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Canada no longer a haven for war resisters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to send back the some 200 American asylum-seekers who have fled the Iraq war.

U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq before deserting and coming to Canada, Corey Glass, 25, speaks to the media in Toronto, May 21, 2008. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Canada has long been a haven for Americans escaping their wars.

During the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, an estimated 50,000 colonists who wanted to remain loyal to Britain fled north to what would later become Canada. Thousands more crossed the border during the Civil War, using an underground railroad that led escaped slaves to freedom.

Canada’s role as a sanctuary during the Vietnam War is well known. The conflict spurred an estimated 50,000 Americans old enough for military service to immigrate north, according to sociologist John Hagan, author of "Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada." Hagan was among the draft dodgers and military deserters that did so.

Many Canadians would consider this tradition a noble one. But it has come to an end.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 200 American soldiers have fled to Canada looking for asylum. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to send them back.

Most war resisters in Canada are in hiding. The few who have applied for refugee status have been turned down and ordered deported.

Two have so far been sent back: Robin Long, of Boise, Idaho, was convicted of desertion by a military court in August 2008, sentenced to 15 months in military prison and given a dishonorable discharge; Cliff Cornell, of Mountain Home, Ark., pleaded guilty to desertion in April and received a year sentence and a bad conduct discharge.

To avoid a similar fate, deserter Rodney Watson, a native of Kansas City, was given sanctuary at Vancouver’s First United Church on Sept. 18, a day after his request for refugee status was denied. Church officials say Watson can stay as long as he likes.

On Christmas Eve, Watson published a letter in the Toronto Star. He said he joined the army “for financial reasons” in 2004, after losing his job. A recruiter, he says, promised he could work as a cook and stay out of combat duty.

However, once deployed to Iraq in 2005, he spent a year scanning vehicles and civilians for explosives. He says he witnessed incidents where American soldiers treated Iraqis in a racist and physically abusive way.

Back in the U.S., he was told he would be “stop-lossed” — redeployed to Iraq and forced to stay beyond the time he signed on for. He fled to Vancouver in 2007 and has since fathered a son with a Canadian he plans to marry.