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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — For more than five years, former U.S. soldier Rodney Watson has lived as a prisoner, confined to a church that serves a poor neighborhood here.
Wanted on charges of desertion in the United States and marked for deportation from Canada, he’s invoked the protection of sanctuary. Following a tradition established in medieval times, the Canada Border Services Agency officers have refrained from entering the church. Watson is safe from arrest as long as he stays within its walls.
There are as many as two dozen men and women like Watson living in Canada today. Self-described conscientious objectors or resisters to the 2003 Iraq war, they have applied to Canadian refugee and immigration boards, but their applications have been stalled in courts for years. They remain in various states of legal limbo.
Most live with their families and are awaiting the outcome of immigration appeals. A few have work permits, while others are forced to sit idle. Some have exhausted legal options and have gone into hiding.
Watson’s lifestyle is among the most restrictive of any deserter from the 2003 war. He lives in a small room at the church; his wife, who is Canadian, and their 5-year-old son split their time between the church and relatives’ homes in a Vancouver suburb. The building doubles as a shelter that takes in upwards of 200 homeless people, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addiction. Border security officers maintain a strong interest in his case.
In his room on the church’s second floor, Watson said the extra scrutiny his immigration application has received stems from his anti-war views.
“I really believe that if I hadn’t spoken out before I came in this church, I would never have had a target painted on me,” he said. “But I came up here for a reason. I didn’t come up here to be quiet. I came up here to make a stand, and I’m still taking a stand, even though it’s been five years.”
After moving to Vancouver, Watson voiced his opposition to U.S. military actions abroad in numerousinterviews with Canadian media, but he’s grown quiet since the start of the year. Watson said he’s discouraged. He noted that during the time he has lived in the church, the United States has withdrawn from one war in Iraq and entered another.
Today U.S. forces are again bombing in Iraq and more than 3,000 American soldiers are deployed on the ground. Canada is also launching air strikes targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which began in early November.
“I lost a friend while I was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, and there’s not a day that I don’t think about why and for what?” Watson recently wrote on Facebook. “And here we go again.”
The Canadian government says that American deserters are not legitimate refugees. Officials have stated publicly that war resisters’ immigration applications are unlikely to be approved. In the United States, deserters who return from Canada face a higher risk of prosecution and jail time than if they’d never left, their lawyers say.
There is, however, a chance that war resisters’ circumstances could soon change. Canada is scheduled to hold a federal election in 2015. Watson and deserters across the country are placing their hopes on two opposition candidates who are sympathetic to their cause.
Watson originally supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But during a 12-month tour that began in 2005, he said he witnessed U.S. soldiers acting in condescending ways toward Iraqi civilians.
“Midway through my deployment, after I witnessed other soldiers doing certain things — how they would take out their aggression on unarmed civilians — it reminded me of how the police do us [black Americans] in our own country.”
Watson’s family moved to Kansas when he was 5, and he recalled that some people in their new neighborhood didn’t take kindly to their arrival.
“We were just watching TV, me and my brothers and sisters,” he said. “And all of the sudden, this brick comes through the window. Glass hits my brother in the face. I got hit in the face. Scratches on me and everything. My mom came running in and scooped us up and brought us upstairs. And all I heard was, ‘N-----, n-----, n-----!’ ”
The war in Iraq brought back those memories, said Watson, except this time, as a soldier, he was a member of the group throwing bricks. “They would use the same word,” he explained. “Calling them ‘sand n------’ when they would hit unarmed Iraqis.”
As Watson grew disillusioned, a friend employed by a private security contractor was killed in an Iraqi attack on a helicopter. “That was the tipping point for me,” he said.
He completed his tour. But when he was called for a second deployment to Iraq, in late 2006, Watson made the decision to desert. In November of that year, he moved to Vancouver.
One of the very first war resisters to move to Canada this century was Joshua Key, who entered the country in 2005. Today he lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his wife, whom he met in Canada, and their three children. “From my time in Iraq, I know that we created a whole generation of terrorists,” Key said. “And now Canada is sending planes and advisers over.”
Dean Walcott, who deserted in 2006, has it better than most war resisters. He has a work permit and lives with his family in Peterborough, Ontario. But after eight years, he still hasn’t obtained permanent residency status. Like Watson, Walcott said his political activism has led Canadian authorities to stall his immigration application. He continues to speak his mind. “Once again, here we go,” he said about the U.S.-led fight against ISIL and other armed groups in the region.
Regardless of their reasons for leaving the Army, the soldiers who moved to Canada face harsh penalties should they return to the United States.
Cliff Cornell, who lived in British Columbia from 2005 to 2009, was sentenced to one year in prison after he returned of his own accord. Robin Long, who lived in B.C. from 2005 to 2008 before he was deported, was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to 15 months. Kimberly Rivera lived in Toronto with her American family from 2007 to 2013. When she returned voluntarily to the United States, she was court martialed and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, she was denied an early release and gave birth in jail.
According to statistics supplied by the U.S. Army, only a fraction of deserters — 1,866 of 35,598 from 2001 to 2013 — are prosecuted. But when individuals are selected for prosecution, they are very likely to be found guilty: During that same period, the conviction rate was 99 percent.
U.S. Army representatives declined interviews for this story. Lieut. Col. Ben Garrett, a media-relations officer, wrote in an email that decisions regarding prosecution and punishment are made on a case-by-case basis: “Commanders have discretion to retain and rehabilitate, administratively separate, or court-martial a Soldier who was AWOL or who deserted.”
James Branum, an Oklahoma City-based lawyer who has represented eight deserters, argued that politics is a factor. He said that roughly 50 percent of those who seek to emigrate are prosecuted. (The Army declined to comment).
“It depends a lot on the branch of service you’re from, it depends on how political you were, and it depends on if you applied for asylum in Canada,” he said. “Certainly, if you went to Canada, and the more politically you were in Canada, the more outspoken you were in the press, the more likely it is that they will get you.”
Alyssa Manning, a Toronto-based lawyer who represents Watson and other war resisters, said deserters also receive special attention from authorities north of the border. For example, in July 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada issued an operational bulletin that instructs lower-level staff to forward to superiors any refugee claim that involves a military deserter.
“It’s an unusual move for the minister to issue a directive that all cases of one particular type have to go to headquarters to be processed out of there,” she said.
Representatives with Citizenship and Immigration Canada declined repeated requests for an interview. In an email, Kevin Menard, an agency spokesman, wrote that each claim is assessed on its individual merits. However, the email also depicts a government position that is unsympathetic to deserters’ circumstances. “Military deserters from the United States are not genuine refugees under the internationally accepted meaning of the term,” it states. “These unfounded claims clog up our system for genuine refugees who are actually fleeing persecution.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, which has led Canada since 2006, have maintained that uncompromising position. According to Menard, Canada’s immigration and refugee board has rejected all of the cases it has heard concerning Iraq-war resisters. But the Harper administration is unpopular and could be on its way out. And there is a well-known precedent for the Canadian government to grant safe harbor to U.S. soldiers who refuse to fight.
In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of recruits for the Vietnam War fled north and were given legal status in Canada by a government that had declared itself “officially non-belligerent” in the conflict.
The two main contenders for Harper’s job bothoppose Canadian involvement in the fight against ISIL; war deserters hope that they will look more favorably on their cases. Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, has not taken a stance on the war resister issue (and declined repeated requests for an interview on the topic). But it was Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, who, as prime minister, granted permanent residency to Vietnam deserters in the 1960s and ’70s.
The 2015 election could also bring to power Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, which has been sympathetic to conscientious objectors. NDP’s Libby Davies, who represents the district in British Columbia where Watson lives, has befriended the Iraq-war veteran, even sharing Thanksgiving dinners with him and his family in years past.
Davies has tried to help war resisters obtain clemency in Canada. Her party has drafted and passed nonbinding resolutions to stop the deportation of war resisters. And Davies has repeatedly written every minister of immigration who has held power since deserters from the Iraq war began arriving in Canada.
“Whatever government it is, I want to see this young man be able to stay in this country with his wife and his son,” she said.
The Canada Border Services Agency appears to have a long attention span for Watson and his case. Watson entered the church in September 2009, and three years later, in January 2013, he was nearly apprehended by CBSA agents waiting in an alley behind the building. Watson leaned out of a door to say goodbye to a friend and officers attempted to grab him. The friend intervened, positioning himself in between the officer and Watson, who was able to maneuver back inside the church to the protection it afforded him.
Watson said he simply doesn’t understand why war resisters like him are of such concern to the Canadian government. “We are here in Canada because of our conscience,” he said. “We are here because we didn’t agree with killing or dying for a lie. And look: Now we’re back at it again.”