At first glance, they were just another Canadian family huddled around a TV screen, eyes fixed on wave after wave of results as the country’s 42nd federal election unfolded. There were snacks, sleepy children wanting attention and a few friends rooting for their party of choice.link: http://bit.ly/1P6pl6R
In truth, heart-wrenching anxiety was the unwelcome guest at the party.
For Joshua and Alexina Key and their four young children, the stakes on election night were infinitely higher than for most voters. The very future of the Winnipeg family depended on what would happen over the next few hours.
"We were desperate for an exit from the limbo we’ve been living in for the last 10 years," says Joshua, 37, "hoping against hope to see a new government emerge, one which would allow us to live as normal Canadians."
Joshua Key is a high-profile American war resister who, having served a tour of duty in Iraq, refused to return for a second, choosing instead to seek refuge in Canada in 2005. He documented his soul-destroying experiences as a soldier in Iraq with well-known Canadian writer Lawrence Hill in a best-selling book, The Deserter’s Tale.
Joshua and Alexina, his Canadian-born wife, have been fighting relentlessly for Joshua to be allowed to stay in Canada. During the 10-year battle, he was not allowed to ply his trade as a welder and not allowed access to medical attention. His health has deteriorated. The family has survived largely on donations from Canadian supporters.
Things were different when Joshua first crossed the border into Canada. The country still had a reputation as a sanctuary for conscientious objectors, going back to the days when U.S. draft dodgers rejected their call to the hugely unpopular war in Vietnam. All that changed when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives first took power in 2006.
Among other steps, Harper’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, issued a ministerial directive to all front-line employees working for him in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration: Bulletin 202 categorized Iraq War resisters as "criminally inadmissible."
Although the fate of remaining war resisters did not emerge as an issue in the 2015 election, the Harper government had made big plans for Oct. 20 — one day after it hoped to return to power.
This was the day the government, using its re-election as a mandate, planned to rule on outstanding appeals from the handful of resisters still in the country, including Joshua. All of them expected to be deported to the U.S., where they would face court martial and military prison — in Joshua’s case, up to 35 years.
No such mandate actually existed. Periodic polls consistently indicated Canadians favour allowing war resisters to remain here. A poll of Canada’s members of Parliament also supported their right to stay. But the date, Oct. 20, was fixed for action.
As the election telecast began on the evening of Oct. 19, several possibilities hovered over the Key family.
"We watched with something close to terror," Alexina says of that night. Joshua spent most of it pacing around the room.
They knew if Harper’s Tories were given a majority, their family could be decimated the next morning. When the deportation of the most recent soldier, Pte. Kimberly Rivera, was announced in the House of Commons, the Tories had cheered. Rivera’s last child was born in a military prison in California.
A minority government might well leave the Keys in limbo for an unknown length of time; the acute stress of poverty and uncertainty would continue.
If the New Democrats prevailed, the family’s future in Canada was secure. Thomas Mulcair had committed to rescind Bulletin 202 and allow war resisters to remain in Canada, but according to pre-election polls the chances of that were slim.
When the red tide of the Liberals began tentatively in Atlantic Canada, a slender hope slipped into the Keys’ living room. As the tide continued through Quebec and Ontario, the Keys drew closer to each other and held on for dear life. There were incredulous smiles, some tears.
On Alexina’s most recent birthday, she had cornered Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at a political town hall in St. Boniface. To the applause of the audience, he committed to review her husband’s case with "openness and compassion." Alexina badgered him to review not just Joshua’s case, but all of them.
Trudeau made another promise: he would do that.
Joshua and Alexina Key will ask Canada’s new prime minister to act on his empathy with the Iraq war resisters. As many as 200 are believed to have sought refuge in Canada. Josh knows of nine others hanging on, living on hope.
"All we want," he says, "is a peaceful life in a peaceful country."
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster, currently media critic for Canadian Dimension magazine. Her forthcoming book about her political journey is called The Naked Canadian.