The likelihood that there are a number of frightened, freaked-out U.S. deserters wandering Canadian streets without supports is keeping activists of the War Resisters Support Campaign on a persistent trolling mission.
Recently, a third fugitive from the out-of-control Iraq war has surfaced from the shadows in T.O. - navy cryptological engineer Dave Sanders - and it's looking like there may be a lot more.
Blame it on the severity of the war (600 GI body bags to date) and a form of servitude known as "stop loss" orders, compelling reservists who have already done their required weekend stints to serve in Iraq and some 40,000 soldiers in the war zone to stay on indefinitely, way beyond their contract time.
"These policies and a failed war are motivating soldiers to desert," says Gerry Condon, a rep of the campaign and a former Vietnam War deserter who has returned here from the U.S. specifically to work with GIs on the lam.
"Many are not aware there is a support network for them," says Condon, whose group meets twice a month at Trinity-St.Paul's Centre on Bloor to plan for an influx of refugees. He's heard rumours of two more young men hiding in Toronto and believes there are a least half a dozen residing in Vancouver.
The efforts to find deserters have already turned up Sanders, now believed to be the first to arrive in this country. He became the third American, after Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, to apply for refugee status with the help of Toronto lawyer Jeffery House.
Until the two other desertions became public, Sanders - who took off three weeks before he was due to be shipped to Iraq - survived on the fringes, sleeping in homeless shelters, forever fearful that if discovered he'd be returned immediately. "I had to keep all these feelings in," he says about refusing orders and turning his back on a military family tradition.
His parents, he says, "pushed me into the military. My dad was a marine for 12 years. My grandfather on my mom's side was in World War II (and so was) my grandfather on my dad's side."
The day Hinzman went public, Sanders began telling everyone and anyone that he, too, was one of these guys. He says others are laying low, awaiting the outcome of the Hinzman hearing, which is scheduled for three days in October, though it could take months before he is either granted asylum or begins the long process of heading toward the exit.
Sanders says he doesn't really know "how many of us there are" on Canadian streets, though his familiarity with the networks in the underground leads him to believe there are about 30.
The U.S. Army reports that the number of refusing-to-report-for-duty and desertion cases are declining (desertion meaning AWOL for 30 consecutive days), but the California-based GI Rights Hotline doesn't believe it.
The group, a non-profit network of conscientious objectors, reports a spike in AWOL inquiry calls. Some soldiers are phoning in on the run; incredibly, the hotline has even taken calls from the war zone. To stem the loss of troops, the organization says, the U.S. Department of Defense is suggesting its warriors take their rest and relaxation leave in Germany.
"We've gotten calls from people on leave from Iraq, and they're so traumatized that they intend not to go back. It's heavy. Even in Vietnam it was very strict - you got out after one year. They've never done this kind of thing," says Hotline coordinator Steve Morris on the blower from Oakland.
Morris says he hears GI grunts talking about making a run for the border, but explains to them "that times are different. Canada has changed. We do let them know about asylum options. People going to Canada intend never to return."
Sanders certainly has become smitten with Toronto, and marrying here (which could make his claim easier) is definitely a possibility.
As for Hughey, he's sought refuge in St. Catharines, which feels a lot like the sleepy west Texas town he hails from. The differences are the little things, like Tim Hortons. Chatting with him over Timbits, I suddenly feel like an older brother grilling his kid sister's credulous boyfriend. Hughey is patiently waiting for a work permit, his employment prospects the same as those of any other teen with an inkling of knowledge in this town - telemarketing.
"I've been told that," he says, grimacing, when informed that the good gigs these days are in the teleservice field, replacing the old standby, GM. He'd like to work in a grocery store. Hughey should definitely be slinging melons, not hand grenades.
War resisters here hope that the federal Liberals will be true to their Vietnam past and allow GIs, who are mostly "poverty recruits," to stay here.
"We want the government to smile on these boys," says Carolyn Egan, a campaign coordinator whose partner was a Vietnam resister. "We want to raise their public profile. I think strong public support will help."
Back in the Vietnam days, the feds played with the rules until draft dodgers could sail in - that's what lawyer Garry Segal says.
He worked at the Toronto airport in the immigration department back then while attending law school. "I'm convinced Trudeau was behind it," he says.
The law remains, he says, that a person must apply outside Canada. But during the Vietnam War, "all of a sudden there was a regulatory and policy change, and Americans and only Americans could apply at the border. Many young American draft-age kids came," he says. "We weren't concerned with their military status. I never refused one."
But thus far the feds aren't doing any reg changes. At Citizenship and Immigration, a rep for Minister MP Judy Sgro, France Bureau, refuses to comment on war evaders applying for refugee status and cites the upcoming cases before the judiciary as a partial reason.
And one can only wonder what kinds of communications the U.S. has had with Canada over these military fugitives or what kinds of pressures have been exerted. State Department spokesperson Susan Pittman maintains that "Canada can consider any request for asylum. The decision is a sovereign issue." But she goes on to say that she is hampered by the Privacy Act and "can't even confirm if Canada has contacted us. I'm sorry, my hands are tied."
Certainly the glory days of Canadian immigration, when a young man could pull up to the customs booth at the border, show a letter of employment and be granted refuge, are gone. "We came up when Canada had the best immigration policy in the world," Condon recalls. "The Toronto Anti-Draft Program would get you a job offer. Then you'd smuggle yourself back into the States and come back up with the job offer."
As Sanders's entry into Canada illustrates, it's still fairly easy for military personnel to flee north. "I took the Greyhound. I got across with my military ID. I didn't need a passport. I told the [customs officer] that I wanted to see Canada."
Condon advises anyone thinking of running to come in as a visitor and, once arrived, apply for refugee status. But what are the chances of actually winning legal asylum?
Randy Hahn, a member of the executive of the immigration section of the Ontario Bar Association, says these claims are going to be very tough to win. "Broadly speaking, military service doesn't translate to persecution. There's a possibility that the nature of what soldiers are ordered to do can translate into refugee status, although they knew of the possibility of armed conflict.
"Nothing is impossible," he concedes. "But the general perception is that Canada shouldn't accept Americans." Hinzman, Hughey and Sanders will likely have to appeal their ruling. Then, as a last kick at the can, they can be given a risk assessment by the Immigration Refugee Board before deportation. The assessment, Hahn warns, has a 3 or 4 per cent success rate.
Segal says it's unlikely the feds will tinker with immigration rules in favour of these refugees unless the political climate heats up considerably. And nothing will heat it up more than the arrival of a U.S. military draft. "It was the draft that took the fight into the mainstream (here)," he says, "because it drew in the middle class."