Making the Journey North (Again)

A senior Friend says, half-jokingly, that every time the United States goes to war, the Canadians get to deal with it. From the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, to Vietnam and now Iraq, there are consequences for Canada when those dissenting in the United States pick up and move north. Canadian Friends have historically offered housing, food, legal help, money, and moral support. Today U.S. soldiers moving into Canada to keep from being deployed to Iraq need the same. Religious and peace groups, along with individuals, are assisting some 25 or more resisters and their families in their claims for refugee status with Canadian Immigration. An estimated several hundred more resisters prefer instead to remain hidden deep in Canada. New resisters arrive daily into Toronto and, more recently, into Vancouver on the West Coast.

I sit in Toronto Meeting. The man across the room from me wears a military dog tag. Later I learn that he has engraved it to say, "That of God in everyone." It is a spring day and, outside the meeting room window, tall tulips and newly flowered trees speak to us in silence from the garden. In the room is a young soldier, Jeremy Hinzman, who is one of the two lead plaintiffs for the U.S. resisters in a case before the Canadian government. His wife, Nga Nguyen, is upstairs in Religious Education with their three-year-old son, Liam.

Jeremy is inspired by the lives and writings of Dorothy Day and of Philip Berrigan, who went to prison for his beliefs. Another role model is Chuck Fager, who directs Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C. Jeremy and Nga began attending Fayetteville Meeting when he was stationed in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. After Jeremy, Nga, and Liam moved to Canada, Toronto Quaker House helped Jeremy complete his application for conscientious objector status, which the Army claims to have lost during his tour of duty in Afghanistan.

During the Vietnam War, more than 50,000 draft-age men and women from the United States migrated to Canada. Many stayed and became active in communities across the country. Many from this earlier migration now help to support the Iraq soldier resisters, who arrive daily. But the legal situation is very different today than during the Vietnam War. The Canadian government does not recognize these resisters. They apply for refugee status, and then they wait. After six to eight months, they can obtain work permits and health services. In the interim, Quakers and Catholic Workers help with housing and other basic needs.

Canadian Friends Service Committee, housed at Toronto Friends House, also helps these individuals and works to establish favorable public policy. A briefing paper they wrote helps us understand how much Canadian immigration policy has changed since Vietnam. They work closely with the War Resisters Support Campaign, a coalition of labor and religious groups, veterans, and socialists, in a petition campaign to Parliament, asking for a special status to be enacted if all legal appeals fail, as they are almost certain to do given the present Canadian political leadership. Jane Orion Smith, CFSC General Secretary, and Charlie Diamond, a Vietnam resister, attended the Friends General Conference Gathering this summer to gather U.S. signatures for the petition campaign. (Readers can learn about these actions at the CFSC website at

Lawyer Jeffry House, a Vietnam-era youth who, years ago, nervously drove his Volkswagen Beetle decorated with flowers from Wisconsin into Canada, provides legal counsel to U.S. war objectors in Canada. He argues in federal court that the war is illegal under international law and that going there would make these soldiers complicit in war crimes. The case has attracted international attention but has scarcely been noticed by media in the United States. As of the time of this writing, a loss in the lower courts has been appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals with a court date to be announced shortly.

After meeting, there is tea and soup since today is the day for meeting for business. Liam bounces around, happy to see everyone. Jeremy helps clean up in the kitchen. Nga talks quietly with her new friends. Later I meet with Jeremy and then Nga to record their story for the GI Rights Oral History Project. The young family entered Canada in January 2004, after Jeremy refused deployment to Iraq.

The purpose of our interview is not to talk only about their legal appeals. Instead we talk about being Quakers, what community means to them, their role models, reading and writing, daily living, and hopes for the future.

Jeremy works as a bicycle messenger in downtown Toronto. He and his family await the next step in their legal challenge. In the meantime, Jeremy volunteers with the War Resister Support Campaign and serves on the Quaker Meeting Refugee Committee, which assisted 600 refugees from all over the world last year. Jeremy fears that if the Canadian courts refuse him refugee status, he will be returned to the United States, tried by a military tribunal and sent to prison. If, instead, he is allowed to stay in Canada, he would someday like to earn a master’s degree in Religious Studies. Toronto has become a home for the family and a place they hope to stay.

Jeremy’s decision has not been easy for his immediate family back home in South Dakota. His grandfather, a Korean War veteran, found it difficult to understand at first. He has been shunned for his grandson’s actions by other walkers at the mall, where he goes each day for exercise. But he traveled to Toronto to visit the young family this past summer and appears to be more comfortable with his grandson’s advocacy. Jeremy’s mother has become active with Military Families Speak Out in South Dakota, while his grandmother only wants what is best for her loved ones.

Nga is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. Her dad was a mechanic at the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the war. Nga and her family arrived in South Dakota from a refugee camp in Laos when she was two years old. They are grateful to the United States for giving them a new start. Her parents’ first language is Vietnamese, while hers is English. So a language barrier complicates her ability to really know what her parents think about Jeremy’s decision to desert the U.S. Army. Nga and Liam returned home to live when Jeremy was stationed in Afghanistan, and it was stressful. A former Head Start teacher and social worker, Nga recently completed her first Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) training weekend. She is happy to be a full-time mother, and has made new friends through Liam’s playgroup.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is only several years old and works out of a small office donated by the local labor council. In a short time, they have produced a website (), buttons, T-shirts, a video telling the resisters’ stories, and other campaign items. The Campaign coordinates media requests, educational programs, and the petition campaign to Parliament. A lobbying campaign with individual members of Parliament to "Let Them Stay" has begun. Michelle Robidoux, a skilled organizer, maintains regular contact with the resisters. Lee Zaslofsky, a Vietnam resister, staffs the office, handling e-mail, telephone, and all the planning necessary for good organizing. Coalition members meet weekly to plan the program. Fundraising, even for a small budget, is always on the agenda. The Campaign has recently established a branch operation to assist the new resisters coming into Canada on the West Coast.

In June, the Campaign partnered with Iraq Veterans Against the War for a symbolic "Peace has No Borders" meeting between the resister soldiers, the Iraq veterans, and other antiwar activists. Meeting just across Lake Erie from the United States, the Iraq Veterans Against the War walked across the Peace Bridge and into Ft. Erie, a Canadian park, for a day of conversation, music, and planning. This is the same bridge that many Vietnam resisters crossed on their way into Canada. Laura Jones came to Canada on this same route with her husband almost 40 years ago. She recalls that they followed several carloads of Quakers, who were taking money to Canadian Friends Service Committee for peaceful uses in Vietnam. Toronto became Laura’s permanent home. Having attended the Fayetteville, N.C., peace rally in March 2004, where she and her son filmed their documentary, Fayetteville: Forward March Toward Peace, Laura noted that everyone there went through the metal detector and opened their bags for police. In Ft. Erie, she found no security present—only a lovely picnic atmosphere.

Quakers were well-represented here too. The deserters wore black shirts with "AWOL" lettered on them. Several resister families were present. Cindy Sheehan and other mothers spoke. The decision to establish an Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter in Canada for the U.S. resisters was announced. And so the movement grows and the peace work continues.

Jane Orion Smith of Canadian Friends Service Committee says that "the Peace Testimony is Friends’ cross to bear—life-giving and transformative, painful and trying." Clearly, there is work here for all of us.

Betsy Brinson

Betsy Brinson, a member of Richmond (Va.) Meeting, serves on the board of Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C. She grew up in a military family at nearby Fort Bragg. A public historian, she is the founder of the GI Rights Oral History Project, which seeks to document the stories of soldiers, families, and advocacy groups opposed to the war in Iraq. Readers can learn more about Jeremy and Nga's journey at