U.S. Army Iraq war deserter almost nabbed outside his Vancouver church sanctuary

Steve Mertl
January 31, 2013

A U.S. Army deserter who's been hiding out in a Vancouver church for more than three years barely escaped arrest this week when Canada Border Services Agency officers spotted him outside.

Rodney Watson was only able to get away and return to his church sanctuary because an elderly friend ran interference and was himself arrested, the National Post reports.

The incident highlights the grey area around the ancient concept of sanctuary. Canada Border Services does not officially recognize it and reserves the right to arrest anyone illegally in Canada in any location.

But in reality the optics of going into a church, temple or mosque to collar would-be refugees are not good, so instances have been rare. Authorities prefer to wait them out.

[ Related: Female U.S. Army deserter deported from Canada ]

So do those in sanctuary and their supporters, who see it as an opportunity to put their case to the public via the media, hoping to pressure the government to allow claimants to stay.

Talking about the case of Mikhail Lennikov, the former Russian KGB officer who's been living in Vancouver's First Lutheran Church for about four years, sanctuary expert Randy Lippert told me back in 2009 that up to 2003, almost three-quarters of sanctuary cases (about three dozen since 1983) resulted in claimants being allowed to stay in Canada.

But that dropped to 57 per cent from 2005 to 2009 in the seven cases that were resolved, coinciding roughly with the election of the Conservative government.

The government and courts have been unsympathetic to American military members who fled to Canada in the last few years to avoid service in Iraq. Some have been deported or left voluntarily after exhausting their legal appeals.

Most sanctuary cases involve failed refugee claims or someone who's violated their residency permit, like the Nigerian university students who sought sanctuary in a Regina church after being ordered deported for taking two-week jobs at Wal-Mart. Or the Hungarian Roma family living in a Toronto Anglican church after a federal judge affirmed their deportation order last fall.

Watson appears to be the only one of roughly two dozen American military deserters — or Iraq war resisters, depending on your point of view — who's holed up in a church.

He served one tour in Iraq in 2005 but came to Vancouver the following year to evade a second deployment, the Post reported.

He got a job as a carpenter and married a Canadian but in 2009 his refugee claim was rejected and he was issued a deportation order. The First United Church on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside accepted his sanctuary claim that September and he's been living in a one-bedroom apartment in the building ever since.

According to the Post, CBSA officers moved in on Tuesday when they spotted him "off property" during a routine check of the building. Seeing the agents approach, Watson's elderly friend intercepted them, giving him enough time to slip back into the church. The 67-year-old friend faces charges of assaulting a peace officer.

"Glad you escaped their clutches," a supporter wrote on Watson's Facebook page, where he posts bits of his own poetry.

Many cultures, including First Nations, have had traditions of sanctuary but its modern version is rooted in Christian tradition. But it was meant to be a short-term refuge. In medieval England, for instance, fugitives were denied food and water. Some could negotiate their freedom on condition they "abjure the kingdom" and go into exile with the letter A branded on their thumbs.

Canadian church organizations have left it to individual churches to decide whether someone merits sanctuary. Some, like the United Church, provide guidelines for the process.

But as the Harper government toughens its rules governing refugee claims, cross-denominational groups have sprung up to co-ordinate sanctuary bids.

Refugee activist Mary Jo Leddy warned in November that the new rules are likely to result in more sanctuary cases.

“We are shamelessly promoting sanctuary wherever we can,” Leddy told a Toronto meeting of fellow refugee advocates, according to the Catholic Register. “We must do this for our country.”

[ Related: Hungarian Roma hope for sanctuary in Canada ]

What will the CBSA do if that happens? The agency has repeatedly stated it has the right to arrest anyone evading deportation, where ever they are.

“Mr. Watson is inadmissible to Canada and is subject to a lawful removal order … individuals who have exhausted due process are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed,” CBSA spokeswoman Stefanie Wudel told the Post via email.

But it's only ever "violated" sanctuary twice; once in 2004 when it entered a Quebec City church to arrest Algerian national Mohamed Cherfi, and three years later when Iranian refugee claimant Amir Kazemian was arrested in a Vancouver church after he himself called police complaining he was receiving harassing phone calls. He was subsequently allowed to stay.

The Post noted that a CBSA enforcement manual obtained by Postmedia News in 2010 advised officers to enter churches or temples only in extreme cases.