San Francisco — In the United States, Canada has long had a reputation as a shelter for American political protesters.

But in this post-9/11 world, with a member of the Conservative Party as Canada's prime minister, Canada has apparently had a change of heart, says the disgruntled Bay Area co-founder of CODEPINK, a national organization opposed to the war in Iraq.

Medea Benjamin says she was headed to Toronto to attend a peace conference, along with retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, when they were stopped at the Canadian port of entry at Niagara Falls, N.Y.

"We were called aside for secondary screening and when they came back, they had printed out our records from this file called, a NCIC (U.S. National Crime Information Center) data base. In my case there were three arrests, one for protesting outside the White House, one for a protest in Congress and one in New York City when we tried to deliver petitions — from women saying no to war — to the United Nations."

All were non-violent, peaceful protests, Benjamin said.

Col. Wright, a 29-year-veteran of the U.S. Military and the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, had a similar record, all for arrests since 2002 when she resigned her commission to protest the Iraq War, Benjamin said.

She said they were denied entry to Canada and were told to apply at a Canadian Consulate for "criminal rehabilitation." This would require a waiting period of five years between the last arrest and admission to Canada, Benjamin said.

Instead, CODEPINK has gathered 20,000 signatures of Americans across the country on petitions asking Canada to change its policy. The group intends to present them Tuesday at five Canadian consulates, including the one in San Francisco.

Representatives of the Canadian and U.S. governments have been asked for comment, but so far have not returned phone calls.

To test Canada's resolve, Benjamin plans to fly to Ottawa on Thursday to speak at the invitation of several members of the Canadian parliament.

"This is going to be a real challenge," Benjamin said. "We're flying from Washington, D.C., to Ottawa and we may or may not be allowed to enter the country."

But the pressure is on. Benjamin said her chief sponsor, Alexa McDonough, head of the liberal New Democratic Party and a member of Parliament from Nova Scotia, intends to ask Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the country's policy on admitting Benjamin and other activists with arrests for protests.

Benjamin says she's outraged.

"We are appealing to Canadians not to treat peaceful activists like common criminals. I travel all over the world on a regular basis and Canada is the first country to use the NCIC to keep out people like us," Benjamin said.

She adds she has traveled to Canada many times and has never before been refused entry.

Launched in 2002, CODEPINK's mission is to end the war in Iraq.

"We thought it was a war about oil, it would result in the deaths of lots of civilians and soldiers and make us more hated in the world," Benjamin said. "Unfortunately, everything we thought would happen has happened," she said.

Contact Staff writer William Brand at bbrand@bayareanewsgroup.com.