Definitely Not the Opera·DNTO

Meet the war resisters desperate to stay in Canada

An estimated 15 U.S. war resisters live in Canada and they're desperate to stay here. Meet three war resistors who are in for the fight of their lives.
Jeremy Brockway, Joshua Key and Dean Walcott (Courtesy of Brockway, Key and Walcott)

Joshua Key can pinpoint the exact moment he no longer wanted to be a U.S. soldier fighting in the Iraq war.

It was 2003, and he was patrolling the streets of Ramadi, a city in central Iraq. A six-year-old girl he had befriended – who would often bring him flatbread, was running across the street to see him, when suddenly she was hit by a bullet.

"I went into shock. I couldn't figure out why it happened," said Key.

When he questioned his superior officer about it, he was told it was none of his business.

"That's when in a big way things started to change, in the way I was looking at everything."

Joshua Key in Iraq. (Joshua Key)
He started having nightmares. And when he came back home a few months later, he told a military lawyer he was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"He goes, 'you have two choices, soldier,'" Key recalled. "'You either get back on that plane and go back to Iraq, or you're going to prison.'" 

Key made the choice to run – as fast as possible.

"You're in a constant state of fear, running and surviving"

The Oklahoma native loaded up a U-Haul with his wife and small children and drove to Philadelphia, spending more than a year in hiding.

"I pretty well used everything that I was taught from the army to make sure I was not caught by them or the cops. You're in a constant state of fear -- running and surviving."

Eventually, Key found out about the War Resistors Support Campaign, an organization in Toronto dedicated to helping American war resisters stay in Canada.

He made his way north, and after a nail-biting drive across the Ontario border, landed in Toronto. His first thought was that "once I crossed that border, I wouldn't ever be allowed back into the United States of America." 

Today Joshua Key is one of an estimated 15 U.S. war resisters fighting to remain in Canada. 

Their numbers have fallen dramatically. Ten years ago, there were about 200 resisters. Many left voluntarily or were deported, facing jail time in the U.S.

Michelle Robidoux, one of the founding members of the War Resisters Support Campaign, says the Conservative government took extraordinary measures to deport resisters.

In 2010, former Immigration Minister Jason Kenney issued a directive to immigration officials to consider war resisters criminals — making them automatically ineligible for residency in Canada.

And even though the Liberals vowed to rescind Kenney's bulletin during the 2015 election campaign, so far the directive is still in place.

"I don't think there's any question that if Josh is forced back to the U.S., he is going to have a very harsh punishment," said Robidoux. "Probably the harshest of anyone, because he documented violations of the rules of war in a book called The Deserter's Tale," (a memoir Key co-wrote with Lawrence Hill in 2007). 

"The fate of our family is in the hands of the Liberal government"

It's that fear of being deported—and possibly ending up in jail—that weighs heavily on war resisters and their families.

Ashlea Brockway lives with that feeling every day. After her husband Jeremy served in Iraq, he developed such severe PTSD he couldn't leave their house.

"We came to Canada to help my husband find somewhere safe, because they planned on re-deploying him though he had been suicidal and hospitalized. So we came to Canada to seek refuge and essentially save his life."

Jeremy and Ashlea Brockway with their sons William and Wesley. (Ashlea Brockway)
When they first arrived in Port Colborne, Ont., Jeremy rarely left his bedroom. Today, he eats dinner with his family every night and gives baths to their three small children. "Those are huge victories," said Ashlea.

"I guess I just have this tremendous hope that his life will become more normal without that pressure, without that concern on him about whether he's going to be deported, whether he's going to have to go to jail or any of that stuff. That he'll continue making progress, that he'll start to come out of his room more and be able to experience life."

In the meantime, they just have to wait.

"The fate of our family and the life of my husband is in the hands of the Liberal government," Ashlea said. "And I just really hope that we'll be able to finally have security and safety in Canada."   

"I just want to know what the heck's wrong with me"

Dean Walcott. (Dean Walcott)
Dean Walcott served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. marines, and like many of his fellow war resisters, he developed PTSD.

"While I was in Iraq, I thought I was going crazy," he said. "I was having all these weird dreams, flashbacks, nightmares."

He spoke with the chaplains on base, "and they told me, 'oh, you're just trying to go home early. You're just trying to get out of your job,'" he explained. "And I was like, 'No, I actually kind of like my job. I just want to know what the heck's wrong with me."

After returning to the U.S., Walcott struggled to keep his head above water.

He was still an active duty service member and even though a civilian doctor had diagnosed him with PTSD, the military offered him few supports.

So one morning, he bought a one way bus ticket from his base in North Carolina to London, Ont. 

"Every time the door opened I found myself snapping my head around to find where it was coming from, expecting to see military police with handcuffs and guns drawn," he said. "I was absolutely terrified."

Ten years after he first arrived in Canada, Dean's case is one of a handful being reviewed this coming fall, when the government will rule whether the decision to deny him immigration status in Canada is valid.

While in Canada, Dean got married, started a family, and found a job. He's also become one of the most vocal resisters in this country.

"There's not that many of us here who are what we say 'above-ground," he says. At his first few speaking engagements, he noticed two men at the back of the room, wearing ski masks.

"They got to telling us, 'Yeah, we're AWOL from the army, and we're not taking off our masks because we want to see what happens with you guys first. We don't want to take the chance."

"I'm a military wife that got a soldier who was broken" 

Today, Joshua Key lives in Winnipeg with his wife Alexina and their four children. Alexina says being a Canadian married to a war resistor is "heartbreaking."

Alexina and Joshua Key and their children. (Key family)
"He's got frustration towards our government, towards the system. And for me, it's heartbreaking," she said.

"These are my people. This is my government," she explained. "I voted for them. They're supposed to be representing my best interests."

"You're going to tell me that I'm not allowed to be married to the person I love and have four children with because you decided something they did was criminal," she asked.

"You're going to tell me it's criminal to not want to go to a desert and murder innocent children? Someone's got it wrong, and I don't think it's us." 

This past summer, Alexina took her concerns directly to a campaigning Justin Trudeau. In an emotional confrontation, she asked him one question: if he was elected, would he allow war resistors to stay in Canada?

Trudeau told her that he supported the idea in principal, and that he would examine Key's case "with full compassion and an openness to actually allow him to stay."

Alexina plans on holding him to allowing all war resisters to stay.

"I know there will be one day I'll look Justin Trudeau in the face again and I'll ask him, 'Now what have you done, my friend?'  Because I'm not going away." 

It's been 11 years since Joshua first stepped across the Canadian border. He never imagined that after all this time, he would still be fighting a war — against the U.S. army, against post-traumatic stress disorder, and against the Canadian government. 

"I have hope that Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government will do what he told my wife that he would do," Key said. "And that is-- bring compassion back and not deem us all criminals and making it impossible for us to get status in this country."

Key's hopes for the future are simple.

"I want to be left alone and live in peace," he explained. "I want to buy us some land and have a big garden, watch my kids get old and not have to worry about things."