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Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin

Posted: October 17, 2007 09:43 PM

Canada: We Come in Peace


As a young hippie in the mid '70s hitch-hiking across Europe and Africa, I encountered tremendous hostility towards Americans because of US foreign policy. My government was killing people in Vietnam, supporting the white racists in South Africa, and had just overthrown Salvador Allende's democratic government in Chile. Ashamed, I looked northward and saw the enlightened Canadian government of Pierre Trudeau. When I heard John Lennon say that "if all politicians were like Pierre Trudeau there would be world peace," I was sold. Sight unseen, I adopted Canada as my spiritual homeland. I drew a maple leaf on my backpack, added "eh?" at the end of my sentences, and started calling myself a Canadian.


Over the years, I have reconciled myself to being a U.S. citizen and have dedicated my life to making my government one I can be proud of. But I continue to have a soft spot for Canada. I admire Canada's commitment to health care for all. The government's rational policy towards Cuba allows Canadians to vacation in Varadero while Americans are prohibited from "bathing with the enemy." Peace-loving Americans are forever grateful to Canada for accepting Vietnam war resisters and for spearheading the international treaty against landmines. And when Canada refused to join George Bush's Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq, the US peace movement showered the Canadian Embassy with flowers and thanks.


While I no long self-identify as Canadian, my ties to Canada are deep. The fair trade organization I cofounded, Global Exchange, has joined Canadian NGOs and labor unions to oppose NAFTA and other trade policies that hurt the poor and the environment. We organize cross-border strategy sessions on how to make businesses greener and more socially responsible. We pressure the auto companies to produce more fuel-efficient cars. We jointly visit factories from Mexico to China to improve conditions for workers making goods sold in our stores.


When I cofounded the women's peace group CODEPINK to prevent war with Iraq, we were honored to have Canadian parliamentarians stand with us in front of the White House during our four-month vigil. After the invasion, we joined with Canadians to set up an Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. And with more and more US soldiers from Iraq seeking refuge in Canada, we work with Canadians to support this new wave of war resisters.


It's not just war resisters making a beeline north. Some of our best peace activists, beaten down by the Bush administration, have immigrated to Canada. Others of us, determined to stay and struggle on our home turf, keep in the back of our minds that if the situation in the U.S. gets really bad, Canada will be our "exit strategy."


But my whole idea of a tolerant, independent Canada that we could retreat to came crashing down on October 4. With my colleague Ann Wright, a retired US Army Colonel and career diplomat who resigned in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, I was going to Toronto to meet with the Stop the War Coalition. We crossed the border at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. While most U.S. visitors are simply waved through with no screening, Ann and I were selected for a background check.


Let me preface what happened next with some context about the war itself and the U.S. peace movement. We have watched in horror as our leaders took this nation to war based on lies, since Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction and was never a threat to the United States. We have agonized over the death of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers. We have been heartbroken over the destruction of the cradle of civilization, with this war leaving some one million Iraqis dead, over 4 millions refugees, a wrecked infrastructure and a crumbling economy.


To counter this ongoing tragedy, many Americans, including Ann Wright and myself, have been working non-stop to bring our troops home. We left our homes and families to crisscross the country educating and mobilizing the public. We organized demonstrations, vigils, email blasts, call-in weeks, lobby days, media campaigns. And we turned to the ballot box to elect a new Congress in November 2006 with a mandate for peace.


But nothing worked. Despite having the majority of the public on our side, the Bush administration upped troop levels and the new Congress continued to fund the war.


So we took a page from the hallowed tradition of non-violence civil disobedience -- a tactic used by the civil rights movement, the suffragists, the gay rights activists, the disability movement, the environmentalists, the animal rights folks. It's a critical part of our heritage, our culture, our social change toolbox.


We organized mass arrests in front of the White House. (All you have to do to get arrested in front of the White House, by the way, is just stand there.) We did sit-ins in the offices of elected officials. We laid down in the streets, actions called "die-ins", to mourn the tragic deaths of US soldiers and Iraqis. For these protests, we have been arrested and convicted of minor misdemeanors. We are always peaceful -- remember, we're a peace movement -- and we have even developed a camaraderie with the DC police who understand our aims and respect our right to protest.


So, here we were at the Canadian border. The border officer checked our passports on a computer, and told us to sit down. More and more border guards gathered in a huddle, intensively discussing our situation. Then they called us, one at a time, to review our "criminal records."


I was shown a two-sheet print-out that had three convictions: one for unlawful assembly at the White House on International Women's Day 2002; one for speaking out during a Congressional hearing in 2003; and one for trespassing when a group of us tried to deliver 152,000 anti-war signatures to the US Mission to the UN in March 2005. Ann was also questioned about her arrests, all of which were minor misdemeanors -- the equivalent of parking tickets -- for which she had paid fines.


How, we wondered, did the Canadians obtain these records? They told us that the information came from an FBI database called NCIC or National Crime Information Center. This database was created to assist U.S. law enforcement agencies in finding fugitives, convicted sex offenders, missing persons, and members of terrorist organizations and violent gangs. Its purpose is to track dangerous criminals, not peace activists. And Canada is the only foreign country that has access to this database.


After almost three hours, we were escorted into a back room where three officials told us the grim news. Canada does not allow anyone into the country who has committed a criminal offense, no matter how minor the offence, they said. The border guards were almost apologetic, telling us that they knew we were not "bad people," but the law is the law: We were "inadmissible". If we ever wanted to enter Canada, they warned us, we would have to go to a Canadian consulate and try to get "criminally rehabilitated."


It turns out, as we later learned at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, that the request for "criminal rehabilitation" is a long, complex process that entails getting court records, police records, fingerprints, verification of residence for 10 years -- 18 pages of information. But don't even bother, the head of the Consulate advised us, because we wouldn't be eligible. You have to be clear of all offenses for five years before applying.


Wow! It was hard to believe that the country that had, for decades, welcomed Vietnam war resisters with open arms was closing its doors to peacemakers protesting a war that is not supported by either US or Canadian citizens. George Bush, who is responsible for so much needless death and destruction, is wined and dined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And we, the peacemakers who hold all life sacred and cry out to stop the violence, are deemed a danger to Canada!


Yes, it is outrageous that the FBI is placing peace activists on an international criminal database -- a blatant political intimidation of US citizens opposed to Bush administration policies. But the Canadian Border Service should not be using this FBI database as its Bible. We have seen in the case of Maher Arar the tragic consequences that can result from the unquestioning use of these databases.


Fortunately, the grassroots response to our ordeal has been heartwarming. The day we posted a petition on our website, thousands of people on both sides of the border began signing and posting comments expressing their outrage. The Canadian press took the government to task. Typical was the October 6 Toronto Star editorial calling us middle-aged activists who specialize in "chanting 'Give peace a chance' in inappropriate places." Canada should be on the lookout for "brazen criminals, not brazen peace activists," it concluded.


Members of Parliament contacted us immediately. MP Olivia Chow sent an angry letter to the Canadian Consul General in Buffalo, NY. "I am alarmed to learn that Canadian border police are enforcing rules that have been determined by the FBI and other U.S.-based agencies," she wrote. "In Canada, peaceful protest is not a criminal activity, despite how some U.S. agencies may regard it."


Another Member of Parliament, Alexa McDonough, called to apologize on behalf of Canadian citizens. Determined to change the policy, she is working on an invitation for us to speak before the Canadian Parliament.


As we pointed out to the Canadian press and Parliamentarians, if Canada's policy of excluding anyone with a misdemeanor conviction were truly enforced, the results would be absurd.

* Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez would never have entered the country.
* Dolores Huerta of farmworker fame would be barred for her 22 arrests for workers' rights.
* Actor Martin Sheen, the President in the TV series West Wing and a devout Catholic, would be blacklisted for his 70 arrests promoting struggles from a living wage to nuclear disarmament.
* Singer Bonnie Raitt would be expelled for protesting the clearcutting of forests.
* Actress Daryl Hannah would be inadmissible for trying to save an urban garden in Los Angeles.
* Eighty-year-old California Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, would be banned for his 2006 arrest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington to protest genocide in Darfur. So would 12 other Congresspeople, including Barbara Lee, the only one who voted against a violent response to the 9/11 tragedy with her prescient plea that we "not become the evil we deplore."
* Americans arrested for protesting the Iraq war, and therefore "inadmissible", would include Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams, writer Alice Walker, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, peace mom Cindy Sheehan, as well as thousands ordinary schoolteachers, nurses, retirees and college students.


At a press conference outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC the day after our ouster, I mentioned that Canada is the only foreign country using this FBI database. A journalist sidled up to me afterwards and said, in confidence, "If I were you, instead of saying Canada is the only country, I'd say Canada is the first to use the U.S. database. Canada is a bellwether. If it gets away with this, other countries, under U.S. pressure, will follow. And your world will become smaller and smaller."


When I cofounded the organization Global Exchange almost 20 years ago with the goal of building people-to-people ties between nations, I pictured a world moving beyond nationalist divisions to a world of global citizenship with human rights for all. I never imagined a post 9/11 world where my country would attack other nations "preemptively", saturate the border with concrete fences and armed guards, and imprison people without charges, indefinitely. And I certainly never thought that I would be barred from seeking advice and solace from our neighbors to the north.


With the U.S. gripped by fear, overwhelmed by militarism, and indifferent to the protection of individual rights, we -- U.S. peace activists -- need Canada. We need Canada to be a bastion of tolerance and common sense. We need Canada to counterbalance to our nation's hysteria. We need Canada to inspire us. We need Canada to embrace us when we feel like strangers in our own home.


We come in peace. We come with humility. Please don't forsake us in our time of need.


Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the women's peace organization CODEPINK. You can sign the petition at www.codepinkalert.org/canada.