4 min

Lesbian war resister Skyler James optimistic about refugee hearings

Conservative government issues directive branding deserters as criminals

War resister Skyler James holds a mounted plaque of the 2007 Xtra feature article of her. Credit: Neil McKinnon photo

Texas is known as a “gun-friendly” state and is located in the Bible Belt of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Texas is also the home state of lesbian war resister Skyler James, aka Bethany Smith, 22, who fled to Ottawa in 2007 fearing for her life after her sexual orientation became known to fellow soldiers. Ironically, there are no Bibles or guns in James’ home today: she is proud to live in Canada and wants to be one of us.

“Literally, when I came here, I thought it was the Promised Land. People were open, free, gays and lesbians holding hands. And there was no beating people up,” says James.

But even though James loves Canada and the new community she has become part of, she admits it is frightening that she may be deported to stand trial for army desertion.

Last November, James won a stay of deportation thanks to a Federal Court ruling. This was after the Immigration and Refugee Board had rejected her asylum claim. In an interview with Xtra last month, James’ talked about her upcoming two-day immigration hearing on Aug 11 and 12, which will determine whether she will be allowed to stay in Canada with refugee status. She says that with legal help from her lawyer and encouragement from her new Canadian friends, she doesn’t fear being deported.

James says she has a lot of attachments in Ottawa. Occasionally, she goes out to The Lookout and other gay bars in town. She is still looking for work after being laid off a few months ago, but she volunteered with Bluesfest and will be helping out with Capital Pride. She also has a serious girlfriend.

James says that when she was in the army, she expected it to be a place of camaraderie, people helping each other out. She felt she had to hide her sexuality because of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, where the military cannot ask someone’s sexual orientation and a soldier should not disclose it. When she was outed, she was harassed; she was given extra work and received dozens of threatening notes, including death threats, on her residence door — all because a fellow soldier spotted her walking hand-in-hand with a woman at a shopping mall.

Last fall, she talked about being body-slammed by a large man who thought he was being funny. And when the military wanted to send her to Afghanistan, she said she feared she could not trust the people she worked with to watch her back in battle. That’s why she fled to Canada.

And while before she felt she had to hide her sexuality, James now embraces it: she is going to Montreal soon to get a rainbow tattoo of her own design.

“[The tattoo] is going to be unique to me. Nobody will copy it, but if they do, it’ll still look best on me!” says James.

Jamie Liew, James’ lawyer, says if her client is deported, she may face jail time.

“She could be put back into her unit, where people wouldn’t be getting her back. She could be court-martialled or put into a situation where she could be killed because people won’t have her back,” says Liew.

Check back for details about James’ immigration hearing.


James’ hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board happens days after the Conservative government gave immigration officers new orders to deal with military deserters seeking refuge in Canada. The new orders would brand them as criminals, making their cases inadmissible.

“Desertion is an offence in Canada under the National Defence Act,” says a July 22 notice.

According to Liew, the government has not yet signalled their intention to raise the issue of inadmissibility “due to criminality,” but that there is a mechanism in refugee hearings that allows them to do so.

“The release of this directive by the Government seems to coincide with the upcoming second reading of Bill-C-440 scheduled for the fall,” says Alyssa Manning, a lawyer representing many Iraq war resisters. “This directive also provides further evidence that the Minister’s office is not taking a neutral, hands-off approach to the assessment of war resister applications. Instead of immigration officers being able to assess these applications on their merits, officers are increasingly having their hands tied by the Minister’s office.”

Bill C-440, sponsored by Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy, would allow war resisters to stay in Canada by amending the Immigration Act. It was debated at Second Reading in May, but has not yet been voted upon at that stage.

“It certainly seems clear that the government is politicizing the ministry to do some of its political bidding, and I say that because the directive has things which are not factual, balanced or fair in it,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy says that the Federal Court has ruled that conscientious objection is a ground to be dealt with as a humanitarian and compassionate grounds for refugee status, while the government has chosen to emphasize that coming to Canada could be an illegal act.

NDP MP Bill Siksay seconded Bill C-440.

“The Conservatives are unwilling to heed the advice of Parliament, which has twice now called for a special program for Iraq war resisters,” says Siksay.

“It shows that they can’t heed the advice of the courts, who have called for appropriate hearings for American war resisters,” Siksay says of the government’s decision. “I think it’s just a further indication of their willingness to pursue their narrow, ideological agenda at the expense of what most Canadians are interested in seeing our federal government do.”

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow believes the release was issued quietly on a website because the government has lost several Federal Court cases regarding war resisters.

“I think that Jason Kenney is trying to send a message out — let’s not give them a chance,” Chow says. “And that’s unfair.”

According to Ken Marciniec, a spokesperson for the War Resisters Support Campaign, there may be as many as 200 Iraq war resisters in Canada.

“We know of about 50 who have come forward and have tried to formalize their status in Canada, either through spousal sponsorship if they’ve since settled here and married a Canadian, or through humanitarian and compassionate grounds,” Marciniec says. “In some ways, [this directive] is going to end up affecting any of the Iraq war resisters who are in Canada, so it could affect as many as 200.”

Siksay is also critical of the contention that all US war resisters are inadmissible because of the volunteer nature of the US armed forces.

“I think you have to consider what many people call the ‘poverty draft’ in the United States — people without significant economic means can’t afford to get an education, and the military is the place that they turn to for that,” Siksay says. “Or they can’t find a job, and the military is the place they turn to, to find employment. That’s a very serious thing that counteracts the voluntary nature.”