Vietnam War Resisters in Canada Open Arms to U.S. Military Deserters

Pacific News Service, News Feature, Paolo Pontoniere, Posted: Jun 28, 2005

Editor's Note: Americans who quit or refused military duty during the Vietnam War are helping soldiers of conscience from the Iraq war.

TORONTO--Draft dodgers and deserters who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War are now helping U.S. soldiers who refuse to serve in Iraq find shelter and support.

"There must be more than 10,000 of us just here in the Toronto area," says Tom Riley, an American who went AWOL (absent without leave) to Canada during the Vietnam War and never left. "We're making a real attempt to get as many of us out in the open to help the new conscientious objectors."

Riley and other anti-war activists have formed the War Resisters Support Campaign to provide legal assistance, shelter, political muscle and financial and moral support to U.S. military deserters. They work out of Steelworker Hall, a low, red-brick building set among a row of Victorians in the heart of the Italian section of Toronto.

According to Pentagon estimates, American soldiers who have deserted since the start of the war in Iraq number around 5,500, a far cry from the 50,000 men who deserted the U.S. military during the war in Southeast Asia. But Vietnam vets helping today's AWOL soldiers say they expect those numbers to grow. And many say that today's soldier of conscience faces a much tougher climate.

"As hard as it may have been for us then, it is nothing compared to what soldiers who decide to speak their conscience now must face," says Carolyn Eagan, a Vietnam war resister who in 1969 came to Canada with her husband, who had been drafted. "The accusations of treason and cowardice that follow them today -- we didn't really register them."

During the Vietnam War, Canada had no system to determine refugee status. Draft dodgers from the United States were treated as immigrants. During the Vietnam War, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau publicly condemned the war and affirmed that Canada should be "a refuge from militarism."

Eagan says that she and her husband were immediately given work permits in Canada, and after only three months received their immigration papers. "Our uncertainty lasted very little," she says. "In addition, thousands of people were coming north from the U.S., and we made many friends among war resisters."

According to the U.S. government, as many as 1 million people dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. Pentagon figures show that 209,517 youths were formally charged with violating draft laws. Of 25,000 who were indicted, only 4,000 were found guilty and served time in jail.

But immigration policies have changed in Canada since the 1970s. The country is less open to newcomers, and the current government is more wary of upsetting the White House. When considering asylum, the country's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) follows standards of international law and United Nations and Geneva conventions.

In March, the IRB rejected the asylum bid of Iraq war deserter Jeremy Hinzman, 26, a U.S. paratrooper and the first U.S. soldier to seek refugee status in Canada. More than 15 other American military service members have since requested asylum before the IRB.

Jeffrey House, a former Vietnam War draft dodger and a lawyer, assists today's soldiers with the Canadian asylum process. Lee Zaslofsky, another Vietnam War deserter who has returned to activism since the beginning of the war in Iraq, says that, "above all, our goal is to create the conditions by which the Canadian government comes out in favor and in support of American soldiers who oppose the war."

To do that, the Vietnam War resisters are now mounting a Canada-wide campaign to urge municipalities and regional governments to declare their territories a safe haven for American war resisters.

That's a move that Josh Key and his wife and four children greatly appreciate. Key went AWOL to Canada to avoid going back to Iraq. "It is very comforting to find people who have gone before us through the same kind of hell we're living in now," he says. The Vietnam War deserters, Key says, give hope to him and his family. "I don't know what we would have done without their assistance and their expertise."

"It is right to help these soldiers, and not just because the war is in violation of international laws and is trampling Iraqis' human rights," says Charlie Diamond, a representative of the Canadian Friends Service Committee to the War Resisters campaign, and a U.S. Vietnam-era deserter. "It is proper because the war is a lie, just like the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction."

PNS contributor Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy's leading monthly magazine.

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