Canada's War Resisters

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This column was written by Will Di Novi.
Former Private Kimberly Rivera is a long way from home.

Since moving to Toronto with her family a year and a half ago, the 26-year-old Iraq War veteran and mother of two has confronted struggles both personal and political: estrangement from her family back in Texas, long periods of unemployment and, above all, the imminent threat of deportation.

Kimberly would not have it any other way. To Canada's first female defector from the United States military, her adopted home is a "peaceful environment, somewhere I can raise my family, somewhere I can be me".

The American military calls people like Kimberly "deserters". To their supporters in Canada and the US, they are "war resisters."

In January 2004, Jeremy Hinzman, a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army, made his way to Canada seeking political refugee status with his wife and son. Since Hinzman's arrival, a growing number of American soldiers and their families have made the decision to seek sanctuary in Canada.

"We now have approximately fifty war resisters, many with families, from Ottawa all the way to Vancouver Island", says Lee Zaslofsky, National Coordinator of Canada's War Resisters Support Campaign. "We estimate, from what lawyers tell us, that there may be several hundred others who are living underground in Canada."

Based in Toronto, Canada's largest city and the adopted home of an estimated twenty US Military defectors, The War Resisters Support Campaign offers material and legal resources to these individuals and their families in their quest for asylum.

During the Vietnam War, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 US draft dodgers and deserters fled to Canada. American defectors were granted permanent resident status under the supportive immigration policy of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who publicly condemned the war and declared that Canada should be "a refuge from militarism." According to an Angus Reid national poll conducted in June, 64 percent of Canadians said today's American defectors should be allowed to remain in Canada as permanent residents.

In spite of such popular support, the soldiers have faced a series of judicial setbacks in their adopted country, where a hawkish Conservative government has held office since 2006. First Hinzman and another American military defector, Brandon Hughey, were denied political refugee status by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, an independent administrative tribunal. After appeals, the Supreme Court of Canada last November refused to hear the former soldiers' case, which centered on the illegality of the Iraq war under international law.

Then at the end of May, the Canadian government moved to deport James "Corey" Glass, an Iraq war veteran who defected to Canada in 2006. The first defector to face deportation, Glass has orders to leave Canada by July 10. A hearing to appeal the ruling is scheduled for July 8.

Meanwhile, the fate of Kimberly Rivera and the forty-five other US military defectors who have made political refugee claims hangs in the balance. "Our legal status is running short," Kimberly believes. According to Zaslofsky, nine war resisters have received pre-removal risk assessments, the bureaucratic precursors to actual deportation orders. Returning to the United States is a thought that Kimberly does not want to entertain. There are outstanding arrest warrants for her and her husband, Mario. They will likely lose their children.

Pursuant to US Army Regulation 630-10, the punishment for defecting is determined by each soldier's chain of command. According to Major Nathan Banks of the US Army Public Affairs office, defectors since the start of the Iraq war have generally spent no more than three months in jail, but "since it's a time of war, you can get death," he explains. "You are deserting your fellow man."

Major Banks also insists that defections to Canada have been too minimal to warrant high scrutiny from military command. "Those that want to flee to Canada, that's their prerogative," he says. "We're a nation at war. Our focus is what's in front of us, not those lagging behind."

February 18, 2008 marked the one-year anniversary of Kimberly Rivera's arrival in Canada. When her family's beat-up Geo crossed the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, Kimberly became the country's first known female defector from the American military in the Iraq era. It is a milestone she could never have anticipated growing up in Mesquite, Texas, a suburb east of Dallas.

After an aborted stint in the Army reserves at 17, Kimberly spent almost five years working for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. Struggling in her role as the primary breadwinner for her young family, she decided to enlist in the active duty Army.

"The military is one of the most socialistic programs in America," she says. "You get healthcare, you get rent paid for, they provide you with food, even a clothing allowance once a year."

Kimberly was assigned to the 2nd Brigade combat team, 2nd Infantry Division, at Fort Carson, Colorado. Though driven to the military by economic need, she felt pride at the prospect of getting her combat patch overseas.

"The things that we were doing over there for me were real, they weren't on false pretenses," she says. "This was the best thing I could be doing for my country and people around the world, and for my family back home."

When her unit deployed to Iraq in October 2006, these feelings started to change. As a guard at the front gate of her forward operating base in Baghdad, Kimberly regularly worked fourteen-hour shifts, and she became traumatized as fellow soldiers and civilians died all around her. She had difficulty sleeping and stopped eating at one point.

On December 21, 2006, her base was hit by a heavy mortar attack as she was talking to her husband on the phone. Mortars exploded ten feet away as she helplessly clutched her rifle.

"I found shrapnel on my bed," she recalls. "It would have been right where my head would have been if I had decided to go to my room instead of the phone."

The following Saturday she watched as an Iraqi father came to the base with his 2-year-old daughter. He was placing a claim for loss due to Army negligence. The little girl was shaking and crying in silence.

"I wasn't seeing that little girl," Kimberly explains, reliving the experience. "I was seeing my own daughter about her same age back home" In January 2007, Kimberly returned home to her family in Texas on a two-week leave.

"I was really messed up when I got back, with feelings I'd never had before. Sometimes I just got angry, just completely explosive," she remembers.

Concerned by her change in demeanor, Kimberly's husband Mario mentioned the website of the War Resisters Support Campaign.

"I laughed at him," Kimberly recalls: 'Canada, are you kidding me? We don't know anything about Canada. We don't have any friends, relatives, anybody in Canada. And it snows!' "

Unwilling to return to the front lines, Kimberly skipped her flight back to Iraq at the end of the month. She and her family started driving east, uncertain where they were headed and quickly running out of money. Mario mentioned going to Canada a second time, and Kimberly confronted the hardest decision of her life.

"I still had pride, I still had a sense of loyalty," she says. She weighed "what we were leaving behind, what the punishment would be," against "having peace, my soul having rest, not feeling useless and worthless, wanting to be able to live."

They crossed the Canadian border without any trouble, telling the border agent they were visiting friends in Toronto. It was the first time Kimberly had ever crossed a border as a civilian.

The military defectors Lee Zaslofsky sees are mostly young, late teens to mid-30s, sergeant's rank or lower. They are uniformly disillusioned with the war in Iraq, but some find life as a defector no better.

"We have had people arrive without calling in advance, and a number of them have gone back because they weren't prepared," Zaslofsky says.

Kimberly and her family were unprepared for some of the hardships they experienced in Canada, but also for the support they received. The War Resisters campaign arranged housing for the Riveras with a family in a suburb of Toronto when they first arrived, and three months later helped them move into their own apartment.

It took eight months for Kimberly and Mario's work permits to be processed, and during that time they relied on the assistance of the War Resisters campaign and made trips to the local food bank every Thursday. Now, as refugee claimants, they can work legally and receive healthcare benefits. After a part-time stint at a photo-shop, Kimberly is working five days a week at a bakery, putting in shifts from 2 until 10 in the morning. Mario does occasional computer assembly work and is searching for part-time jobs. Though money is tight, their schedules allow them to be with their 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter at all times.

Kimberly's experience has also made her more engaged politically. She directly petitioned her Member of Parliament to stop the food bank her family had relied on from closing down, and now regularly attends the War Resisters campaign meetings and rallies.

"I don't like the attention," she says, but "I do it because I feel like there's a story that needs to be told."

Kimberly will have her pre-removal risk assessment hearing on July 23 and may face deportation as early as this fall. After learning this month that she is pregnant with her third child, her desire to stay in Canada is stronger than ever.

"We literally have nothing in the States," she explains. "We can't work, we can't do anything. I'm still considered a missing person."

On June 3, the Canadian Parliament passed a motion calling on Federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley "to allow American war resisters who have refused or left military service related to the illegal invasion of Iraq and their immediate family members to stay in Canada and be able to become permanent residents." Introduced by Olivia Chow of the opposition New Democratic Party, the bill received sufficient support to override the ruling Conservative Party with a vote of 137-110, pitting a majority of the country's elected representatives against the Parliament's minority government.

The victory is bittersweet. As the resolution is non-binding, the government can legally ignore the vote, but as Zaslofsky puts it, "morally it's another matter." The War Resisters Support Campaign has been putting pressure on the Conservative Party in the weeks leading up to Glass's deportation date, organizing demonstrations in politically vulnerable Conservative districts.

A Canadian Federal Court decision on July 4 found that the Immigration and Refugee Board had made mistakes in turning down the plea for asylum of US defector Joshua Key, a former combat engineer who served in Iraq in 2003. In light of this unprecedented judgment, which ruled that a soldier who refuses to take part in military action which "systematically degrades, abuses or humiliates" either combatants or non-combatants might qualify as a refugee, the War Resisters Campaign argues it is more critical than ever that the Minister of Immigration stall Glass's impending deportation.

On July 2, Major Nathan Banks informed ABC News that Glass in fact had been discharged from the Army in December 2006, four months after his arrival in Canada. Because Glass has never signed his record of discharge, Zaslofsky and the lawyer defending Glass still fear the possibility that he will face punitive measures upon his return to the United States. Glass would also be required to remain in the Individual Ready Reserve until July 30, 2010, where he runs the risk of being redeployed to Iraq. And despite his discharge, the War Resisters Campaign believes that if Glass's deportation goes through, it would establish a dangerous political precedent for how the Canadian government will handle the cases of the hundreds of active duty defectors, including Kimberly Rivera.

Though she worries for her family's future in Canada, Kimberly takes satisfaction from the campaign's recent political victories. She often reflects on the letter she wrote to save her local food bank. "When you come from somewhere and you don't think that things can change and you write one letter, and something changed, you're like 'wow, I should do this more often.' "

She sees herself as living proof of the possibility for personal and social change. "I think that if somebody would have told me two years ago that I would be in Canada and I would be actively involved in a peace organization and actively against war in general and a pacifist, I would have laughed at them. Probably with the crudest laugh of my life."
By Will Di Novi
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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