October 29, 2009

Conscience behind bars: A visit with a friend in prison, War Resister, Cliff Cornell

We Move To Canada blogger, Laura Kaminker, has an article in the Mark:
Canada should be a refuge from militarism, not deporting U.S. war resisters who refuse to deploy in Iraq.
Laura Kaminker Freelance writer; activist.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Michelle Robidoux, Christine Beckermann, and Janet Goodfellow packed up Michelle’s little red Hyundai and headed out of Toronto before dawn. They crossed the border at Lewiston and continued south, through the autumn colours of Pennsylvania, past the traffic snarling around Washington D.C. The three Canadian women, friends and colleagues of mine from the War Resisters Support Campaign, were on their way to Camp Lejeune, a sprawling U.S. Marine Corps complex outside Fayetteville, North Carolina. Our friend Clifford Cornell is imprisoned there.

Cliff joined the U.S. Army in 2004 but refused to deploy to Iraq. He came to Canada in 2005, and lived for years on Gabriola Island, a quiet arts community off the coast of Vancouver Island near Nanaimo. In February 2009, his refugee claim denied and his appeals exhausted, Cliff was ordered to leave Canada. When he returned to the U.S., he was arrested, court-martialed – that is, he was tried by his accusers with no opportunity to raise a defence – and sentenced to a year in military prison.

The three friends spent the night in a motel in Virginia, steeled themselves in the morning, and passed through the gates of Camp Lejeune. After surrendering everything they carried, including car keys and passports, they joined a long line of families waiting to visit a loved one in the brig.

“As soon as we got in line,” says Christine, “I was filled with a really strong anger, almost overwhelming. This is what our government had done to Cliff.”

Conscience behind bars

Cliff, wearing an orange jumpsuit, was shocked and overjoyed to see his friends from the north. After many hugs and a few tears, he told them about life in the brig, a world of constant frustration, zero privacy, and endless boredom. Rules that govern every aspect of life seem designed to break any bonds that might form between inmates. Cliff can’t even share a book – if he receives one in the mail, it goes in the trash after he reads it.

Cliff lives in a barracks with 40 other young men; he’s allowed outside one hour each day. His sentence is three to four times as long as those of his fellow inmates, even men convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder.

“Conditions are very harsh,” says Christine, “but that wasn’t what made me angry. How the U.S. military runs its brigs – there’s nothing surprising about that. What’s shocking is that our government would participate in putting people who’ve done the right thing into that position. And after [deported war resister] Robin Long was sentenced to 15 months, and Cliff for a year, they’re still moving to do the same thing to other people. It’s outrageous.”

When visiting hours ended, Cliff and the other inmates were strip-searched and sent back to their barracks. “We felt so bad leaving him,” says Janet. “Here’s this guy who did the right thing, who obeyed international law, and followed his conscience. He should be on Gabriola Island, with a community and a job, but instead he’s sitting in prison.”

“But they volunteered!”

Canadians who oppose U.S. war resisters remaining in Canada usually fixate on one note. This is different than Vietnam, they say. In those days, people were avoiding a draft; these soldiers volunteered. First, it’s not true. And second, it doesn’t matter.

Of the estimated 50,000 Americans who came to Canada during the Vietnam War, about 10,000 were not escaping the draft: they volunteered for service, but when they saw what was really happening in Vietnam, they deserted and came north – and Canada allowed them to stay.
The Iraq War resisters volunteered, but what did they volunteer for? They promised to protect and defend their country, but as we all know, Iraq was never a threat to the United States. Even Stephen Harper has admitted that the Iraq War – which he supported and would have sent Canadian troops to – was “absolutely an error.”

What about stop-loss, the “back-door draft” that would have sent war resister Rodney Watson – now living in sanctuary in a Vancouver church – back to Iraq against his will? An estimated 15,000 U.S. servicepeople are in Iraq through stop-loss, some on their third and even fourth involuntary deployment.

What about recruiting lies? War resisters Kimberly Rivera and Joshua Key were told that because they had children, they would never be sent overseas.

But more importantly, what difference does it make if the origin of military service was voluntary? Can signing a contract possibly be more important than the human right of conscience? Does Canada want to stand for justice, or act as an enforcement agent for the Pentagon?

What can be done, what should be done

Rodney Watson shouldn’t have to hide in a church. Cliff Cornell, James Burmeister, and Robin Long shouldn’t have prison records and felony convictions that will hamper their opportunities forever. Kimberly Rivera and Jeremy Hinzman shouldn’t live in fear of their families being broken up.

The Canadian Parliament has twice passed motions calling on the government to stop deporting war resisters and allow them to stay. While officially non-binding, the two motions clearly expressed the will of a majority of Canadian people. The minority Conservative government ignored them both.

Now the House of Commons has an historic opportunity to put the weight of law behind those motions. Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy (Parkdale-High Park) has introduced Bill C-440, a private member’s bill that would allow U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada. Although private member’s bills usually have little chance of passage, this one has the support of all three opposition parties.

The question is, how many more people of conscience will be deported before C-440 comes to a vote?

The eyes of the world are watching. To borrow a phrase from former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s reputation as a “refuge from militarism” hangs by a thread.

The complete interview with Christine Beckermann and Janet Goodfellow about their visit with Cliff Cornell will be available at We Move To Canada.

-thanks to the Mark

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