Should the Canadian government give asylum to American military deserters seeking to escape the Iraq War?

The question has prompted a lively -- sometimes contentious -- debate across Canada. An Angus Reid survey of 1,001 Canadians taken earlier this month shows that three out of five people in this country believe Iraq War military deserters should be allowed to stay in Canada.

In early June, the House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to permit the deserters to remain in Canada. Of course, the resolution is not official policy. Rather, it was a symbolic statement intended as a sign of sympathy from antiwar MPs.

Nobody knows exactly how many Iraq War resisters there are in Canada, but estimates vary between 100 and 600. Some American asylum seekers, such as 25-year-old Robin Long, have come perilously close to being returned to the United States by Canadian authorities.

Canadians who support sending the deserters back to the United States argue that, in contrast to the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands of draft evaders sought asylum in Canada, there is no draft in present-day America.

The reasoning goes that the Iraq War deserters flocking to Canada voluntarily enlisted to serve in the U.S. armed forces, unlike the Vietnam War-era Americans who dodged the draft. As Citizenship and Immigrations spokesperson Danielle Norris put it, "Those coming to Canada now volunteered for military service."

But that's a specious argument. During the Vietnam War, when the Selective Service Act (or draft) was in place, young American males had as much of a legal obligation to serve the Vietnam War as today's professional volunteer soldiers have to serve in the Iraq War. If we are examining the issue purely from a legalistic position (as opponents of giving asylum to Iraq War deserters often do), then draft evaders were breaking the law and violating rules in the 1960s every bit as much as Iraq War deserters are doing now.

And the current situation is exacerbated by the "backdoor draft" - the arbitrary extension of military service for thousands of volunteer reservists, often against their will. This problem did not exist in the Vietnam War.

We now know that even before the first American troops were deployed to Iraq, leaders at the highest levels in Washington, including President George W. Bush and former secretary of state Colin Powell, lied repeatedly and flagrantly to the American public (and, indeed, to the rest of the world) about the reasons for intervening in Iraq.

In doing so, they violated the trust of the military personnel serving overseas.

But there is a higher principle at stake. The occupation of Iraq is a catastrophe that is bleeding the nation to death. We will never know the precise Iraqi death toll - estimates have ranged as low as Bush's figure of 30,000 and as high as one million. Whatever figure one accepts, too many Iraqis have died.

Meanwhile, overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring countries have become massive human rights crises ignored by much of the outside world. The Iraq War has evolved into a lethal combination of civil war and counter-insurgency war, with no end in sight. Iraq needs self-determination and a new Marshall Plan - not continued war -- to bring a halt to its destruction.

Giving asylum to deserters is a small step in the right direction. Canadians assisted runaway slaves in the 19th century and Vietnam War resisters in the 1960s. Today's Iraq War deserters are as deserving of our help as these past victims of misguided policies.

Andrew Hunt is the chair of the department of history at the University of Waterloo.