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Last Updated: 10/24/2007Oh Canada, don't forsake the peacemakers
As a U.S. peace activist trying to change the aggressive foreign policies of my government, I have often looked to Canada for inspiration. While Canada's involvement in the fighting in Afghanistan marks a more militaristic turn, we in the United States still envy Canada's commitment to civil liberties and international law.
But my image of a tolerant, rational Canada came crashing down on Oct. 3. Along with Ann Wright, a retired U.S. army colonel and career diplomat who resigned in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was crossing the Rainbow Bridge to attend a meeting with the Toronto Stop the War Coalition. Both Ms. Wright and I were told by the border guards that our names appeared on an FBI criminal database and we were therefore "inadmissible."
I was shown a two-sheet printout 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 U.S. Mission to the UN in March 2005. Ms. Wright was also questioned about her arrests, all of which were minor misdemeanours — the equivalent of parking tickets — for which she had paid fines.
This FBI database, called the National Crime Information Center, 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. It is outrageous that the FBI is placing peace activists on an international criminal database — a blatant political intimidation of U.S. citizens opposed to Bush administration policies. But it is also outrageous that the Canada Border Services Agency is using this FBI database to determine who can enter the country.
It is hard to believe Canada, the country that had welcomed Vietnam war resisters with open arms, is closing its doors to peacemakers protesting another unpopular war. Fortunately, the grassroots response to our ordeal has been heartwarming. We posted a petition on our website, www.codepinkalert.org, and thousands of people on both sides of the border have been signing and posting comments expressing their outrage.
Members of Parliament contacted us to apologize, and MP Alexa McDonough went even further: She invited us to return and speak before Parliament tomorrow on the need to change this policy. We are hoping this time the border agents allow us in.
The Canadian government must realize that non-violence civil disobedience is part of the hallowed tradition of social activism. It is a tactic that has been successfully used in the U.S. by the civil rights movement, suffragists, gay rights activists, the disability movement, environmentalists, animal rights folks. It's a critical part of our heritage, our culture, our social change toolbox.
If Canada's policy of excluding those who have committed non-violent civil disobedience were truly enforced, the results would be absurd. It would block 14 members of the United States Congress, including Holocaust survivor Rep. Tom Lantos for his arrest outside the Sudanese Embassy in 2006 protesting genocide in Darfur. The list of banned Americans would be populated by Nobel Prize-winners, members of clergy, writers, scholars, actors, musicians, activists and the thousands of Americans who have been arrested protesting the Iraq war.
As the founder, 20 years ago, of a group called Global Exchange that is dedicated to building people-to-people ties, I pictured a world moving beyond nationalist divisions to a world of global citizenship. I never imagined I would find myself barred from meeting with our neighbours to the north. And while Canada is now the only foreign country using this FBI database, if this policy goes unchallenged, other countries, under U.S. pressure, may follow suit. We peacemakers might well see our world becoming smaller and smaller.
With the U.S. gripped by fear and overwhelmed by militarism, we — U.S. peace activists —need Canada. We need Canada to be a bastion of tolerance and common sense. We need Canada to counterbalance our nation's hysteria. We need Canada to inspire us. We need Canada to open its borders and embrace us.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the women's peace organization CODEPINK.