Next month, the Canadian House of Commons is slated to debate a resolution that would allow conscientious objectors “who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations” to apply for residency in Canada. The phrasing is vague but the intent is not. The war in question is the Iraq war, and the resolution represents the culmination of a four-year debate about what to do with the small but steady stream of American soldiers who have fled across our northern border to avoid fighting in
It all began in Jan. 2004, when a young American with a long, serious face walked into the
The majority of the deserters in
House would eventually represent between 30 and 35 American deserters. Most of them, like Colby, say they joined the military in part out of patriotism. “I thought
Tens of thousands of American draft dodgers and deserters took refuge in
“There’s a very clear Canadian precedent for the idea that no soldier has to participate in an illegal war,” House says. That precedent, interestingly enough, is a case in which an Iraqi Army soldier was granted asylum in
Juridically, at least, House saw the case as straightforward. A British court had awarded asylum to a Russian deserter of the Chechen war on the same basis. (British case law often influences Canadian jurisprudence.) And there was the precedent of the Iraqi deserter. But convincing the Canadian courts to equate George W. Bush’s occupation of
In the end, House never got the chance. He showed up at Hinzman’s first hearing armed with evidence arguing for the illegality of the Iraq war: 13 four-inch-thick binders containing everything from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s memos on the treatment of detainees to Human Rights Watch reports to the British Army’s documentation of civilian deaths at American military checkpoints. In March 2005, the immigration board ruled against Hinzman, insisting that its “authority does not include making judgments about
A Canadian federal court upheld that decision in 2006, interpreting the relevant international law to apply only to high-level policy makers. “The ordinary foot soldier,” the court ruled, “is not expected to make his or her personal assessment as to the legality of a conflict.” All the documents in House’s 13 binders were thus irrelevant. House objected that policy makers are rarely asked to take up arms. But an appeals court ruled against him last April on other grounds.
“The present position is basically Pontius Pilate,” House told me last fall, not long before he hit the end of the legal road. In mid-November, the Supreme Court dismissed his request for an appeal. “It’s a huge loss,” House said at the time. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the court deciding not to be involved in the controversy.”
The deserters’ fight has since passed out of the courts and into the hazy realm of politics. On Dec. 6, the Parliament’s immigration committee passed the resolution that would give American deserters a chance at residency. The vote broke down along party lines: the four members of the Conservative Party (which is currently in power but lacks a parliamentary majority) voted against it, but they were outnumbered by the seven representatives of the three major opposition parties.
Whether such unity will survive the full House of Commons debate next month remains to be seen. The
In the meantime, the deserters have little to do but wait. Though the United States Army does issue arrest warrants for deserters, it does not actively track them down; even at home, deserters are most likely to be apprehended if they are picked up for an unrelated offense. According to a State Department spokeswoman, the
Undeterred by the Supreme Court ruling, new arrivals are still showing up. Robidoux’s group has added five to its roster in just the last three weeks. For Colby, Hinzman and others, uncertainty in