War Resisters in Canada

American deserters today face a different Canada than the one encountered by those who fled the Vietnam War. In 1969, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau declared Canada ‘’a refuge from militarism.” More permissive immigration laws also made citizenship easier to obtain.

By Sarah Schweitzer
Republished from The Boston Globe
Canada doesn't offer welcome of Vietnam era

TORONTO—It seemed like a drastic but simple solution: a step over the border into a country that had offered sanctuary before to Americans fleeing their homeland.

Instead, the growing band of US soldiers who have sought political refuge in Canada after defying orders to serve in Iraq have found themselves in a political limbo.

The nation that once welcomed some 50,000 men who refused to fight in Vietnam is unsure what to do with the current group of American deserters. Canada so far has been unwilling to grant political asylum to men who voluntarily enlisted and then decided they did not want to fight in Iraq, unlike Vietnam-era Americans who faced a compulsory draft.

Last month, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board denied refugee status to the first deserter to apply, Jeremy Hinzman, a 26-year-old native of Rapid City, S.D. Hinzman, a specialist in the 82d Airborne Division, served in Afghanistan, but fled from Fort Bragg, N.C., after his Army unit was ordered to Iraq.

The board ruled that Hinzman was not likely to face persecution in the United States and therefore could not be considered a political refugee.

If the deserters return to the United States, they will face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and up to five years of prison, said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman.

The denial dealt a blow to the 100 recent deserters believed to be living in Canada, said Hinzman’s lawyer, Jeffry House, who represents seven of the 10 deserters who have sought protection as political refugees. The board could consider the decision precedent-setting and reject the claims of other deserters, immigration lawyers in Canada say. The appeals process could take years.

The American deserters say they consider the US-led war in Iraq illegal and contend they should not be forced to fight there.

‘’If I’d followed orders, I would have been killing innocent people,” said Specialist Darrell Anderson, 22, of Lexington, Ky., who served in the First Armored Division, primarily in Baghdad, for seven months before he deserted in January. ‘’I wasn’t going to do that.”

Anderson said he has faced criticism from some in the United States for deserting his country when tens of thousands of other Americans are serving in hostile places.

‘’People in your hometown call you a traitor,” he said.

As they seek citizenship in a country that might not want them, the soldiers rely on the aid of Canadian peace activists, some of whom have given up space in their homes for the men, taken up collections of money and clothes for them, and organized rallies and vigils on their behalf.

Some Vietnam War-era draft dodgers and deserters have gone public with their own stories in support of the new arrivals. For years, many who fled to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s had kept a low profile, preferring to blend in quietly. But now some have come out to band together and help the deserters obtain asylum.

On a recent evening in Toronto, one new group, the War Resisters Support Campaign, gathered at a union hall to craft legal and media strategies for the Iraq war deserters. As the now-graybeard transplants sat around a long table with their younger counterparts, some reflected on the parallels between the young deserters’ experience and their own.

‘’It’s an amazing decision to make, knowing you can’t go back,” said Tom Riley, 58, a social service agency administrator who fled the United States in 1969 to evade the draft and remained in Toronto. ‘’You never get over that.”

American deserters today face a different Canada than the one encountered by those who fled the Vietnam War. In 1969, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau declared Canada ‘’a refuge from militarism.” More permissive immigration laws also made citizenship easier to obtain.

Some 50,000 Americans went north during the Vietnam War, according to John Hagan, a Northwestern University sociology and law professor who has written a book about Vietnam-era defectors. Of that number, about 80 percent fled to avoid the draft, and 20 percent deserted their military units, a distinction, he said, that mattered less to Canadians as the Vietnam War ground on.

Hagan said about 25,000 of the transplants remained in Canada after the war. In 1977, Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Americans who had sought refuge in Canada.

Although the Canadian government has opposed the war in Iraq and refused to send its soldiers to fight in the US-led campaign, some Canadians have decried the decision of Hinzman and his fellow deserters to flee the US military. The men enlisted voluntarily, only to desert the military when war broke out, critics say.

‘’Despite Canada’s meek support for US policy and our opposition to the war in Iraq, Canadians are generally admiring of their own military and not enthusiastic about deserters,” The Calgary Sun editorialized recently.

The 10 Iraq war deserters who are seeking refugee status are young: Eight are in their 20s, and two are 19. They say they had high hopes when they enlisted in the military: to earn money for college or to learn a trade.

Now, many of the former soldiers live in rooms provided by their supporters. Some are still waiting for work permits.

Two deserters who served in Iraq, Anderson and Army Private First Class Joshua Key, described the war as a miasma of confusion, rife with bad intelligence that led to a disproportionate number of Iraqi civilian casualties.

‘’When I went over there, I didn’t question,” Anderson said. ‘’I believed in my country, you know, freedom and democracy and support the troops and all that. But there are no terrorists over there. There are no weapons of mass destruction. All we were doing was blowing up innocent people’s houses.”

US Army officials say most deserters do not cite the Iraq war as the reason they leave the ranks and instead list family, health, or money as reasons. They also say that the number of deserters has decreased since the war began.

‘’Each of them had his or her own individual reason for doing it, and it’s between them and their conscience,” Rudd, the Army spokeswoman, said of the deserters in Canada.

Key, 26, joined the army when he was 23. He said he went to Iraq willingly when his unit was sent in April 2003, and he served in Fallujah and Ramadi, the heartland of the Sunni resistance. He said he became disillusioned when it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s original rationale for war, would ever be found. He deserted in December 2003 while on home leave.

He took his wife and four children to Philadelphia, where they knew no one. He worked as a welder and hoped to stay hidden in the anonymity of a big city.

He lived in fear of capture and did not drive to avoid the chance of being pulled over by police. Last month, he and his wife decided they could no longer take the strain and drove north. His family is living in a sympathizer’s home in Toronto. Awaiting a work permit, he has no job.

Key, who grew up in the small town of Guthrie, Okla., finds Toronto’s towering urban streetscape unfamiliar. But it is far better than what awaits him in the United States.

‘’I love the United States,” Key said ‘’That will always be my home. But for my situation and the way things were going, I really had no alternative.”

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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