Michelle Robidoux, an organizer with the War Resistors Support Campaign, advocates for U.S. army deserters who seek asylum in Canada. Their claims to refugee status have been complicated by Operational Bulletin 202, a federal immigration policy which outlines that those who have committed a serious offense are ineligible for admission: desertion is a serious offense under Canadian and American law and carries a lifetime sentence in Canada.
The McGill Daily: Could you tell me me a little bit about how the group was initially formed?
Michelle Robidoux: The War Resistors Support Campaign began in 2004 when the first U.S. soldier who refused to fight in Iraq came to Canada, seeking asylum. Since then, we have helped about fifty U.S. military personnel who refuse to deploy to Iraq.
MD: Were the conditions different in 2004 than 2008 because of Operational Bulletin 202?
MR: Yes they were, in the sense that it was still very new. In 2004 there were only a handful of war resistors who came here. There was Jeremy Hinzman and a few others. Subsequent to 2005 and 2006, many more came. It was partly the conduct of the war, it was partly more and more people found out that Canada had a history of allowing conscientious objectors to stay here. Since then, of course, the Conservatives were elected, and they are very hostile to allowing war resistors to stay. It wasn’t clear under the Liberal government where they would go with it, because there weren’t so many cases then. We began lobbying the Liberals in 2004 and 2005, and it’s a slow process of course. By the time we were getting anywhere, the Conservatives had won the election.
MD: Are the claims processed under immigration or refugee status because it’s for humanitarian reasons?
MR: The humanitarian and compassionate consideration is apart from the refugee process. So it’s a way that the Minister of Immigration can intervene to say that in a given situation – perhaps where someone falls short of being recognized as a refugee – they can still for compassionate reasons be allowed to stay in Canada and to get permanent resident status, because the situation fits other criteria than the refugee criteria.
In the meantime, what they’ve done is apply to be considered on a humanitarian basis, because for many of them they’ve been here four or five years, they have families here, they have children. They’ve married Canadian spouses in some cases. So it’s at the discretion of the Minister of Immigration in many cases where they let people stay. Because it would be a hardship for their children, and they are supposed to consider the best interest of the child in these cases.
MD: So they’re treated differently than deserters from other countries? What is the normal procedure?
MR: I don’t think there is [a normal procedure]. Every case should be examined on its merits, case by case. There are many other cases of people who have deserted their countries’ militaries who have been accepted as refugees and have been given humanitarian consideration and been allowed to stay. Whether it’s the Russian soldiers who deserted the Afghanistan war in the 1980s who were welcomed as refugees, or in the case of a solider in Kuwait who refused to participate. There have been a number of cases of people who have left their country’s military because they objected to the conduct of a war, of a conflict. There was no question that they should be singled out because they have committed the crime of desertion. That’s what Jason Kenney has said, that “desertion is a crime in the United States, and these people are criminals.” The irony of this Operational Bulletin at the time when we have 400,000 thousand documents released in the Wikileaks that show very clearly the whole conduct of the war has been in violation of every conceivable international law, the Geneva Conventions, you name it. The U.S. launched an illegal war of aggression, but the one that Jason Kenney sees as criminals are the soldiers who refuse to participate. For most fair-minded people, there is a sense that this is wrong. To treat these individuals who have taken a great risk by leaving the military, by leaving the country, their families, everything, and seeking asylum, there’s something wrong here with the Canadian government’s policy.