American peace activists stalled at Canada-U.S. border
WASHINGTON - Two high-profile American peace activists on Thursday accused the Canadian government of denying them entry into Canada solely because of past arrests in the U.S. for peaceful protests against the war in Iraq.
Medea Benjamin, founder of the women's peace movement CodePink, and former U.S. diplomat Ann Wright were detained for several hours by Canadian authorities at the border crossing between Buffalo, N.Y. and Niagara Falls, Ont., then turned back because their names appeared on an FBI database detailing their misdemeanour convictions.
"We believe the Canadian government should not be doing the dirty political intimidation work for the Bush administration by using that database," Wright, a former U.S. army colonel and deputy ambassador, said at a news conference outside the Canadian embassy in Washington.
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The two women were en route from Buffalo to Toronto on Wednesday to meet with Canadian anti-war activists when immigration officials denied them entry.
According to Benjamin and Wright, the Canadian authorities informed them they could not enter Canada because their names appeared on the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.
In Benjamin's case, border agents cited a past misdemeanour trespassing conviction for a sit-in at the U.S. mission at the United Nations. She was fined $50 in that incident.
As recently as August, Benjamin had been admitted into Canada without problem.
Wright, meantime, was allowed into Canada on a three-day temporary visa in August to protests talks between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President George W. Bush on the Security and Prosperity Partnership.
"I have been arrested for sitting in front of the White House. I've been arrested for standing up and speaking at the U.S. Congress. All of these are misdemeanours," said Wright, who quit a 16-year State Department career following the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "I've never spent a day in jail as punishment."
The peace activists met Thursday afternoon with immigration officials at the Canadian embassy in Washington. The women were informed they could not enter Canada until they completed a lengthy application detailing their "criminal rehabilitation."
Benjamin said Canadian border agents were "almost apologetic" for denying the women entry, allegedly saying it was policy to turn away anyone on the NCIC database.
"I travel all over the world on a regular basis. I have never had this kind of problem," said Benjamin. "Canada is the first country, to our knowledge, that is using this beefed-up database of the FBI as its criteria for judging who enters. It's why we consider this so outrageous and so dangerous."
The women received support Thursday from several New Democrat MPs, including Toronto's Olivia Chow, who wrote Canadian diplomats in the U.S. to request the activists be admitted into Canada.
"In Canada, peaceful protest is not a criminal activity, despite how some U.S. agencies may regard it," Chow wrote in the letter to Stephen Brereton, Canada's consul general in Buffalo.
Decisions on admitting visitors to Canada should be made "based on appropriate standards decided by the Canadian government, and not by any other foreign body.
Benjamin and Wright are among the most visible anti-war activists in the United States. They are arguably best known for peaceful disruptions of congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, where they typically unfurl banners and shout during testimony by administration and military officials.
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