the Calgary firebrand.

Still, the underlying message in the printed material dating back three years is there is no appetite for intervening politically to do for Iraqi war deserters what Pierre Trudeau did for Vietnam War draft dodgers and deserters in 1969, when his government laid out the welcome mat for both groups. There also is nothing in the documents that suggests the issue has spurred any debate within government ranks.

In a memorandum to Kenney in February, Richard Fadden, his then-deputy minister, provided a thorough review of the issue that, among other things, laid out why all Iraqi war deserters claims for refugee status had failed so far with the Immigration and Refugee Board, the Federal Court of Canada and the Court of Appeal.

Fadden wrote that, whereas the UN High Commission for Refugees Handbook suggests a relevant factor to consider in a refugee claim is whether a deserter was drafted or joined the army voluntarily, deserters now coming to Canada from the U.S. had volunteered for military service.

Fadden recently named the new head of Canadian Security Intelligence Service also said the deserters have failed to make the case that the punishment they face back home for desertion could be regarded as persecution.

Other notes say refugee hearing officers have been advised to be particularly vigilant about refugee claims from such western democracies as the United States.

Kenney is the third Tory immigration minister to reject calls to establish a special program to facilitate permanent resident status to those who deserted the U.S. military to escape a war they say they cannot support on moral or religious grounds.

Supporters of the deserters admit they are discouraged, but they vow to keep pressing the government to show some compassion before more get eviction notices.

Immigration critics for the opposition Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois sent a joint letter to Kenney on Friday asking him to halt all deportations and to respect the will of Parliament, which has approved two motions calling for permanent resident status for the war resisters.

We urge the government to show compassion for those who have chosen not to participate in a war that was not sanctioned by the United Nations, the letter said.

Two deserters have been forced to leave already and are serving jail sentences on desertion charges.

A handful of others could follow soon as they exhaust their legal options. Among them are Jeremy Hinzman, the first deserter to file for refugee status in Canada in 2004; Kimberly Rivera, the mother of three young children, one of whom was born in Canada; and Phil McDowell, an Iraqi war veteran who fled to Canada in 2006 rather than accept a call to report back to base as a reservist for a 15-month deployment to Iraq.

Michelle Robidoux, a spokeswoman for the War Resisters Support Campaign, says about 50 deserters have applied for refugee status and there are dozens more living below the radar, waiting to see how the legal and political battles play out.

Robidoux said Kenneys comments have tainted the Immigration Refugee Board process.

How can it possibly be an independent body when a Minister of the Crown is saying they are bogus refugees? she said.

Kenney accuses his critics of politicizing the process by asking for a political solution rather than trusting Canadas fair, internationally recognized system for providing refuge to those fleeing persecution in their home country.

Patricia Molloy, a university professor and activist with the support campaign, said she was so frustrated by Kenneys intransigence that she rejigged a visit to Europe to make a side trip to Oslo, Norway to organize a small, peaceful protest to coincide with Kenneys attendance last week at an international conference aimed at enhancing education about the Holocaust.

In an e-mail sent after she talked to Kenney, Molloy said she told the minister she applauds the government for finally recognizing Canadas historical failure to protect Jewish refugees from crimes against humanity but that she cant understand why it is failing to protect refugees who refuse to commit crimes against humanity in Iraq.

Alykhan Velshi, a spokesman for Kenney, objected to linking the Iraqi deserter issue to the Holocaust.

There is no similarity between the Mackenzie King governments refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust with our unwillingness to create a special program for American war deserters trying to flee the Obama administration, he said in an e-mail from Oslo.