Rodney Watson Jr. is an Iraq War veteran and war resister, originally from Kansas City, who has been living in sanctuary at Vancouver’s First United Church for the past four-and-a half-years in order to avoid deportation by the Canadian government.
Located at the corner of Hastings and Gore, the Church that has taken in Rodney Watson also functions as an emergency shelter in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Rodney has a small living space on the upper floor.
For refusing to continue participating in the U.S. war on Iraq, he has only been able to avoid deportation by confining himself to the church’s cramped quarters for the past 1,600-plus days. If he were to venture outside, he could be apprehended and deported like other Iraq War resisters.
Anniversary of ‘Shock and Awe’
Rodney’s plight is a local example of the countless ongoing injustices stemming from the Iraq War, which started 11 years ago today.
On March 20, 2003, the most recent U.S. war on Iraq began with missiles launched into Baghdad -- the now infamous ‘shock and awe’ bombing that kicked off an invasion and years-long occupation.
Here in Vancouver, it was still March 19, 2003. I was sitting in a meeting room in the Maritime Labour Centre with about 50 other anti-war activists, debating what to do when the war started. A cell phone rang. After a few seconds a voice shaking with emotion informed the rest of us: bombs were falling on Baghdad. We all got up and arranged rides down to the Vancouver Art Gallery, while somebody sent an email and everybody worked their phones. Within an hour hundreds were mobilized and we marched angrily through downtown Vancouver, ending outside the U.S. Consulate.
On this 11th anniversary of the Iraq War, it’s worth reflecting on the massive human cost of this unjust and illegal war. Because, despite millions dead or displaced by this illegal war, it sometimes seems as though, as a society, we have learned nothing.
The war criminals who launched the war on false pretexts have not been brought to justice. On the contrary, they are living comfortable and opulent lives. Tony Blair jet-sets to visit oligarchs and consult for dictators in every corner of the world; George W. Bush, his international travels at least restricted due to fear of arrest in some countries, sits at home on the ranch and paints. Unlike Rodney Watson, Bush is under no threat of being apprehended. Not one of the key U.S. architects of the illegal war on Iraq has been charged or jailed.
So today we should remember the victims of the Iraq War: the hundreds of thousands dead, the millions made refugees by the war and its fallout, and all those living with the consequences. In Canada, this means remembering the war resisters among us and those the Harper government has already deported. In Vancouver, a city with a long and proud tradition of welcoming war resisters, this means we must not forget about Rodney Watson.
From Iraq to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
On Wednesday, I dropped by First United to visit Rodney, and to ask him for his thoughts on his situation and about yet another anniversary of the Iraq War.
It takes me a few minutes at the church before I can find a staff person to show me up to Rodney’s apartment. As it turns out, the staffer is new and doesn’t actually know where in the building he lives. It takes me a few minutes to remember the way, but eventually we find Rodney’s room.
As usual, Rodney greets me warmly. We are both fathers of young boys, and that as usual is where our conversation starts. His son Jordan is now five, and will be enrolling in kindergarten later this year. Rodney often takes care of his son during the day, but they can’t leave the church. He’s never been able to take Jordan to run around a park, or climb on a playground.
As we sit in his room at First United, Rodney recounts his journey from Kansas City to Iraq and finally to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In 2003, when the war started, he was working a well-paying industrial job, but the economic crisis swept through Kansas and he was laid off.
“I come from a military family, and I wanted to do something to help… but basically I got caught up in the ‘economic draft,’ so to speak,” Rodney explains. Other factors also played into his decision, such as the memory of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
By 2005-2006, he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, where he lost friends and came to believe he had been sent to Iraq on the basis of lies by the U.S. government. Seeing fellow soldiers who were on their third and fourth deployments because of the ‘Stop Loss’ program, he decided he had to get out.
“I saw fellow soldiers depressed or suicidal because they didn’t want to be there, so I felt like there was no way for me to get out, except to go AWOL. I would have stayed in the military if there was a real reason for me to be there, but I felt in my heart and soul that it was not worth me killing or drying for lies.”
That’s why he came to Canada. Here, Rodney found work, got married and had a son. Then, in 2009, he got a letter ordering him to leave Canada -- no later than September 11.
“September 11th was [one of the main] reasons I’d signed up,” Rodney explains. “So when I got the letter in the mail telling me they wanted me to leave my wife and my son, it just felt like a giant slap in the face -- my son [was] a newborn and I love my family and I don’t want to leave them.” The raw emotion of that moment is still evident on his face and in his voice.
That’s when he made the choice to claim sanctuary at First United, so as to avoid removal by Canadian authorities. Four and a half years later, he hasn’t moved. But neither have the politicians in Ottawa.
War resisters still paying for politicians’ mistakes
The situation of Iraq War resisters in this country, now eleven years after the start of the war, is particularly absurd when one considers the positions of the current U.S. and Canadian administrations. As far back as the 2008 election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted the Iraq War “was absolutely an error,” and, during a later interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, Harper conceded that his support for the war back in 2003 had been a mistake.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, rode the popularity of his opposition to the Iraq War to victory in the Democratic Party nomination race in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favour of the war. There is no good reason that the U.S. government hasn’t yet granted an amnesty to all Iraq War resisters -- as Jimmy Carter did for Vietnam War resisters in the 1970s.
There’s even less good reason for the Conservative government in Ottawa to continue refusing to accept refugee claims from these young men and women who refused to kill in Iraq. Way back in 2008 and 2009 motions were passed in Canada’s Parliament to allow Iraq war resisters to claim refugee status and stay in Canada. The Conservatives ignored these, even though they were backed up by polls showing strong public support for resisters. In 2010, a private member’s bill in support of war resisters, C-440, was defeated by a very narrow margin after then Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff and a few of his MPs absented themselves for the vote.
The War Resisters Support Campaign has worked for years to overcome the mean-spirited stance of the Conservative government. Many others across North America have also taken up the cause. Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the 1960s youth and anti-war movements in the United States, and a former State Senator in California, is a friend and supporter of Rodney Watson.
“It's totally bizarre that the Canadian government seems to be doing the bidding of the Bush administration in hounding a handful of American resisters to the Iraq War,” Hayden told the Vancouver Observer on Wednesday.
“Rodney is a bright, warm-hearted, serious father of a promising young son, but still remains in asylum 24 hours per day in First United Church. The Canadian government can and should grant him humanitarian asylum, if only on grounds that they are dividing and harming his family.”
A simple message to the people of Canada
The Bush administration, of course, has been out of power for more than five years. ”Bush is having a library dedicated to him and his cronies are still running around,” Rodney exclaims. “Cheney’s still on TV giving his two cents on things -- where is the outrage?”
When I ask Rodney what he would like to say to Canadians on this war anniversary, he replies with a simple message and a pointed question.
“I love this city. This is my home now, I have a wife and a son who are Canadian. I’ve been in this church for four years and it just makes no sense to me that I’m going through this while we have all these wars criminals walking around free.”
“Stephen Harper admitted the war was an error, so why are we being punished?”