Canada: We Come in Peace
By Medea Benjamin
a young hippie in the mid '70s hitch-hiking across Europe
and Africa, I encountered tremendous hostility towards
Americans because of US foreign policy. My
government was killing people in Vietnam, supporting
the white racists in South Africa, and had just overthrown
Salvador Allende's democratic government in Chile. Ashamed,
I looked northward and saw the enlightened Canadian
government of Pierre Trudeau. When I heard
John Lennon say that "if all politicians were like
Pierre Trudeau there would be world peace," I was
sold. Sight unseen, I adopted Canada as my spiritual
homeland. I drew a maple leaf on my backpack, added
"eh?" at the end of my sentences, and started
calling myself a Canadian.
Over the years, I have reconciled myself to being a
U.S. citizen and have dedicated my life to making my
government one I can be proud of. But I continue to
have a soft spot for Canada. I admire Canada's commitment
to health care for all. The government's rational policy
towards Cuba allows Canadians to vacation in Varadero
while Americans are prohibited from "bathing with
the enemy." Peace-loving Americans are forever
grateful to Canada for accepting Vietnam war resisters
and for spearheading the international treaty against
landmines. And when Canada refused to join George Bush's
Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq, the US peace
movement showered the Canadian Embassy with flowers
While I no long self-identify as Canadian, my ties
to Canada are deep. The fair trade organization I cofounded,
Global Exchange, has joined Canadian NGOs and labor
unions to oppose NAFTA and other trade policies that
hurt the poor and the environment. We organize cross-border
strategy sessions on how to make businesses greener
and more socially responsible. We pressure the auto
companies to produce more fuel-efficient cars. We jointly
visit factories from Mexico to China to improve conditions
for workers making goods sold in our stores.
When I cofounded the women's peace group CODEPINK
to prevent war with Iraq, we were honored to have Canadian
parliamentarians stand with us in front of the White
House during our four-month vigil. After the invasion,
we joined with Canadians to set up an Occupation Watch
Center in Baghdad. And with more and more US soldiers
from Iraq seeking refuge in Canada, we work with Canadians
to support this new wave of war resisters.
It's not just war resisters making a beeline north.
Some of our best peace activists, beaten down by the
Bush administration, have immigrated to Canada. Others
of us, determined to stay and struggle on our home turf,
keep in the back of our minds that if the situation
in the U.S. gets really bad, Canada will be our "exit
But my whole idea of a tolerant, independent Canada
that we could retreat to came crashing down on October
4. With my colleague Ann Wright, a retired US Army Colonel
and career diplomat who resigned in opposition to the
US invasion of Iraq, I was going to Toronto to meet
with the Stop the War Coalition. We crossed the border
at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. While most U.S.
visitors are simply waved through with no screening,
Ann and I were selected for a background check.
Let me preface what happened next with some context
about the war itself and the U.S. peace movement. We
have watched in horror as our leaders took this nation
to war based on lies, since Iraq didn't have weapons
of mass destruction and was never a threat to the United
States. We have agonized over the death of some 4,000
U.S. soldiers. We have been heartbroken over the destruction
of the cradle of civilization, with this war leaving
some one million Iraqis dead, over 4 millions refugees,
a wrecked infrastructure and a crumbling economy.
To counter this ongoing tragedy, many Americans, including
Ann Wright and myself, have been working non-stop to
bring our troops home. We left our homes and families
to crisscross the country educating and mobilizing the
public. We organized demonstrations, vigils, email blasts,
call-in weeks, lobby days, media campaigns. And we turned
to the ballot box to elect a new Congress in November
2006 with a mandate for peace.
But nothing worked. Despite having the majority of
the public on our side, the Bush administration upped
troop levels and the new Congress continued to fund
So we took a page from the hallowed tradition of non-violence
civil disobedience-a tactic used by the civil rights
movement, the suffragists, the gay rights activists,
the disability movement, the environmentalists, the
animal rights folks. It's a critical part of our heritage,
our culture, our social change toolbox.
We organized mass arrests in front of the White House.
(All you have to do to get arrested in front of the
White House, by the way, is just stand there.) We did
sit-ins in the offices of elected officials. We laid
down in the streets, actions called "die-ins",
to mourn the tragic deaths of US soldiers and Iraqis.
For these protests, we have been arrested and convicted
of minor misdemeanors. We are always peaceful-remember,
we're a peace movement--and we have even developed a
camaraderie with the DC police who understand our aims
and respect our right to protest.
here we were at the Canadian border. The border officer
checked our passports on a computer, and told us to
sit down. More and more border guards gathered in a
huddle, intensively discussing our situation. Then they
called us, one at a time, to review our "criminal
I was shown a two-sheet print-out 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 US Mission to the UN in March 2005. Ann was also
questioned about her arrests, all of which were minor
misdemeanors-the equivalent of parking tickets--for
which she had paid fines.
How, we wondered, did the Canadians obtain these records?
They told us that the information came from an FBI database
called NCIC or National Crime Information Center. This
database 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. Its purpose is to track dangerous
criminals, not peace activists. And Canada is the only
foreign country that has access to this database.
After almost three hours, we were escorted into a back
room where three officials told us the grim news. Canada
does not allow anyone into the country who has committed
a criminal offense, no matter how minor the offence,
they said. The border guards were almost apologetic,
telling us that they knew we were not "bad people,"
but the law is the law: We were "inadmissible".
If we ever wanted to enter Canada, they warned us, we
would have to go to a Canadian consulate and try to
get "criminally rehabilitated."
It turns out, as we later learned at the Canadian Embassy
in Washington DC, that the request for "criminal
rehabilitation" is a long, complex process that
entails getting court records, police records, fingerprints,
verification of residence for 10 years-18 pages of information.
But don't even bother, the head of the Consulate advised
us, because we wouldn't be eligible. You have to be
clear of all offenses for five years before applying.
Wow! It was hard to believe that
the country that had, for decades, welcomed Vietnam
war resisters with open arms was closing its doors to
peacemakers protesting a war that is not supported by
either US or Canadian citizens. George Bush, who is
responsible for so much needless death and destruction,
is wined and dined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
And we, the peacemakers who hold all life sacred and
cry out to stop the violence, are deemed a danger to
Yes, it is outrageous that the FBI is placing peace
activists on an international criminal database-a blatant
political intimidation of US citizens opposed to Bush
administration policies. But the Canadian Border Service
should not be using this FBI database as its Bible.
We have seen in the case of Maher Arar the tragic consequences
that can result from the unquestioning use of these
Fortunately, the grassroots response to our ordeal
has been heartwarming. The day we posted a petition
on our website www.codepinkalert.org, thousands of people
on both sides of the border began signing and posting
comments expressing their outrage. The Canadian press
took the government to task. Typical was the October
6 Toronto Star editorial calling us middle-aged activists
who specialize in "chanting 'Give peace a chance'
in inappropriate places." Canada should be on the
lookout for "brazen criminals, not brazen peace
activists," it concluded.
Members of Parliament contacted us
immediately. MP Olivia Chow sent an angry
letter to the Canadian Consul General in Buffalo, NY.
"I am alarmed to learn that Canadian border police
are enforcing rules that have been determined by the
FBI and other U.S.-based agencies," she wrote.
"In Canada, peaceful protest is not a criminal
activity, despite how some U.S. agencies may regard
Another Member of Parliament, Alexa McDonough, called
to apologize on behalf of Canadian citizens. Determined
to change the policy, she is working on an invitation
for us to speak before the Canadian Parliament.
As we pointed out to the Canadian
press and Parliamentarians, if Canada's policy of excluding
anyone with a misdemeanor conviction were truly enforced,
the results would be absurd.
- Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez
would never have entered the country.
- Dolores Huerta of farmworker fame would be barred
for her 22 arrests for workers' rights.
- Actor Martin Sheen, the President in the TV series
West Wing and a devout Catholic, would be blacklisted
for his 70 arrests promoting struggles from a living
wage to nuclear disarmament.
- Singer Bonnie Raitt would be expelled for protesting
the clearcutting of forests.
- Actress Daryl Hannah would be inadmissible for trying
to save an urban garden in Los Angeles.
- Eighty-year-old California Congressman Tom Lantos,
a Holocaust survivor and chair of the House of Representatives
Foreign Affairs Committee, would be banned for his
2006 arrest outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington
to protest genocide in Darfur. So would 12 other Congresspeople,
including Barbara Lee, the only one who voted against
a violent response to the 9/11 tragedy with her prescient
plea that we "not become the evil we deplore."
- Americans arrested for protesting the Iraq war,
and therefore "inadmissible", would include
Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams, writer Alice Walker,
Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, peace mom
Cindy Sheehan, as well as thousands ordinary schoolteachers,
nurses, retirees and college students.
At a press conference outside the Canadian Embassy
in Washington DC the day after our ouster, I mentioned
that Canada is the only foreign country using this FBI
database. A journalist sidled up to me afterwards and
said, in confidence,"If
I were you, instead of saying Canada is the only country,
I'd say Canada is the first to use the U.S. database.
Canada is a bellwether. If it gets away with this, other
countries, under U.S. pressure, will follow. And your
world will become smaller and smaller."
When I cofounded the organization Global Exchange almost
20 years ago with the goal of building people-to-people
ties between nations, I pictured a world moving beyond
nationalist divisions to a world of global citizenship
with human rights for all. I never imagined a post 9-11
world where my country would attack other nations "preemptively",
saturate the border with concrete fences and armed guards,
and imprison people without charges, indefinitely. And
I certainly never thought that I would be barred from
seeking advice and solace from our neighbors to the
With the U.S. gripped by fear, overwhelmed by militarism,
and indifferent to the protection of individual rights,
we-U.S. peace activists--need Canada. We need Canada
to be a bastion of tolerance and common sense. We
need Canada to counterbalance to our nation's hysteria.
We need Canada to inspire us. We need Canada to embrace
us when we feel like strangers in our own home.
We come in peace. We come with humility. Please don't
forsake us in our time of need.
Medea Benjamin (medea[at]globalexchange.org) is cofounder
of the human rights group Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org)
and the women's peace organization CODEPINK
(www.codepinkalert.org). You can sign the petition at