Sunday, March 22, 2009

Canadian MP Chow Speaks Out for Robin Long

Headlines Activist San Diego Meeting Supporting War Resister

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN • Photo of Olivia Chow by Charles Nelson

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Activist San Diego put together an impressive list of speakers for its March 16 meeting on the fate of U.S. war resister Robin Long — including Olivia Chow, a member of the Canadian Parliament who helped lead an unsuccessful struggle to persuade her country’s government to grant Long political asylum instead of returning him to the U.S. — but the most powerful voice of all came from someone who wasn’t there: Robin Long himself. Now serving a 15-month sentence at the brig at Miramar, and facing a dishonorable discharge and a 10-year ban on his return to Canada — a particularly brutal punishment given that his wife and their son are Canadians — Long communicated with the group via an open letter subsequently released online on March 19 at

Long and Chow both placed the blame for Canada’s refusal to grant Long asylum on the ruling Conservative Party and its prime minister, Stephen Harper, a strong political ally of former U.S. President George W. Bush (whose first post-presidential foreign visit was to Canada, where Harper publicly greeted him warmly). “The Conservatives are destroying Canada’s tradition of being a refuge from militarism and an asylum from those escaping injustice — a tradition that goes back to the time of slavery,” Long wrote in his letter, which was read at the Activist meeting by Jan Ruhman of the San Diego chapters of Veterans for Peace and Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. “Who are they working for, really? The days of Bush have ended. The new Obama administration has a different view and different policies. It’s time for Mr. Stephen Harper to change his view.”

Long called on the Canadian government to follow the wishes of both the Canadian people — opinion polls there have shown a majority of Canadians support granting asylum to U.S. war resisters — and the Canadian Parliament, which passed non-binding resolutions specifically urging the government to harbor both Long and a previous war resister, Jeremy Hinzman. Long’s letter explained that it was in Hinzman’s case that the Conservative government got the judge at his refugee hearing to rule “that evidence challenging the legality of the war in Iraq can’t be used in this case” — thereby ensuring that both Hinzman and Long himself would be deported to the U.S. and would face courts martial on desertion charges.

Chow, a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) — the farthest Left of Canada’s four major political parties — and the life partner of the party’s leader, Jack Layton, boasted that her party not only led the opposition to Canada sending troops to Iraq as part of Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” but she personally pushed through the parliamentary resolution urging the government to give Long asylum. “We have said no to Iraq, and under the NDP we tried to say no to ‘Star Wars,’” Chow recalled. “We were under tremendous pressure to say yes. My partner met with Bush and said, ‘No, there are Canadians who said no to Mr. Bush.’ We have a minority government. The majority of Canadians say no, don’t deport the war resisters. The majority in Parliament said no, but Harper chose to ignore the Parliament and the people.”

Reporting on her visit to Long in the Miramar brig earlier in the day, Chow said, “To see him in there, his spirit is pretty good. Here is a young man who’s losing his freedom for 15 months for speaking out in Canada, and he is being punished extra hard. Imagine not being able to see your son for 10 years or more. He said that when his trial was going on, all the evidence against him was his public statement that ‘I feel my President lied to me.’ In the Viet Nam war we let in 50,000 resisters, not just the ‘dodgers’ but the ones who went and then left. Initially the [Canadian] government of that day said no. It was the people who rose up, led by the churches at the beginning and then by the minister of immigration, and said yes, at first to the ‘dodgers’ and ultimately through waves of amnesty until everyone could stay.”

At the meeting, Chow was introduced by Dawn O’Brien of Parents of Military Families, who described herself as “not a Democrat, no longer a Republican, not a progressive or a liberal and definitely not a dittohead.” A native of Arizona, she moved to San Diego when she got tired of the long drive to see the three servicemembers in her family — a son, a daughter and a son-in-law — when they were stationed here. “My son has been in the Marines five years,” O’Brien said. “He will be getting out on April 23, his 23rd birthday, and that will be the best birthday present he’s ever got. My daughter will be going back to Kansas. My son-in-law has been in the Marines for six years and he just re-enlisted” — because, she added ruefully, he couldn’t bring himself to turn down the $70,000 signing bonus both he and her son were offered to stay on.

“I’m here tonight as a mother, to try to help you understand what military families go through,” O’Brien said. When her son and son-in-law were in Iraq, “I had sleepless nights and nightmares. Phones ringing would create great anxiety. I have two teenagers next door, and their father is a colonel. When their car door closed, I’d feel there must be a U.S. government van in front of my door. I could picture two Marines walking to my door, and all I could do was scream, ‘Which one? Which one?’” O’Brien said her nerves were in such a state that when she heard the song “Far Away” by Nickelback at a friend’s house she freaked out — because it was one of the songs she and her son had picked out to be played at his funeral should he die in combat.

O’Brien also said that while her family members were serving in Iraq she regularly logged onto the Web site and compulsively watched CNN, knowing that she couldn’t get any specific information from those sources but still hoping that they could give her an idea whether her son and son-in-law were alive or dead. “My biggest fear last summer was something happening with Iran,” she recalled. “I would fear when my daughter called and her husband and my son were in Iraq.” O’Brien said she tried to get through the ordeal with humor — “My son would call from Iraq and I would joke, ‘You must be doing a lousy job, gas is almost $5 a gallon’” — and she didn’t get involved in the peace movement until she saw a Veterans for Peace DVD of one of their “Arlington West” displays, in which members set up crosses in a public place and read the names of war dead.

In addition to reading Long’s letter, Ruhman made some comments of his own, in which he linked the persistence of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the country’s economic woes. He recalled that he joined Viet Nam Veterans Against the War in 1974, three years after he got out of the Marines, and called for the peace movement to revive the efforts to organize active-duty servicemembers that led to the establishment of anti-war “coffeehouses” near U.S. military bases and groups like FTA (whose initials variously spelled out “Free the Army” and “Fuck the Army”) to encourage more people in the military to resist.

“Every place there’s a war resister, someone needs to adopt them,” Ruhman said. “We need to let them know that we raised them to make moral choices, even jail or desertion, over fighting an unjust war. These are noble, moral souls, and I support them.” He called Long “smarter than me and a brother I just met” — referring to audience member Carlos Summers, an Iraq Veterans Against the War member who joined the peace movement only after he left the military.