Fort Erie - It's called sugarbowl Park for some reason, this green space of industrial nothingness 10 minutes away from the Canada-U.S. Peace Bridge, where war resisters are munching sandwiches. The romp on the grass is part of the Peace Has No Borders Festival organized by the T.O.-based War Resisters Support Campaign and the Buffalo chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW.)
But while the June 17 event certainly has its logistical problems, the modest turnout (100 folks, including two busloads from T.O.) isn't damping the vibe as Iraq vets meet and mingle with peace activists and "peace mom' Cindy Sheehan tears into a piece of pizza.
Niagara Falls activists, it seems, weren't informed of the rendezvous until the Wednesday before - when someone called to ask if anyone could bring a BBQ, which is weird because I'm certain the St. Catharines District Labour Council has a whole barbie rig. Thankfully, CAW 199 brings a banner, but no burgers or dogs.
But BBQ or no, this little picnic is quite a familyesque affair. Watching Sheehan, I realize she has her Code Pink handlers in tow, the Sarah Jessica Parkers of the anti-war movement - smart, sassy and stylish. Sheehan herself is an impressive, motherly figure with the build of an Olympic rower. Woe to the cop who has to drag her dead weight in cuffs. You could almost imagine her grabbing Dubya by the scruff of the neck. "When I tell you to stop playing war, I mean it. Go to your room, mister!" Thump on the behind for added dramatic effect.
"The neo-cons haven't figured our movement," says Sheehan. "We have to stand up for our children. I wish Casey [her dead soldier son] was standing here.'
There are an estimated 7,800 AWOL soldiers roaming America without supports, and approximately 200 are hiding in Canada. The famous mom is using her media-drawing power to publicize the northern option - complete with health care and work permits. "Don't go to Iraq,' she says, addressing the AWOL underground. "Take a court martial or go to Canada. Do whatever is in your heart. Just don't go to Iraq.'
In the relaxed park atmosphere, I stop by to chat with Sheehan, but soon she is whisked off by Code Pinkers for a press scrum. She apologizes for cutting short our interview.
"No worries,' I reply. "Oh, you're so Canadian,' she laughs.
I'm sort of hoping a softball, soccer or touch football game will break out between Canadian-based war resisters sporting black "AWOL' Ts and the IVAW's desert-fatigue-wearing group, but it doesn't.
Sporting one of the AWOL shirts is war resister Patrick Hart, a former sergeant who used to live in Buffalo. After strumming a song on the guitar he fled with, Hart greets me with a friendly "I read your paper every week. I'm looking for a job and a drummer for me and my bandmates." For the moment, Fort Erie is the closest he'll get to a hometown gig. His former base bandmates now tour Iraq extensively.
When Hart phoned his heavy-metal-lovin' spouse from T.O. after crossing the border and informed her he had a huge surprise, she expected Ozzfest tickets, not a one-way to Toronto.
Another Buffalo resident, the mother of IVAW's Geoffrey Millard, says she wanted desperately to lock her son "in the trunk of the car and drive him across the border.' Instead, he reported for duty, spent time in Tikrit and was forced to remain in the war zone for two months after mangling his left knee. "I was too mission-critical,' he explains about his painful situation. Finally, he says, he was given a medical discharge.
It must be the setting sun, or maybe just the escape from Prince Arthur, but war resister barrister Jeffry House is as categorically positive as I've ever heard him.
"A court with integrity will provide for us. And we'll find that either at the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada. That's my legal point of view,' he tells the crowd.
Not known for rah-rah rally talk, House is not quite himself. War resisters in Canada "will have to be forced out in chains, but the government will be too afraid to do that. By the time the courts are done, these guys will have been here too long.'
House ends with a blunt message to those 7,800 who might be thinking of making a run for the border. "No one is going back. Anyone who wants to stay will stay. I'm saying that right here.'