Canada Turns Back on Conscientious Objector

The Conservatives should let Kimberly Rivera, who moved to Canada rather than fight in Iraq, stay in this country. Unless Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney intervenes Rivera will be deported tomorrow.

Rivera is thought to be the first ever woman to flee the U.S. military for Canada. While unique in this way, Riviera’s story is a classic case of a young working class person who joined the military to improve their family’s economic prospects. With her and her husband working at a Walmart in Mesquite, Texas, she enlisted in January 2006 hoping to make life better for her two young children. An $8000 signing bonus and health insurance were some of what enticed this young mother of two.

While Rivera expected to spend her time at a Colorado base, she soon found herself guarding a foreign operating base in Iraq.  It was from this vantage point that she became disillusioned with the war. Riviera was troubled by a two-year-old Iraqi girl who came to the base with her family to claim compensation after a bombing by U.S. forces. “She was just petrified”, Rivera explained. “She was crying, but there was no sound, just tears flowing out of her eyes. She was shaking. I have no idea what had happened in her little life. All I know is I wasn’t seeing her: I was seeing my own little girl. I could imagine my daughter being one of those kids throwing rocks at soldiers because maybe someone she loved had been killed. That Iraqi girl haunts my soul.'”

Rivera had begun to empathize with the millions of Iraqis displaced by the war or whose families lost a loved one. On leave in the U.S. a few months later, Rivera was told she would be re-deployed overseas. Not wanting to participate in a war she now opposed and fearing that her young children might grow up without a mother, she fled north. In February 2007 Rivera and her family applied for refugee status in this country.

Amnesty International Canada has called her a conscientious objector and said they would consider Rivera a prisoner of conscience if she were imprisoned, which is likely if Ottawa expels her. With an arrest warrant awaiting her in the U.S., she will probably spend a year or more in prison for leaving the military and publicly criticizing the Iraq war.

Notwithstanding recent trends, this country has a history of providing sanctuary for conscientious objectors. In the early 1900s Canada opened its door to Mennonites and Doukhobors who didn’t want to fight for the Russian Czar. Similarly, Canada provided sanctuary to young Americans who refused to fight in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the Harper government has chosen to break with this tradition. Despite Parliament adopting two motions calling for Iraq war resisters to be allowed to stay, in July 2010 Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney directed immigration officers to red-flag these individuals’ applications. On another occasion the Minister publicly labeled Iraq war resisters “bogus refugee claimants”, which clearly impacted their ability to receive a fair hearing before the refugee board.

In the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and during the first two months of the war Stephen Harper intervened in the House of Commons more than 30 times in support of the U.S.-led campaign. But, as the Iraq war became unpopular Harper called it “absolutely an error”.

Similarly, it’s not too late for the Conservatives to reverse course on war resisters. Let Kimberly Rivera, and the other courageous young Americans who chose Canada over war, continue making their life here.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.