Kim Rivera's Last Stand
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Kim Rivera’s Last Stand

The U.S. Iraq War resister is under government orders to leave Canada by September 20, after more than five years living in Parkdale.

Kim Rivera, in a still from the documentary short Somebody's Child.

On January 10, 2007, George W. Bush formally announced one of the most controversial phases of the Iraq War since its first shock-and-awe salvos. Acting in defiance of polls dating back to 2006 that indicated rising bipartisan opposition to the occupation of Iraq, then-President Bush launched a powerful surge of military forces, beginning with the 82nd Airborne division, into Baghdad. IED attacks and insurgent strikes had become a way of life for occupying forces. At home, meanwhile, the patriotic, post-9/11 sentiment that greased the descent into all-out war in the Middle East had hit the skids. Bush, some would argue, was fighting a war on two fronts—one with warheads, another with public relations.

“The new strategy I outline tonight,” Bush announced to a TV audience on January 10, “will change America’s course in Iraq, and help us succeed in the war against terror.” After months of closed-door sessions with military strategists and the Joint Chiefs, that strategy, instead of the dial-down in Iraq that Americans were largely hoping for, promised just the opposite: a massive incursion of 20,000 additional American troops to quell the increasing violence. Five brigades. And most of them, it would turn out, would be based in Baghdad.

“In order to make progress toward this goal,” Bush further clarified two weeks later, during the 2007 State of the Union address, “the Iraqi government must stop the sectarian violence in its capital. But the Iraqis are not yet ready to do this on their own.”

At the time, U.S. soldiers, like they had in Vietnam, were joining the chorus of dissent against their commander-in-chief. The men and women in battle fatigues, kicking down door after door in their pursuit of insurgent activity, were commonly perceived the way they were depicted in films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: teeming with bloodlust, listening to Drowning Pool on the sound systems of their Abrams tanks while gunning down Iraqi innocents, unable to tell the difference between a historically pivotal occupation and a game of Call of Duty. But for every soldier who may or may not have enjoyed their their bloody leading roles in, to quote Bush, “secur[ing] the city by chasing down the terrorists, insurgents, and the roaming death squads,” there were at least as many who were morally conflicted. Some of them, like Kim Rivera, a former U.S. soldier who refused to continue in that role, took a chance and did something about it.

Rivera was on the front lines of Bush’s surge. The young soldier deployed to Iraq for the first time in October, 2006, a little less than a year before the surge would begin. A resident of Mesquite, Texas, Rivera worked at a local Wal-Mart before enlisting. Like many whose paths would eventually lead to the front lines of Iraq, or any other theatre of operations in the so-called “war on terror,” taking her oath of service was as much for financial reasons as patriotic ones. She was hoping to create a better life for her new family, including two young children, than that offered at minimum wage. In January, 2006, ten months before shipping out, Rivera signed on with the U.S. Army, enlistment bonus and all.

“When I was there,” Rivera told Torontoist, “I had seen some things. I worked at the front gate as a guard, a gate guard, so every Saturday we had this day called ‘claim day.’ Each Saturday was becoming increasingly difficult to perform my duty, the way I felt like I should, and it was mainly because I was seeing traumatized children, parents, and older women looking for their sons and husbands. Meanwhile, I’m letting the soldiers out of our gate on patrols and they’re raiding peoples’ houses. Are they getting blown up?”

Before long, these questions would become broader in scope, and profoundly more troubling. “Really, what am I doing here?” she recalls wondering. “I’m either killing an American or I’m killing or hurting an Iraqi. And/or, I’m waiting to die myself. I didn’t feel like we had a mission, we didn’t have anything we were accomplishing for the better, so I ultimately lost faith and heart in what I was doing. That’s how I came to the conclusion that it’s not right.” It was a period of soul-searching and prayer that concluded, ultimately, with the realization that what she was being asked to do contravened everything from her morals to her faith. She also decided that the United States military was being careless about preventing civilian casualties.

When Rivera’s leave came up in Feburary, 2007, a little over a year after she had enlisted, she finally had an opportunity to oppose the war. Her superiors, Rivera said, were well aware of her extreme personal conflicts over the occupation. “I had all these conflicts with my heart on that decision that I made originally, that I thought was pro-war,” Rivera told us, “[and] they told me my only choice was Iraq or jail, and I kind of refused that.” According to the Star, warnings from her superiors also included death as a punishment for desertion.

At the time, Rivera was unbowed. “I up and made my own decision and said, hey, we’re all moving to Canada.”

The five-plus years after Rivera’s arrival in Toronto have been marked by action from the United States and the Canadian governments, both intent on getting her back to America to face the music. In 2007, her appeals for refugee status were denied by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, though the denial was overturned by a federal judge in 2009. As a result of that decision, her case had until recently been sitting before Citizenship and Immigration Canada awaiting a second pre-removal risk assessment, to determine whether she would be subjected to unacceptable risk upon her return to the United States. CIC Canada considers the risk of persecution as defined in the Geneva Convention: risk of torture, risk to one’s life, or risk that one may be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. “There is evidence,” said Alyssa Manning, Rivera’s lawyer, “that people who speak out publicly against the war in Iraq are targeted for differential prosecution once they’re returned to the United States…And the evidence demonstrates that in that small percentage are people who have spoken out against the war in Iraq.”

Regardless, the Canadian government found that Rivera’s case does not satisfy the requirements for refugee status. She has been ordered back to the United States, effective no later than September 20.

David Heap is a professor of French Studies at the University of Western Ontario, and an activist with a lifetime’s experience with the issue of American war resisters on Canadian soil. “I was lucky to grow up in a household which was part of a proud tradition of welcoming those who come fleeing U.S. militarism,” he said. He grew up in Kensington Market, where his parents frequently invited guests from south of the border to stay.

“As a kid in Toronto. I didn’t realize until later that those guys with guitars and what seemed to me like exotic accents who stayed in our basement for shorter and longer stretches were, of course, Vietnam war resisters,” he said. Coming of age in an atmosphere of Cold War dissent, Heap recognized the seeming futility of trying to stop a war broiling in another country, especially one so horrific as post-surge Iraq. “It can make you feel pretty helpless trying to oppose a war happening very far away,” he said, “but helping those who refuse to fight it makes your opposition very concrete and very real.”

Heap takes issue with the flaming hoops through which Rivera and other resisters have had to jump in order to stay in Canada. “I don’t often quote Liberal politicians, but in this case I have to agree with Trudeau: Canada should be a refuge from militarism.”

In 2012, Canada is wildly different than what it was in 2007, especially as a military power. Still, to many activists, this doesn’t change the reputation Canada had for years before Stephen Harper came along, at which point a former beacon of international humanitarianism became an aggressor.

On June 3, 2008, the House of Commons passed a resolution recommending that the government allow war resisters to apply for permanent resident status and that it cease deportation orders. Not surprisingly, it was the Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois that supported the motion, with the Tories voting against it. Referring to this, Heap said, “Canada should immediately establish a program to allow those who object to military service to settle here and apply for permanent residence status. The Parliamentary resolution is worded generally—any war resister from any country could qualify—but the most immediate cases would, of course, be U.S. ex-military servicepeople.”

“Welcoming people of conscience,” he said, “should be Canada’s role.” He also thinks the Canadian government, beyond standing by its own word, needs to recognize exactly what sort of people are leaving the service of their country’s imperial policies, and how profiling them as treasonous or seditious is incorrect and unfair.

“These are courageous individuals who have made a hard, principled choice not to get caught in an immoral war,” Heap said, “and people like that are an asset to any country lucky enough to take them in. They have a kind of moral courage which most of us will never have tested. Their principles mean they may never be able to go home to their communities and their families. We are and will be a better country for welcoming them amongst us.” In the case of Kim Rivera, her family—two young children and a husband when she shipped out to Iraq in 2007—now includes two more children, both born during her exile in Toronto, both naturalized Canadians.

When the surge started in 2007, it was the beginning of the end for the Iraq War. Bush was losing his public relations battle, clinging to any semblance of legitimacy in the polls. The surge was doing little more than prove how quickly a country can be destroyed, and how few applicable consequences, apart from a few hurled shoes, there were for the leaders responsible. On a daily basis, Americans were watching the carnage online and in news broadcasts, becoming more aware that what they were seeing may be only a fraction of the truth. In 2009, Bush was out, Obama was in, and the following year, the first of several Wikileaks dumps proved those haunting suspicions correct. The war in Iraq didn’t have a clear mission beyond taking Iraq as a regional outpost, and, as a result, it was a bloodbath. If the truth is the first casualty of war, those who tell it aren’t far behind. And that’s what got Kim Rivera where she is now.

Rivera wasn’t about to point fingers, but it was clear in talking to her that she sees the difference between the Canadian people on this issue and their government. In Parkdale—where she lives—and across the city, activists, neighbours, and politicians have come together to show their support for Rivera. Their demonstrations have also served to show how welcome she is in Canada to the federal government that would have her thrown out.

The Tories, meanwhile, remain intransigently opposed to the presence of war resisters in the country, as if it’s still March, 2003, and the drums of war are still beating. As her September 20 deadline for leaving Canada gets closer, Rivera’s parting words to Torontoist could have been a warning to the country she considers herself blessed to have called home.

“I don’t know if they’re trying to be like a mini USA,” she said, referring to the governing Conservatives, “but if they have their way too much, Canada will have privatized health care, it will have privatized everything, and then it will be exactly like us.”

“Do you really want to float down [the same river] in both economic and international reputation as the U.S.?”