Five years have passed since Rodney Watson sought sanctuary inside the First United Church in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
During that time, one American war in Iraq has ended and another has begun.
“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.”
Watson served in Iraq through 2005 and 2006 before he grew disillusioned with former president George W. Bush’s stated reasons for going to war. Rather than deploy for a second tour, he deserted and moved north in November 2006. Pursued by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials after the government rejected his refugee claim, he has remained in the church since September 2009 to evade deportation.
Watson maintains he is being punished for making public statements like the one he wrote on Facebook.
“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 in his room on the building’s second floor. “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.”
On October 3, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans for Canadian forces to join an American-led coalition fighting Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria. The deployment is expected to last a minimum of six months.
Watson warned that America and its allies are repeating the same mistakes they made through the war that began in 2003.
“This is an Islamic, domestic problem that does not need western intervention,” he argued. “It doesn’t need that. It needs the people of Iraq and the people of the Middle East to figure it out for themselves.”
It is estimated that there were once as many as 50 U.S. army deserters living in Canada. In recent years, most returned to the United States to face court-martial hearings and, in some cases, time in prison. But a group of about 15 remain in Vancouver and other cities in various states of legal limbo.
Those with work visas are legally employed while others sit idle. Watson’s circumstances—confined to the church while his Canadian wife and five-year-old son live in Coquitlam—are among the most restrictive.
On the phone from Toronto, Watson’s lawyer, Alyssa Manning, said Iraq-war resisters receive special attention from the federal government. She recalled that in July 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) issued an operational bulletin ordering immigration officers to forward cases involving military deserters to regional program advisers.
“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.
Manning emphasized that when those appeals have failed, American authorities have prosecuted war resisters on charges of desertion. She pointed to the case of Kimberly Rivera, a mother of five who lived with her American family in Toronto from 2007 to 2013. In February 2013, Rivera returned to the U.S., was court-martialled, and sentenced to 10 months in a military prison in San Diego.
Two war resisters who lived in B.C. faced similarly harsh punishments upon returning to the U.S. In April 2009, authorities handed Cliff Cornell a one-year sentence, and in August 2009, Robin Long received a 15-month sentence in a military prison.
According to Manning, only six percent of U.S. army deserters are actually prosecuted. (The rest see their files closed with a dishonourable discharge.)
“I think the real difference is whether or not they have embarrassed the military or made statements about the conduct of the U.S. military on the ground in the previous war in Iraq,” she said.
Both CIC and CBSA refused requests for interviews.
On the phone from Ottawa, Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East, said she has repeatedly requested that Iraq-war resisters be granted permanent residency in Canada.
“I spoke to the minister himself [Chris Alexander] a few weeks ago about Rodney’s case and asked him to look at it again,” she said. “I want to see this young man be able to stay in this country with his wife and his son.”
Davies praised Watson for choosing what she described as the harder path.
“The easy thing for him to do would have been to just go along with the U.S. army,” she said. “He chose the more difficult route to be a conscientious objector.”
Watson has all but given up on the idea of leaving the church before Harper is voted out of Ottawa. He said he’s waiting for the next federal election, in October 2015, when he hopes Canadians will elect Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Watson noted that when Trudeau’s father was prime minister, he allowed thousands of U.S. army deserters to remain in Canada so they could avoid fighting in the Vietnam War.
“I’m hoping if he does win, he will honour his father’s tradition,” Watson added.
In the meantime, Watson said he’s writing a book, working on music, and looking forward to his son’s sixth birthday in December.
“I want my son to know that I am fighting for him,” he continued. “I was a good soldier. I was willing to risk my life in Iraq and I don’t mind risking my life and my freedom again for my wife and my son. I really don’t.”