For Reluctant GIs, Canada Remains the Great White Hope

So far, only a trickle of U.S. soldiers are heading north to Canada to avoid serving in the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.

It is still relatively early in the conflict, which has not reached the level of the equally controversial U.S. military involvement in Vietnam three decades ago, says John Hagan, a professor of law and sociology at Northwestern University near Chicago.

"The scale of the American commitment in Iraq in terms of manpower is much smaller and the numbers of deaths are far smaller," he told IPS.

But if U.S. President George W. Bush decides to bring back compulsory military service as the Pentagon finds it increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers, there could be a repeat of the exodus that occurred starting in the late 1960s, he added.

Back then, the existence of a military draft during an increasingly intense U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War caused thousands of young U.S. men to flee to Canada rather than be forced to experience combat, says Hagan, a former draft evader himself from that period and the author of "Northern Passage: American War Resisters in Canada."

During the Vietnam War, a draft evader could cross the border into Canada from the U.S and successfully ask for landed immigrant status. Now, a prospective immigrant to this country must make his or her request from the country of origin.

Meanwhile, only a small number of the half million mostly working-class men and women who joined the U.S. military and then deserted rather than serve in Vietnam ended up in Canada, says Hagan.

"The deserters tend to be less highly educated than the draft resisters were. They often come more on the spur of the moment, with a short decision time. So they haven’t been able to prepare, they don’t have the resources in the first place," he adds.

What also discouraged U.S. deserters from coming to Canada during the Vietnam War was the possibility that they could be handed back to U.S. authorities under a Canada-U.S. agreement, says Laura Jones, a Toronto photographer and filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the latest generation of U.S. war resisters.

A former U.S. citizen who came with her then-husband, a draft evader, to Canada during the Vietnam War and is now a Canadian citizen, Jones has also discovered that many of the current U.S. military deserters are choosing to stay home and perhaps hide out for a while in their home country.

During a series of videotaped interviews with young deserters and their families in Fayetteville, North Carolina, also the site of a huge military base, Fort Bragg, she found "no consideration of coming to Canada."

Jones encountered both "surprise" and "sympathy" in Fayetteville with the high-profile case of Jeremy Hinzman, a former paratrooper for the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division at Fort Bragg who now works in Toronto as a bicycle courier.

Last month, the 25-year-old Hinzman lost his bid for refugee status in Canada. The country’s Immigration and Refugee board declined to consider Hinzman’s argument that he would be committing war crimes as a U.S soldier participating in an illegal intervention in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the U.S. military has chosen not to hunt down and prosecute the approximately 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers who are AWOL unless someone reports on their whereabouts, Jones told IPS.

Another young man who had left his post at Fort Bragg told Jones that if he stayed underground for six months, things would work out fine. Eventually, she says, "he would be discharged, (although) getting a job after that would be very difficult because of his dishonorable discharge."

At the moment, antiwar sentiment appears surprisingly strong in Fayetteville, a traditional military community populated by 131,000, where at least 60 soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

Jones interviewed women living on the Fort Bragg military base who are open about their peace sympathies even as their husbands serve in Iraq. "The women are actually going around and speaking to different groups against the war," Jones said. "I asked one of them how the other wives (on the base) treated her. And she said they treated her fine."

However, if the Iraq war continues to drag on and more U.S. soldiers head north, a support system awaits them in Toronto, where many of the Vietnam-era war resisters ended up settling in the 1960s, says Michelle Robidoux, a spokesperson for the War Resisters’ Support Campaign.

The local War Resisters’ Support Campaign lobbies the Canadian government to allow the U.S. dissidents to stay in Canada and works to provide clothing, food and accommodation for those already here.

The fact that Canada declined to participate in the U.S military assault in Iraq and its citizens still actively oppose the current U.S. role in that country should "translate into some kind of support for these war resisters," Robidoux told IPS.

Another former U.S. draft evader from the 1960s, Toronto lawyer Jeffrey House, says there are about eight young soldiers in similar circumstances to Jeremy Hinzman who have deserted the from U.S. military and sought legal refugee status in Canada. He estimates that there may be about 100 U.S. deserters in this country.

The Toronto lawyer suggests that other U.S. military deserters headed south of the border. "I happen to know that some of them are in Mexico because there is a significant number of Mexican-Americans who thought they’d get their papers (regarding their status in the U.S.), but did not reckon with the war in Iraq."

As Hinzman’s attorney, House is "optimistic" that his client will get a more receptive hearing in an appeal of the refugee board’s decision before the Federal Court of Canada – which could also refuse to hear the case.

Nevertheless, if Hinzman exhausts all of his legal options, the Canadian government may find it difficult to deport him to the U.S. in the current political climate.

"The image of Jeremy Hinzman or somebody else being handed over to the Americans to face a pretty near certainty of imprisonment – when you get to that moment, I think it will be a little different," Hagan said.