The Harper government is painting U.S. military deserters as criminals in a new directive to immigration officials that is coming under fire as too tough on conscientious objectors and war dissenters.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada has moved to centralize all current cases of military deserters in its systems, and has told the officials in charge of the files to consult their superiors on the way to handle them.
The new directive, issued in a July 22 operational bulletin, emphasizes the criminal nature of desertion in Canada and the United States, which stands to make it harder for American deserters to gain permanent residency in Canada.
"Consequently, persons who have deserted the military in their country of origin may be inadmissible to Canada under … the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," the bulletin says.
Federal officials said the goal of the new procedure is to keep track of these "high-profile, contentious and sensitive cases," which are scattered throughout the system.
But critics charged that the Conservative government is sending a clear message to the bureaucracy to reject claims from military deserters, about 50 of which are working their way through the system. So far, two refugee claims have been rejected, but others are seeking the right to remain in Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, or in a bid to stay with their Canadian wives and children.
"The government is creating new obstacles and delays, and there is no reason for that," said Michelle Robidoux, spokesperson for the War Resisters Support Campaign.
Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy said the government is sending a message to its officials before the House of Commons studies his bill in September that would allow the war resisters to remain in Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.
"It's part of a propaganda campaign … to cast war resisters as criminals," Mr. Kennedy said.
While decisions on the requests are made by officials at Citizenship and Immigration, Mr. Kennedy argued the government is "putting its thumb on the scale" and trying to ensure that the claims of these conscientious objectors are all rejected.
"This is a shot across the bow to all of the adjudicators, saying, 'Don't you dare treat these people differently,' " Mr. Kennedy said. "Imagine what would happen if a fair-minded officer actually accepted some of these people. They want to make sure this doesn't happen."
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Douglas Kellam, said the department is simply establishing the framework within which its officials make their decisions.
"It is common practice for CIC to issue operational bulletins to immigration officers to improve how programs operate and to ensure that they have the information and guidance they need to make decisions," Mr. Kellam said.
MPs have already voted to support war resisters, but that was through motions that are not binding on the government. Mr. Kennedy's bill would be binding because it would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Most war resisters in Canada are U.S. military personnel who have refused to participate in the Iraq war on the grounds that it's illegal and immoral.