Acknowledging treaty and territory

This week’s guest writer is Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

“I just think it’s annoying.”  That’s how my conversation with someone from church ended one Sunday after worship. The person had just pointed out that on the cover of our new church directory we had included “Treaty 1 Territory” as part of the address of our church building.

Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

Hundreds of people participate in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill. The blanket exercise teaches Canadian history from the perspective of indigenous peoples. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

“That’s a political statement” he went on, clearly irate. I tried to make some statements to defuse the tension, but clearly the high dudgeon he was experiencing was more important to him at the moment than having a conversation about issues relating to colonial history and indigenous-settler relationships.But it got me thinking. I thought about it during lunch (hotdogs), clean-up, and even while I was golfing that evening. I thought about two questions: First, is church a place where people are supposed to get annoyed? And second, so soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing, what are appropriate ways of acknowledging this troubled/troubling era of Canadian history?

Although I didn’t initiate the “address change” on the directory, I actually think that’s a pretty good symbolic way of identifying with Indigenous people.  The history of Mennonites with Indigenous people here in Manitoba slants pretty heavily in favour of the Mennonites. When you look at measures like education, economic class, cultural stability, representation in society, we Mennos stack up very high on the positive side of the ledger.  As with all settler peoples here in Canada some of this, at the very least, comes at the expense of Indigenous people.  So, if we acknowledge that the land was generously shared with us and sometimes confiscated on our behalf, putting “Treaty 1 Territory” on our bulletins and directory doesn’t feel inappropriate to me at all.

RS50971_IMG_3107-scr

Walk for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

Our congregation also hosts community people on Sunday mornings before the worship service. People come for coffee, breakfast and conversation. Many of them are Indigenous. This has been going on for years now and some good relationships have been established.  Quite a few of those folks now consider our congregation “their church” – whatever that means to them. I think that’s pretty cool. In an era of “truth and reconciliation” relationship-building and hospitality, perhaps this is what is called for.  It’s not everything, but it’s something.  Maybe having “their” address as part of “our” address can help us see each other as part of one body. That would be good.

But is church supposed to be a place to go to get annoyed?  Probably. At least some of the time. Because if we’re not annoyed with each other occasionally, we’re probably not being honest with each other. There’s always the question as to whose annoyance takes priority, mind you. Is it more important that one person feel annoyed over an experiment with identifying with Indigenous people or do we prioritize the annoyance of never saying anything about this topic?

Maybe you wonder about my use of the word “annoyance.”  It’s particularly appropriate, I think, because I am in the privileged position of being able to choose my annoyances.  Settler privilege and priority have a rich history in the church. Mennonite settler types, such as myself, are in the places of power. That means we get to pick how words get used.  Perhaps we use some of that privilege to add a line to the church directory in the hopes of seeing one of the troubled pages of Canadian history getting written with a more inclusive story.

The adage says that the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  In my view, this is a fairly minor “affliction” – if an annoyance for some – that can hopefully contribute to  more respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous people in Canada.

The people behind the headlines — opening our hearts to refugees

We see it on the news almost every day – headlines of migration from around the world. We can become easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the numbers; the millions of people on the move, in refugee camps, uprooted from their homes. But what about the people behind these headlines – their stories? In light of the growing global crisis of forced migration, it is critical to keep telling the stories and opening our hearts to the human side of migration.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, and all across the country this week people are marching, standing with refugees who have come to Canada and expressing solidarity with those around the world who are seeking refuge. We think of those risking their lives in precarious boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal; those making the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico; the hundreds of thousands who have fled or are still fleeing violence in Burundi and Rwanda, Syria and Lebanon, and now living in refugee camps all over the world. All of these people long for peace and a better life for their children.

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.  (MCC Photo by Salar Ahmed)

A recent report by Amnesty International lines up with what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has already said: with more than 50 million people around the world who have been forcefully displaced, either in their own country or beyond their borders, this is the worst forced migration crisis our world has seen since World War II.

Earlier this month Stephen Cornish, Director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders Canada, challenged Canadians to recognize our shared humanity with those fleeing or living in refugee camps. We must also recognize our responsibility for opening our doors and our hearts with those those needing safety and protection.

In thinking about the concept of shared humanity, one passage of scripture stands out. A lesson from the very beginning, Genesis 1: all people are made in the image of God – the call and challenge for us all to look at others from God’s viewpoint. We support and respect each other, mourn together, but also are joyful together.

This also reminds me of a recent personal encounter with migration.

Last month Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC) hosted the “People on the Move” exhibit, which is an MCC resource created with the help of partners around the world to tell stories of migration. It tells personal stories of refugees, people who have been displaced, or people who have had to move, seeking new opportunities. Along with the display, OMC invited many of their sponsored refugee families, as well as members of the congregation who have been involved in the sponsorship process to share their stories.

Among the panelists were people from Somalia, Iraq, Colombia, Syria and Canada, along with people in the audience who had come from Sudan, DR Congo and other parts of the world. It was a wonderful and impactful time of sharing and showing support for one another. There are so many highlights to share, but I will focus on two.

The Abukhousa family — Palestinians from Iraq — arrived as refugees in Altona, Manitoba in 2010. They were sponsored by an Altona group called Build a Village. (MCC Photo by Joanie Peters)

Laila (not her real name) is a young mother who arrived from Iraq last year with her husband and daughters. She spoke only a few words, but had a powerful message.  As a Muslim family, Laila and her husband were so joyful that a church community wanted to sponsor them, walk alongside them in this difficult time of transition, and build relationships, despite cultural, language and religious divides. The friendship between Laila’s family and several families from OMC was clearly evident. I don’t recall Laila’s exact words, but will paraphrase to the best of my ability, “We are people, just like you, who desire peace. We have hopes and dreams for our family.”

Angelica (also not her real name) and her family arrived from Colombia as refugees fleeing violence when she was just 12 years old in 2003. She shared about the difficult transition: the loss of her home, the challenges of a new language and culture, the end of a future in Colombia. But she also shared about the joys of community and support in Ottawa. One memory stuck out for Angelica on the day she arrived in Canada, a memory that is still vivid and still brings tears to her eyes. When she and her family descended the escalator at the Ottawa airport, a crowd of people awaited them, excited to meet them, greeting them with open arms. These were people who had never met her, yet their love and support was clear. Angelica has since become involved with other arriving refugee families, particularly another family from Colombia, because she wants to show them the same love and support which she received.

This year let us stand in solidarity with refugees here and around the world. Let us open our hearts to them. Let us seek to recognize our common humanity.

By Rebekah (Bekah) Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

The closing of the TRC: in seven parts

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Klassen Hamm, program director for MCC Saskatchewan. The photos were taken by Alison Ralph of MCC Canada during KAIROS’ Time for Reconciliation gathering and the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, May 28 to June 3, 2015.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.RS50673_IMG_2515-scrMore than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.RS50971_IMG_3107-scrJustice Murray Sinclair addresses walkers and those gathered at Marion Dewar Plaza in Ottawa. More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.    	At the start of the walk, organizers arranged for several notable people to speak, encouraging walkers for reconciliation.I
I am a woman born blind
socialized into a colonial story
with church collusion
was it my sin
or my parents’
but now my eyes
have been washed
with the mud of survivors’ stories
and I am beginning
to see

II
in front of me
sit rows and rows
of survivors
I receive the words
of the commissioners
filtered
through these now old bodies
which carry within them
child bodies
taken
from circles of love
humiliated
abused
buried in unmarked graves
a massive test
for something so small as words
to ring true
Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.through the bodies of children
listening for
acknowledgement
recognition
dignity
love

III
a horrific moral wound
intergenerational trauma
cultural genocide
listen
no matter how uncomfortable
an important lesson
awaits

IV
the commissioners
are midwives of a new day
delivering us out of the dark
toward love and respect
with art and dance
drum and song
reminding us
to be human
together

V
ninety-four calls to action
no stones left unturned
let justice roll down like waters
righteousness like a deep river

VI
we are kin
made so by treaties
and the creator
do not turn yourselves
from your own kin
walk in a good way
toward reconciliation
through reparation and restitution
langRS51161_IMG_3873-scruages and cultures
lands and resources
do justice
love kindness
walk humbly
be gentle
with the children
and grandchildren
and great grandchildren

VII
back home
along the south saskatchewan river
where my grandmother
coaxed vegetables and roses
from the sandy soil
providing feasts for our bodies and souls
what will I do with my reclaimed sight
the test of our love
will always be
the tender hearts
of all the children

For further reading:

TRC Findings http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890
Response of the Churches to the TRC http://www.anglican.ca/news/response-of-the-churches-to-the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/3004539/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+acc-news+%28Anglican+Church+of+Canada+News+Stories%29
John 9, Amos 5, Isaiah 58, Micah 6

D-Day and remembering the witness of conscientious objectors

This week’s guest writer is Ron Janzen, executive director of MCC Manitoba.

One of my clearest recollections of my “Opa” (paternal grandfather) is a story he told me about war. It was gruesome, shocking stuff for a young boy. Opa wanted to make an impact.  He wanted to make sure I understood the horrors of war and would remember them.  Since that was over 45 years ago, I think I can say it worked.

The story was about Opa’s service in the Sanitaetsdienst (hospital or “sanitary” service) in Russia during the final months of World War I. He was one of more than 6,000 Mennonites who, as conscientious objectors, transported wounded soldiers from the war front to hospitals. This was a few years before he would join thousands of other Mennonites fleeing communist Russia to immigrate to Canada. The actual story is his story to tell and it was my privilege to hear it.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.  Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.   Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Fifty-two individuals, most of them Mennonite conscientious objectors, posing in front of train 206.
Photo credit, Mennonite Heritage, Centre, 365-1.0.
Mennonite Archives Image Database.

Part of the story was also a careful articulation about how Opa came to be in the Sanitätsdienst. It was my first Anabaptist lesson on peace, non-resistance and the concept of alternative service. As I listened to Opa, I had a realization of being part of the tradition of a peace church movement that stretched back centuries and defined “my people.”

Opa was a large serious man whom I often found more intimidating than warm and cuddly. But in the telling of his story, he engaged me like an equal even though I was a young child. This was unusual for him. I felt respect and a desire on his part that I appreciate his experience and the deeply held values that formed it.

Opa was not highly educated and I did not receive from him a theological or biblical framework. However, he did succeed in explaining the significance of the peace position to his personal faith, the church, and the larger Mennonite community. He was also emphatic about explaining the sacrifice that individuals must be ready to make to uphold this position — including alternative service, imprisonment, and even emigration to countries accepting of individual and communal rights to conscientious objection.

During 2014, nation states rallied the public to honor military sacrifices and achievements in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy (D-Day) on June 6, 1944.  As we approach the 71st D-Day anniversary, I’m reminded of Maria Al-Kouhri.  I met her while visiting MCC partners in Beirut, Lebanon last November.

Maria is from Damascus and is currently living out the realities of the Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year of conflict. She  attended a Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University through an MCC sponsorship.  As a result of that experience and training, she is now courageously engaging young adults in her community in the work of dialogue and peacebuilding. She related to me how the SPI experience opened her mind and heart to the possibilities of building bridges across great divides.  She said to me, “War can create great people, but I think that peacebuilding creates even greater people.”  In our Canadian context, where we continually hear a message about the need for a violent and deadly response to the radical extremism of ISIS, I found Maria’s witness particularly courageous.

Peacebuilding has indeed offered many great testimonies over the centuries.  For us in the Anabaptist community, the witness of conscientious objectors and alternative service workers is a testimony we need to recall and honour (remembering that military conscription is also a present day reality for some of our brethren in other parts of the world).

COs in WW2

In World War II in Canada, many conscientious objectors were assigned to build roads. Photo credit: http://www.alternativeservice.ca.

As we come upon another D-Day celebration, it is appropriate for us to reflect also on the sacrifice and courage of those who chose to express their objection to active combat through alternative service. These individuals took the difficult path of standing against the societal value of redemptive violence. In the context of World War I and Nazi fascism, theirs was an unpopular, isolating, misunderstood and dangerous position to take. Yet several thousand individuals, many of them from Mennonite/Anabaptist churches, registered for alternative service.  Many were socially ridiculed, maligned, and called before tribunals to be interrogated about their conscientious objection beliefs.

There are powerful stories and testimonies from these experiences that need to be recalled and passed on.  As Canada marks another D-Day, let us recall the “even greater people” of peace from our Anabaptist community and tell the stories of their nonviolent witness. Perhaps this is a way we can sow the seeds for future generations of peacemakers and so inspire hope for an end to inter-generational cycles of violence and war.

New learnings in a familiar place

In April I had the pleasure of visiting the Maritimes as part of my work with the MCC Ottawa Office. As a Maritimer myself, it was a wonderful trip in many ways. It was a chance to talk with all kinds of folks about advocacy and the work of the Ottawa Office, and an opportunity to make connections with local partners of MCC, university groups and churches in the region. For me, the crux of my excitement was the chance to share my work with family, home church and long-time friends, all steeped in the familiar.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

But another major highlight was being challenged to look back and reflect on my early life and education in a new way. At St Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, my MCC colleague Christina Farnsworth led faculty, staff, students and a local Indigenous chief in the Blanket Exercise. It was my first time participating in this exercise, designed in part by KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

The Blanket Exercise is a participatory and interactive way of learning the history of North America, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It examines life before the arrival of Europeans, interactions with early settlers, the development and violations of land treaties, the (often deliberate) spread of diseases, the forming of reservations, and implementation and impacts of the Indian Residential School System.

It was especially noteworthy to participate in this exercise now, as we await the official closing of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) next week. Commissioners of the TRC have been travelling across Canada since 2010, listening to individuals, families and communities share their stories about the residential schools policy, developed and maintained for decades by the government and churches of Canada.

(Background) Walter Thiessen, Raymond Funk, Rosie Funk                  (Foreground) Agnes Kramer-Hamstra 

Agnes Kramer-Hamstra, representing an Indigenous person, stands on a blanket, representing the land. Photo by Mary Main.

As I listened, I was struck by how this perspective had not been part of my own understanding of Canadian narrative until fairly recently. I remember learning about Indigenous peoples from an early age, but looking back I recognize major gaps in that learning. We would talk about first contact with settlers, about the fur trade, and about cultural and traditional practices of various First Nations across Canada. We would talk about treaties made in those first few decades of contact. But this history was often presented in a way as to make these important things seem irrelevant today.

In high school I remember we examined some of the major human rights issues of our time and of history. But so often we looked at these issues from a global perspective. And while it was not explicitly said, Canada’s actions, both past and present, were often held up on a kind of pedestal — Canada is, after all, the “peacekeeping nation,” right?

During these formative school years, I also remember seeing news stories of local ethnic-based tensions, such as clashes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in rural New Brunswick. I remember being worried and upset by these clashes. But, again, despite growing up in a very politically engaged home, I did not have the proper understanding to grasp the roots of these tensions.

IMG_3479

Debbie MacDonald reads from a “scroll” which identifies one story from the larger narrative of how Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land. Photo by Mary Main.

It was not until a fourth year university class on “Genocide and War Crimes in the Twentieth Century” when I first recall discussing the now notorious residential schools policy. My professor led us in discussions of global events, but then always brought the issues back to Canada. I remember being shocked and ashamed when he went into depth about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, especially in the context of the residential schools. The experience left me with significant questions, notably, “How could this have happened?” and “Why am I just hearing about this now?” This class also left me with a determination to tell others about this side of Canadian history.

But back to the blanket exercise and prospects for reconciliation …  The exercise speaks loudly of the need to listen and try to understand Canadian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It also serves as a call to action. The apology expressed by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada for the residential schools and the initiation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were essential first steps for rebuilding relationships and helping lay the ground work for reconciliation. But now the real work begins – for us all.

We don’t necessarily know what this will look like in the coming months and years, but one way to begin is to both listen and intentionally talk about these issues whenever we can: in our churches, in schools, as part of community gatherings, as part of our advocacy campaigns.

I’m grateful to have participated in the blanket exercise and to witness its impact on others in my home province as well. I’m also grateful for the chance to visit the familiar while continuing to gain a new and deeper understanding of the history of my country. I hope and pray we can keep this conversation going and see real change – all across this amazing land.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office. She is originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The price of peace

This week’s guest writer is Nathan Hershberger. Nathan is from Harrisonburg, VA, USA, and studied theology and history at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Virginia.  He is currently serving with MCC as an English teacher in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.

The Islamic State group or ISIS is a difficult topic for pacifist Christians, and rightly so. It seems impossible to argue against U.S. or Canadian airstrikes when they are arguably holding back religious cleansing. I have lived in Iraq with MCC for about a year and I still don’t know quite what to say. A seminary student showed me a photo of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier who has reportedly beheaded a number of ISIS fighters and said to me, “This man is a hero.” I was left speechless. This student is a kind and generous man who loves Iraq and wants to remain in his country—a rare and precious thing in his generation. Is brutal war against ISIS the price of peace here?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials — including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits — were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities.  (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Fighting ISIS with any and all possible means seems so self-evidently necessary.  I confess that when U.S. airstrikes began in August and seemed to cut off an ISIS advance that threatened Erbil (where I live), I felt safer. If ISIS had made it to the city, it would have triggered the displacement of over a million additional people and left more Christians, Yezidis, and other minority groups vulnerable to ISIS.

This feeling of necessity is true not just of airstrikes in Iraq, but Western-led military interventions in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. On its own terms, each airstrike, weapons shipment, and campaign seems limited, efficient, and completely justified.  In Libya, strike the army of Muammar Qaddafi before it can massacre the population of Benghazi. In Iraq, destroy an artillery piece aimed at Erbil in order to ensure that Kurdish Peshmerga can defend the city from ISIS. In Syria, ship weapons to rebels to help them push back both ISIS and Assad.

With the greater caution of the Obama administration, Western powers seem united behind a foreign policy of surgical strikes. What the West seems to be faced with is not only an enemy that personifies evil itself, but the means of fighting it with a precision and economy that leaves our hands feeling clean, mostly.[1]  What can a Christian pacifist say to that?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Heads of households register their families in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. These materials were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Heads of households of displaced families register in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

But despite the new sense of distance and control, Western-led intervention in the Middle East is intimately trapped in a spiral of conflict. We are fighting an endless war where each victory makes the next battle necessary and seemingly inevitable. ISIS itself is a product, in part, of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Libya, where a seemingly surgical intervention in 2011 appeared to have scored a victory, chaos and civil war now reigns, inviting further intervention. Each of these campaigns seem necessary, but all together they are tracing a slow spiral of destruction in which war and peace are indistinguishable.

What, then, is the alternative?

The conflict in the Middle East, with the war in Syria at its heart, has turned more and more into a regional war, and thus, the solution—short of total victory for one side or another—has to be regional and diplomatic. Additionally, relief aid and economic development throughout the region must be higher priorities for the international community both immediately and in the long-term.

But these answers feel deeply inadequate when I am speaking with students forced from their homes by ISIS.  All I can think of in those situations—but don’t usually have the courage to say—is what Father Ibrahim,[2] a local Orthodox priest, said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks before Easter. “We are Christians. We have to love the stranger. We have to love ISIS. And we have to love the next ISIS too.”


[1] Despite their increasing precision, airstrikes do continue to kill civilians.  A few weeks ago, the U.S. bombed a power plant in eastern Mosul and an apartment building next door collapsed, reportedly killing 68 people. UN-SSI Daily Security Brief, April 22, 2015, UNAMI.   As the bombing campaign intensifies in urban areas like Mosul and Fallujah, and as ISIS begins to use human shields, such incidents will almost certainly increase, driving those affected to identify more with ISIS.  The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to adequately investigate these incidents.

As to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Defense current military operations in Iraq and Syria since last August have cost over $2 billion.  (For current reports of the U.S. bombing campaign and its costs and targets, see http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2014/0814_iraq/). Canada budgeted $122.5 million for its military operations in Iraq in 2014-2015.  For its expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, it has budgeted $406 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. These costs are above and beyond salaries and the routine costs of maintaining an army. See http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/canada-s-anti-isis-mission-in-iraq-syria-to-cost-528m-in-coming-year-1.2307991.

[2] Name changed for security reasons.

Solidarity, resistance, recovery: Thoughts on a Mother’s Day walk

I chose to spend a portion of Mother’s Day this year participating in the Sisters in Spirit walk that honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was a holy thing to walk slowly and reverently with several hundred women, men, elders, children and youth through Winnipeg’s downtown; to absorb the drumming, dancing and singing; to hear the speeches and the prayers at the gathering place. This witness of remembrance for lives lost or vanished, this call for an end to violence – it was sacred space.

As I walked, the reasons for my being there became clear.

IMG_20150510_140851Solidarity – I wanted to stand with the Indigenous people in my community, people who have experienced the violent death or disappearance of a beloved mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, auntie or friend. As a mother who has lost a child – my middle son died of cancer as an eight-year-old – I have a small window into the excruciating agony that families experience when a precious loved one is snatched away.

The reality of violence against Indigenous women in Canada is a travesty. Nearly 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1952.[i]  This represents a rate nearly four times greater than the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population. One study indicates that the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous.  Not only do Indigenous women experience a disproportionate amount of violence, the violence is also much more extreme.

Like many others, I want to stand with those who suffer from the violence and call for it to end. We must all work together to address the poverty, racism, marginalization and violence that makes so many Indigenous women statistics. Showing up with the Sisters in Spirit is one way to do that.

IMG_20150510_125510Resistance – I wanted to participate in this Mother’s Day community action because, to me, it is a powerful way of resisting all that is crass and commercial about Mother’s Day. One of the realities of our advanced capitalist system is that it commodifies everything it can – joy and happiness, peace and security, water and clean air.[ii] We see the most egregious examples of this at Christmas time, but it increasingly happens on Mother’s Day too.

At Mother’s Day we are programmed to again head to the mall to buy stuff – jewelry, clothing, electronics, appliances, spa visits, vacations and more – to show our mothers we love them. According to one source, Canadians were projected to spend $107 each on Mother’s Day, with an overall Canadian total close to $500 million. Many of us have bought into the lie that love is about buying and giving stuff, rather than expressing gratitude, compassion and caring.

Capitalism also teaches us that we are individuals – and only individuals. Our purpose in life is to seek our own personal gratification. Sure, if I buy a TV I will help to employ the people who built or sold the TV, but there is little in the capitalist agenda that promotes community. There is little inherent in capitalism that shapes us to work for the common good – to build just and caring communities.[iii]

The women who organize the Sisters in Spirit walk know that life is precisely about caring, compassion and community. Their actions are a wonderful act of resistance to the Mother’s Day of capitalist enterprise.

IMG_20150510_134325Recovery – Ever since I learned of the roots of Mother’s Day, I have longed for a recovery of its spirit and vision. According to at least one (if debated) tradition, the day has its origins in the work and proclamation of Julie Ward Howe, an American suffragist, writer and lecturer who lived from 1819 to 1910.

Moved by what she witnessed of both the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian wars, Howe issued her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation) in 1870. The proclamation was a clarion call to women to condemn war, and to stop preparing their sons to kill the sons of other mothers.  She understood that women – mothers, in particular – possess a special responsibility to build a world of peace.

The women of Sisters in Spirit hold a vision for Mother’s Day very much like Julia Ward Howe. They call people to mourn the murdered and missing, to acknowledge that all human lives are precious and deserve protection, and to work together to end violence against Indigenous women – indeed, against all life. Sisters in Spirit embrace a vision of justice, peace and healing. They embody the true spirit of Mother’s Day.

[i] This statistic, from the RCMP’s National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, has been challenged by various people, including Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, who indicates that the number is likely much higher.

[ii] See Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 105-109.

[iii] See Bell, 94-97.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.