OTTAWA — The Conservative government has given immigration officers tough new marching orders for dealing with military deserters seeking refuge in Canada, painting them as criminals who may be inadmissible.
The Immigration Department is leaning on officers to give a more critical assessment in new cases and telling them to report more often about existing files.
The department recently issued a bulletin to field officers saying flight from military service in another country may make certain refugee claimants inadmissible.
The new directive points to existing provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act -- sections that bar refugees from Canada on the "grounds of serious criminality" -- in order to make the case.
"Desertion is an offence in Canada under the National Defence Act," says the notice, issued July 22.
"The maximum punishment for desertion under section 88 of the (National Defence Act) is life imprisonment, if the person committed the offence on active service or under orders for active service. Consequently, persons who have deserted the military in their country of origin may be inadmissible to Canada."
The bulletin stops short of imposing a flat ban on deserters entering the country and instructs immigration officers to seek guidance from regional advisers when dealing with deserters applying for permanent residence. It also tells them to notify the department's case management branch when any new refugee claims are filed or high-profile ones are updated.
Critics charged the Conservatives were singling out deserters and discriminating against them.
Officials in Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office were not available to comment, but a department spokesman denied deserters are being treated any differently and other cases also merit close scrutiny.
"We would track war criminals up in our cases management branch; we would track cases involving high-profile individuals," said Doug Kellam.
"There's lots of categories that are like that in which we are interested in making sure we've got them on our radar and we track them as they go."
Still, Michelle Robidoux of the War Resisters Support Campaign said the directive smacked of politics.
"Why create this new, high-profile contentious case pool for military resisters?" she asked. "To me it's an ideological thing. It not based on need because there is already a process in place for screen out people who are criminally inadmissible."
Last month, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that immigration officers must consider a soldier's beliefs and motivations when deciding on humanitarian applications for permanent residence. The court was dealing with the case of Jeremy Hinzman, a former paratrooper who bailed on the Iraq war as a conscientious objector.
The three-judge appeals panel ruled that an immigration officer's decision to reject Hinzman's application for permanent residence was "significantly flawed" and unreasonable and ordered that another officer at the refugee board look at the application.
There are up to 40 self-styled war resisters in Canada, according to figures from a support network. How many of them are actual deserters is not clear.
Conservatives have shown no sympathy and even less patience with what Kenney described last year as "bogus refugee claimants."
Previously released Access to Information documents make a clear distinction between the current crop of conscientious objectors and those who fled to Canada by the thousands in the 1960s.
The Conservatives have stated that unlike Vietnam, individuals coming to Canada throughout the Iraq war voluntarily joined the United States military and deserted.
Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy described the bulletin as "reckless" and accused the Conservatives of political interference and manipulation.
"These people are entitled to a fair hearing and have their case considered on its merits," he said.
"The courts have started to increasingly rule that conscientious objection is a legitimate grounds for humanitarian and compassionate consideration in Canada. They shouldn't be using what is essentially a propaganda process to try and contain this. They should let an objective process take place."
The House of Commons has twice passed non-binding motions to halt deportation proceedings against American conscientious objectors trying to stay in Canada. A private members bill, to give the motions legislative weight, is due to be debated this fall in Parliament.
As mentioned in the above report, they already have procedures in place to filter out people who are criminally inadmissible and the courts already ruled on how to treat these War Resister cases..... yet now suddenly the Conservatives feel they need to toss this out?
What an odd coincidence.