From hand to hand to hand: The journey to North Korea

This piece by Julie Bell, a senior writer and editor for MCC, was originally published by MCC Canada on December 2, 2017.  We share this piece again in our Ottawa Notebook in light of the international summit Canada is hosting this week on North Korea.

PYONGYANG, DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea) – It’s been a long trek for these eight small bags of medical supplies. They have been packed and re-packed, crossed an ocean, passed through three countries and numerous airport security checks.

On this day the bags have reached their destination – a small medical clinic on a farm near Pyongyang.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, with medical staff at clinic near Pyongyang. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

As I watch my MCC colleague, Chris Rice, hand one of the bags to the medical staff, I am humbled by the significance of this small gesture. Rice and I, and two of our MCC colleagues, are in DPRK at a time when tensions between this country and other parts of the world are running high. On this day, U.S. president Donald Trump is in the region and most people, including the people of DPRK, are aware of that.

And yet, the story of how the medical kits came to be is what matters most in this moment. Through translation, we tell the medical staff we have come to DPRK to visit some of the projects supported by MCC; including providing canned meat and soybean products to orphanages and schools and agricultural support on their farm. But their faces light up when we tell them that it was a conversation during a previous visit to the farm that prompted a collaboration of people around the world.

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A farm near Pyongyang, DPRK, where MCC has provided agricultural support. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

During that visit, medical staff told MCC about accidents on the farm – everything from cuts and scrapes to sprains and broken bones. Word of the need for medical supplies travelled through MCC’s regional office in South Korea and on to MCC offices in Canada and the U.S. We decided to put together medical kits and consulted with medical experts, both in and outside MCC, on what the kits should contain. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to buy the supplies and they were delivered to our material resources warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That’s where Natalie Gulenchyn, a long-time volunteer at the resource centre got involved.  She cut the fabric and sewed the bags, complete with MCC’s iconic dove logo.

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Natalie Gulenchyn, who is in her eighties and volunteers at MCC’s material resources warehouse in Winnipeg sewed the medical kit bags that were transported to DPRK. MCC photo/Rachel Bergen

Everything was packed into a piece of luggage, which travelled with me from Winnipeg to Beijing, China.

In Beijing, we checked to make sure everything was okay and re-packed the luggage.

The luggage crossed its last border when we travelled to Pyongyang in DPRK. In yet another hotel room, we moved the supplies – from bandages to surgical tape and disposable gloves – into the eight bags lovingly sewn by Natalie.

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Julie Bell, MCC Canada senior writer and Chris Rice, MCC representative for Northeast Asia, along with medical staff at a farm clinic near Pyongyang, DPRK. MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

Now, as the nurses and a doctor at the clinic thank us for the supplies, I am so grateful for all the hands and hearts involved in bringing these simple gifts here. Donors, volunteers, MCC workers and their families – these people made it happen.

On this day, the hostilities and harsh rhetoric of current times are irrelevant. I think about the many references in the Bible to “do the work of God’s hands.” The call to carry gifts of comfort and words of peace is the only truth that matters.

Voices of the Peacebuilders Part 2: Hope amidst the rubble

This is the second of a two-part series called Voices of the Peacebuilders, focusing on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working for peace at the grassroots. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part blog series outlines points from each lecture and provide a video link. The second lecture, held on October 17 and hosted by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, was entitled: The Role of the Peacebuilders: Iraq, Syria and Beyond.”

Years of protracted conflict in Iraq and Syria have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, and millions of forcibly displaced peoples.

Just under the surface are deeply rooted grievances based on: ethnic, national and religious divisions; multiple and overlapping conflicts and quests for political power and control of rich natural resources, such as oil; alliances and interests of the global superpowers; and even climate change.

In these circumstances, how do we even begin to think about solutions or possibilities for peace?

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

Perspectives that are often missing in the reporting on Iraq and Syria are those from the grassroots. These include voices caught in the crossfire and even deliberate targets of violence. But they also include voices and movements of local leaders from the grassroots – individuals, communities and organizations – who are seeking to address the complex roots of conflict and build peace from the ground up.

These are people that have been dedicated to building peace long before the world took notice of escalating conflict. They are standing firm at the height of violence and they are committed to continue long after the world’s attention has faded. Their voices and their work bring a renewed sense of hope amidst the rubble.

MCC has been working alongside local partners in the Middle East for about 70 years, and in Syria and Iraq specifically for over 25 years. I want to introduce you to some of these peacebuilders and their projects, who at great personal risk to themselves and their families, exemplify the dedication, courage and commitment necessary for long-lasting peace.

Aleppo, Syria

At the end of 2016, the world watched as the Syrian government and its allies doubled down on its siege on Aleppo. The images flashing on the TV screens was one of destruction and civilians trapped in the crossfire. And, while these images ring true at a certain level, they do not tell the whole story – that of non-violent peacebuilders, like MCC’s partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). As much of the international community fled Aleppo, and Syria in general, FDCD remained.

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Participants from MCC partner’s FDCD interactive theatre production in Aleppo, Syria promoting reconciliation and peacebuilding. In December 2015, amidst airstrikes, suicide bombs and fighting making headlines – not to mention restrictions on public gatherings – some 1,200 people attended the three shows. (Photo courtesy of FDCD)

FDCD, working in multiple urban areas across Syria, focusses on peacebuilding through ethnic and inter-faith bridgebuilding, tackling deep-seated divisions. From 2015-2016, as fighting intensified in Aleppo, FDCD organized and ran a theatre and education program for the public, promoting inter-faith dialogue between Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and others.

The theatre production, funded in part by the Canadian government, attracted over 1200 people in Aleppo, much more than anticipated. As one representative of FDCD told the National Post in 2016: “Now [Aleppo is] the most dangerous city on earth. You can hide and cry, or you can fight, or you can try to make a positive change.”

Bashiqa, Northern Iraq

The Yezidi people, an ethnic and religious minority from Northern Iraq, have suffered unspeakable acts of violence and torture throughout the conflict in Iraq, especially at the hands of ISIS.  Bashiqa, in northern Iraq, has a significant Yezidi population and was under the brutal control of ISIS for three years. But despite great suffering, MCC partner Yezidi/Azidi Solidarity and Fraternity League (ASFL) is seeking not only to provide material and psycho-social relief to survivors, but empower local Yezidis to be agents of change and reconciliation.

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Pictured from left to right are Yazidi youth volunteers Sadolla, Jilan, Barakat, Khairie, Rivan, Omeid, Sardel, Saif, and Sarmed (last names withheld for security reasons), participants in ASFL’s “Forward Together”* campaign, in Bashiqa Iraq; restoring public spaces, including painting murals that include messages of peace, inclusivity and hope. (Photo courtesy of ASFL)

As part of a campaign, “Forward Together,” ASFL in sending out teams of volunteers to help in the reconstruction and beautification of Bashiqa. These reconstruction teams specifically reach out to neighbourhoods with people of different religions and ethnicities – Muslims, Christians, Arabs and Kurds – to promote reconciliation and a portrayal of Yezidis as not only victims of conflict but agents of change.

One participant reflected: “We felt very relieved to help people from other religions. Working in this campaign broke the boundaries that were created by the events on Sinjar Mountain [notorious massacre and torture site of Yezidis by ISIS] and in other areas. It felt amazing.”

Southern Lebanon

Finally, in southern Lebanon, MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is supporting both Palestinians in Lebanon and Syrian refugees (including Palestinians from Syria), with food baskets, vouchers and other provisions, while also bringing these groups of people together, to share and find healing together.

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Faten Faour (Right), an animator for psychosocial activities run by MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in southern Lebanon for Syrian and Palestinian refugees (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky).

The influx of over 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon has no doubt had significant economic, social and political impacts. To meet physical needs while promoting reconciliation, PARD supports refugees and their host communities struggling with economic needs. Bringing together these groups in formal and informal settings, PARD hopes to foster positive relationships between communities, providing necessities, easing tensions and building peace from the ground up.

Looking Forward

As Syrian peace talks stumble and drag on in Geneva, as government forces clash with Kurdish forces in Iraq, and millions of people remain displaced throughout the region, the situation remains grim. But there is hope amidst the rubble in the persistence, courage and dedication of those who work for peace from the ground up.

See a full link to the lecture here.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

A New Year’s plea for children

The Christmas leftovers are eaten, the decorations are packed away, and the season’s concerts are receding into memory.  But it is just a short time ago that many of us gathered with family – including little children – to celebrate the birth of another child, the Christ-child Jesus.

As I witnessed the wonder and delight of my little grandchildren at Christmas, I once again whispered a prayer of gratitude that they are growing up in safety and security, their basic needs met, and love surrounding them. But I was also reminded that the well-being of these two little ones results, not only from their amazing parents, but from white middle-class privilege and the good fortune to be born far from a war zone.

For millions of children around the world, and in Canada, life does not include a safe home, enough food and water, or the presence of loving caregivers. It does not include communities in which children can grow and thrive.

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Kolo Adamu holds a photo of her 18-year-old daughter Naomi who was abducted by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, in 2014 along with more than 200 other girls who were taken from Chibok secondary school in Nigeria. In May 2017, Naomi was among 80 girls who were released. MCC photo/Fred Yocum

Consider these realities:

  • According to UNICEF, 2017 was a “nightmare year” for children living in conflict zones. Children in conflict zones came under attack in places that should be safe: homes, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. They were used as human shields. They were raped and enslaved, abducted and recruited to fight, maimed and killed.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children were displaced from their homes. Indeed, it is estimated that, currently and worldwide, 50 million children are uprooted by brutal conflict and extreme poverty.
  • Displaced children become refugees when they cross an international border. In the last weeks of 2017, we heard much about Rohingya children fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, but child refugees also fled and continue to flee countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Many of them were alone. In Europe, refugees who are “unaccompanied minors” number 100,000 annually.
  • Millions of children live with hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. In East Africa alone – notably South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – at the end of 2017, 6.9 million children suffered from malnutrition, with 1 million severely malnourished or at risk of dying by the end of the year.
  • Palestinian children in the occupied territories, convicted of throwing stones or some other misdemeanor deemed a security threat to Israel, are placed in Israeli military detention, where abuse, harassment and violation of basic rights are systemic and widespread.  (Learn more and take action on this issue.)
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Tricia Monague, an Ojibway jingle dancer, dances in Ottawa in memory of Indigenous children who died at Indian Residential Schools. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

And the horrors many children experience are not just “over there.”  Many children here in Canada live with poverty, discrimination, violence and insecurity as well.

Children deserve a life free of fear and free of want. They deserve to be loved and cared for by people they can trust and love in return. They deserve to be surrounded by communities of care.

As Christmas 2017 recedes and 2018 opens before us, let us commit to building a world of justice, peace and security for children.  Especially those of us who welcome and worship the Christ-child Jesus.

“When God is a child, there is joy in our song, the last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.” — Excerpt from song by Brian Wren, “When God is a child,”  © 1989 Hope Publishing Company.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

 

 

 

A prayer of response to Mary’s Magnificat

The Magnificat is often understood to be a song of praise. Recorded in Luke 1:47-55, it is Mary’s response to the prophecy that, through her, God’s fulfillment will come.

I sometimes struggle to believe Mary’s strong and powerful affirmation of the coming of God’s “upside down kingdom.” Mary’s words are meant to comfort and give hope to those seeking justice, but injustice continues and at times even flourishes.

Where is the mercy for those who fear the Lord? Did I miss the proud being scattered? When I look at the leaders of the world, I still see dictators and tyrants, who remain on their “thrones” of power. I don’t see the lowly being lifted up or the hungry being filled with good things or the rich being sent away empty.

How do I respond to the intense hope and joy recorded in the Magnificat when, for so many, the world seems so bleak?

As I wrestle with these questions, I find myself praying as Mary sings.

Magnificat

My soul seeks to magnify the Lord as my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for the Almighty has done good things and
though change feels slow and is sometimes hard to find,
I know that it comes. I know that it happens.

With Mary I wait for what has been promised.
I wait for tables to be turned and power to shift.
For a scattering of the proud and a tumbling of the mighty.
I wait for new life and a new world.

For those treated as social outcasts just for being who they are
or because of events outside their control,
I pray for God’s loving presence to be as real to them
as it was to Mary when she proclaimed
the Lord has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

To the Mighty One who has done great things
I pray for an open heart and unblocked ears
that I may hear the voices of the poor and oppressed
and act to share their struggle for justice.

For those who have experienced violence,
or been forced to flee their homes,
I pray for God’s mercy which Mary promised
is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.

For those who experience racial hatred
and suffer the bigotry of the narrow minded,
I pray that they might know the Lord has shown the strength of his arm
and the proud will be scattered in the conceit of their heart.

For those suffering under the oppression of tyrants and dictators,
I pray they may take comfort in knowing justice is coming
for the Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

For the poor and hungry,
I pray they may experience what it means
to be filled with good things
while the rich are sent away empty.

To the one who helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
I pray with longing that all may have the joy of the Magnificat
as its promise is fulfilled with God among us.

By Monica Scheifele, Ottawa Office Program Assistant

Advocacy as sounding an alarm

This week’s guest writer is Jason Carkner, External Grants Coordinator for MCC Canada. Jason is originally from Whitby, Ontario and holds an M.A. in international development from the University of Ottawa.

A recent trip to Chad changed my ideas about advocacy and about how I work with MCC partners around the world.

I was in Chad working with the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad—the national umbrella organization for Protestant churches in the country, and long-time partner of MCC. I was there to help develop a peacebuilding proposal for EuropeAid, which focused on the formation of interfaith committees of Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic men, women and youth. The proposal included 68 committees, each with a diverse membership of 10 people, that would launch 135 local initiatives that promote interfaith understanding, acceptance, and peace across the country.

As MCC Canada’s External Grants Coordinator I do a lot of proposal writing, which typically means plenty of Skype calls, way too many emails and Word documents and spreadsheets, and long hours spent in a cubicle overlooking the traffic on Winnipeg’s Bishop Grandin Boulevard. What often gets lost in those long-distance collaborations are the stories, relationships, emotions, hopes, and convictions that undergird the work of MCC’s partners. My meetings with Victor Dogos, EPJ’s Program Coordinator, had all of that.

Jason with Victor in Chad

Jason Carkner with Victor Dogos of the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad.

In one meeting I was trying to have Victor number off the central issues affecting interfaith conflict in Chad, explain how the project was designed to address each one specifically, and articulate how this will result in changes to the lived experience of Chadians. But he didn’t really do that. Instead, he told me stories.

He told me that when a man is ready to marry, he will seek approval from his prospective in-laws by taking something from someone else by force, typically livestock or valuable materials, and presenting it to them as a symbol of his authority, power, and ability to provide and protect.

He told me that police formally provide “mediation services” for community disputes, but that they function more like bribe-based arbitrations that assign blame, fuel distrust, and do more harm than good.

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Dogos Victor, left, and Tchingweubé Yassang Boniface lead a session at an EEMET workshop, teaching skills in conflict resolution and practical strategies for acting as community peacemakers. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)

I heard many stories during those meetings. Plenty of follow-up questions and “translation” work was required to generate the language of results-based management that institutional funders require. It was a great reminder that, despite the heavy emphasis on participation and inclusivity in the development sector, this technical language can itself be exclusionary. If we’re not careful, it will command a particular way of viewing development at the exclusion of all other perspectives.

During a broader conversation about EPJ’s work—which includes peacebuilding, HIV/AIDS, and advocacy—Victor explained something that has changed the way I think about advocacy and the work I do with MCC. His comments, which were paraphrased by a translator, went something like this:

“Advocacy is kind of like sounding an alarm. If a community says there’s no health centre here, or there’s no clean water to drink, we can do advocacy on their behalf to show that there is need. There’s an advocacy for something, and there’s also an advocacy against something. In the case of police brutality, you can name it and advocate against it. That helps improve the conditions of life for people. The common thread that runs across our three programs—peacebuilding, HIV/AIDS, and advocacy—is improving the quality of life and stability of the community.”

It struck me that he spoke about advocacy as a means of “naming” an issue. Giving something a name makes it easier to tell its story, which makes it easier to know and understand, which makes it easier to change. But through his stories Victor was telling me that we only name things and know them from our own vantage point, and that the challenge is to establish shared names and shared meaning. That was the objective of our project.

In hindsight I can see that, through his storytelling during those meetings, Victor was advocating. He was sounding an alarm. He wanted me to understand that violence is valued as a display of authority and an ability to provide and protect, and that local authorities treat conflict as a matter of right and wrong, black and white. He wanted me, and the EuropeAid evaluators, to “get it”.

My conversations with Victor helped me realize that a proposal should be more than a technical document requesting funding. It should be a piece of advocacy that enables our local partners to sound an alarm, to name the drivers of conflict, and tell the stories of the harm they cause and how they can be overcome.

Jason's desk in Chad

Jason Carkner’s desk while working with the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad.

We all see injustice, so we all have opportunities to sound an alarm. Not all advocacy needs to take the form of a letter to the Prime Minister or a protest sign at a rally. My time with Victor taught me that advocacy is everyday stuff.

A landmine-free world? Not there yet

Twenty years ago this week, history was made.

On December 3-4, 1997, the Mine Ban Treaty opened for signature at the National Conference Centre, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.

As Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy put pen to paper and affixed the first signature to the landmark treaty, thousands gathered in Ottawa—state delegates, throngs of media, NGOs, grassroots peace activists, and even a bus-load of landmine activists who had traveled several continents to get here.

That day, they accomplished what had felt nearly impossible just 14 months before—an international treaty that entirely banned a weapon known to cause indiscriminate physical and psychological harm to civilians around the world.

Sometimes referred to as the Ottawa Convention—though officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction—this treaty is arguably one of the world’s most successful.

Photo by MAG Sri Lanka

In the mid-1990s, roughly 26,000 people were victims of anti-personnel landmines every single year—killed or permanently maimed, their lives altered in an instant.

Twenty years later, 162 states have become treaty signatories; more than 51 million stockpiled landmines have been destroyed; 27 countries and 1 territory once plagued by contamination have declared themselves mine-free; and production by the majority of the world’s landmine producers has ceased.

Just as importantly, the Treaty has helped make landmines one of the most stigmatized weapons in the world. At the end of the Cold War, landmines were an accepted component of virtually every state’s military arsenal. Fast forward to today, and international norms have developed that discourage any country—signatory or not—from using them. In fact, many non-signatory states (the U.S., for instance) are in de-facto compliance with the Convention.

This groundbreaking instrument also has broader significance for the ways in which it shaped future arms-control activism.

Back in 1996, most countries favoured working through traditional UN disarmament channels. But as negotiations within these structures (i.e. the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) were resulting in diplomatic stalemate, Canada did the “un-diplomatic” thing. It stuck its neck out—proclaiming that by December of 1997 Canada would hold a conference to sign a new treaty banning landmines. And it would do so by bypassing conventional channels altogether.

This alternative (and, at that time, unusual!) diplomatic model broadened the scope of participation to include civil society in the negotiations. While not an easy sell for many governments, this innovative process, Axworthy recalls, gave “participants…equal standing at the table regardless of their position. Mine victims sat next to ministers discussing strategy, reflecting an emerging sense of partnership between government and civil groups.”[1]

Within this context, NGOs and landmine victims—mobilized under the banner of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (a Nobel Peace Prize winner!)—made their case, providing compelling documentation on the devastating humanitarian impacts these weapons had.

In the end, this alternative process achieved an outright ban on a weapon that countries had once argued were indispensable. It was a game-changer.

One only need to look to later treaties on cluster bombs (2008), small arms (2014), and, most recently, nuclear weapons (2017), to see how NGOs, governments, and civil society have come together again and again to put humanitarian concerns at the center of disarmament conversations.

At this twenty-year anniversary of the Landmine Treaty, there obviously are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

In Ottawa this week we did just that. On Monday, December 4, NGOs gathered with government officials, diplomats, de-miners, and landmine survivors to commemorate the success of the Treaty. The conference, aptly-named “Unfinished Business: The Ottawa Treaty at 20,” explored the “wins” of the last twenty years, but it also threw down the many challenges that remain.

Let’s make no mistake—there is much business to be finished. Landmines are not an issue of the past.

With well over 60 countries still contaminated, people can’t travel freely, return home post-conflict, farm their land, or regain their livelihoods (check out the Landmine Monitor for annual statistics).

And as we heard this week, the world is facing a new landmine emergency. The number of people killed or injured by anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices has increased in recent years, hitting a ten-year high in 2015.

As organizations like Mines Advisory Group have reported, the regional conflict in Iraq and Syria (not to mention Ukraine and Myanmar) has resulted in a scale of contamination not seen for decades. Improvised explosive devices and locally-manufactured mines in these contexts are “sensitive enough to be triggered by a child’s footsteps but powerful enough to disable a tank,” MAG said at the conference.

All of this within the context of a global decline in funding.

Thankfully, on Monday Canada announced almost $12 million in funding for mine action projects in places like Iraq, Syria, Cambodia, Laos, Ukraine, and Colombia.

While a far cry from the $62.8 million Canada contributed at its peak in 1997, this funding is crucial. As the Landmine 2025 campaign is pushing, global support for clearance must be re-energized if signatories are to achieve treaty commitments.

And as Axworthy also noted this week, Canada could also lead in efforts to invest in new technologies for clearance.[2]

In other words, even as we celebrate the Treaty’s remarkable achievements, we must also recognize that much work remains. Let’s finish the job!

By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Director

[1] Lloyd Axworthy, Navigating a New World: Canada’s Global Future, Chapter 6: The Ottawa Process, pg. 127.
[2] Check out groups like Demine Robotics in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON.

Peace, protest and patriotism: Muted voices from WWI

This week’s guest writer is Zacharie Leclair, administrative assistant for MCC Québec and member of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Board.  Zacharie holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the Université du Québec à Montréal and is also the author of Charles R. Crane and Wilsonian Progressivism, published in 2017.

At first it seemed ironic to me: I was taking part in a symposium on the history of conscientious objection held at a museum exhibiting artefacts of the First World War. The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City (Missouri) was indeed hosting a conference called “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I.” All sorts of people gathered there: historians, activists, archivists, representatives of various organizations, church laymen, independent researchers and many more. All had a common commitment to peace.

Though the mood was generally cheerful, a general distress seemed to permeate the public, especially those from the United States. After I presented a paper on President Woodrow Wilson’s response to Mennonite conscientious objectors during the First World War, to my surprise people appeared more interested in asking me about my perspective — as a French-speaking Mennonite (Brethren) from Canada — on the current political situation in the U.S.

Zacharie Leclaire

Zacharie Leclair speaking at “Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I” conference in Kansas City, Missouri, October 2017. Photo: Nan Macy

The social and political climate in the U.S. feels more tense and sharp, more polarized, than ever.  Many Americans wonder why their people seem to become more prone to violence and less united. Armed massive killings are now frequent, as well as protests and even public display of extremism.

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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, was a U.S. journalist, orator and leader in the anti-slavery movement. A former slave himself, he became the first African-American to hold a high-ranking position in the U.S. government. Photo: http://www.biography.com.

Lately football star player Colin Kaepernik launched a movement to express African-American discontent with police abuse and injustice by sitting, then kneeling, during the U.S. national anthem. Kaepernick attracted much contempt and criticism from some politicians and this might even have prevented him from securing a new contract as a free agent. Others wanted to see in him a beacon of justice reminiscent of the 19th century great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reminding that Kaepernik had sponsored a worthy and important cause through peaceful means. Strikingly, this issue polarized the public opinion along traditional racial lines.

Back at my conference, I was questioned as to what extent patriotism was historically a cause of division instead of unity. I offered an audacious answer.

I was born and raised in the province of Québec, a fundamentally nationalistic society.  The social and political life revolves around the deeply felt necessity of preserving and promoting its French heritage, through a lyrical as well as political patriotism, in face of a perpetual risk of cultural dissolution into the larger North American English-speaking world. Yet one can hardly think of a more peaceful, less militaristic, place than Québec. The usual correlation of patriotism and militarism, as a root cause of so many wars and conflicts, does not stand.

To my audience’s surprise, I added that I liked to conceive of protest movements as patriotic deeds. If patriotism means to love one’s country, in my Christian and French-Canadian perspective the command to love your neighbour as yourself should encompass loving one’s own people.

Avowedly Christian himself, Kaepernik publicly stated his support for his own Black people in the U.S. by reminding all in a peaceful and eloquent way the principle of equality contained in the American constitution. Out of love for his own, for his country, even for the constitution, he protested injustice. I concluded by saying that we should consider Kaepernik as a patriot, and protest as signs of solidarity instead of signs of disunity.

As a historian interested in conscientious objection, I believe that if leaders of the past could have conceived of war resisters as democratic heroes rather than as traitors or cowards — if they could have heard their voices instead of muting them — the last century might have avoided all or some of its darkest hours.

Plaque for Hutterite COs (002)

A plaque honouring Hutterite COs who were imprisoned, tortured and died at Fort Leavenworth military prison. Photo: History News Network.

In short, this is not only a plea for the critical study of history, but also a plea in favour of peaceful activism drawn from the love of the people – an activism of which MCC has undoubtedly been one of the most relevant and constant champions for almost a century.