Love of country as dangerous narrative

This week’s guest reflection is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for MCC, who visited Ukraine in February of this year. His thoughts reflect his own personal views.

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

It was not hard to see this love walking the streets in eastern Ukraine when I visited recently. The blue and gold colours of Ukraine’s flag are seen everywhere proclaiming Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression. Plastic grocery bags are printed with the traditional Ukrainian embroidery- something I’m told is increasingly common since the war. As I flipped through the TV stations in my hotel room, channel after channel runs images of the military. As you enter the city of Nikopol, a few hours from Donetsk, the statue of Lenin has not been taken down like it has in other cities throughout Ukraine. Instead Lenin has been dressed in blue and gold.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine find support through Nikopol New Life. This MCC partner provides holistic assistance to IDPs through emergency food packets, short term housing, document restoration, legal counseling, and psychosocial support. 27 IDPs who have been rehomed by Nikopol into a renovated office building.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. At Nikopol New Life, an MCC partner, she received emergency food, short-term housing, documentation and legal assistance, and psychosocial support. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Zaporizhzhia, a city of less than a million where I stayed, hosts more than 70,000 displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the conflict with Russia. When I visited with various displaced Ukrainian families, I found myself reflecting back a few years to the time I was serving with MCC in Ethiopia, when drought and conflict forced hundreds of thousands of Somali people into Ethiopia. It’s always tempting to make comparisons between countries visited.

My first impression as we visited partners is how different a humanitarian crisis is in Europe than it is in a place like Ethiopia. When a crisis hits Ethiopia, hundreds of international aid agencies already located in the country jump into action. They have local partnerships, relationships with government, and both the human and financial resources to mobilize relatively large and complicated responses in seemingly short (albeit often not short enough) time periods.

Ukraine is not Ethiopia. There are few international aid agencies ready to launch a humanitarian response. The strongest partnerships between global actors are political and military, not humanitarian. Consequently, the response in Ukraine, while garnering significant international attention, is remarkably local. Small agencies and churches, which previously ran small programs with little funds and mostly volunteers, are suddenly responding to a significant humanitarian crisis that far exceeds the resources available to them. And so whereas responding to humanitarian crises in Ethiopia often means a jockeying for space of large humanitarian organizations, the response in Zaporizhzhia is led by groups like the Zaporizhzhia Evangelical Baptist Union and the local government.

My second impression from Ukraine is how similar the things I heard from displaced families in Ukraine was to the families I spoke to in Ethiopia. In both places governments and military personnel project themselves as saviours and liberators to oppressed people. Russia projects itself as liberating Russian-speaking people in Ukraine from the marginalization they face from western Ukraine. Ukraine projects itself as protecting Ukrainians from the aggression of Russia. And yet when I talked to individuals they rarely spoke of either Russia or Ukraine as their protector or liberator. Instead, they spoke of their desire to be in their home, in their own space, making food for their family. They want peace, routine, their jobs, their lives. This same sentiment was true of Somali refugees in Ethiopia who frequently spoke of their desire to cook their own traditional food in their own home.

Yelena Glogovskaya (left), Viktoriya Gergert (right)Volunteer Social Workers at the Zaporozhye Baptist Union's City Aid Centre register incoming IDPs and provide assistance in securing housing, employment, and document restoration. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, but found support through this MCC partner and now offers her own gifts back as a volunteer for the City Aid Center. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Yelena Glogovskaya (left) and Viktoriya Gergert (right) are volunteer social workers at the Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union’s City Aid Centre (an MCC partner) where they register incoming IDPs. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, and now offers her own gifts as a volunteer. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

As I returned to Canada I was even more convinced of the need for Canada to strengthen its support for civil society groups in Ukraine. More so, these civil society groups, particularly those in the church, have a responsibility to critically reflect on the positive as well as potentially dangerous narratives that come with a love of country. Displaced communities have a right to safety that is not contingent on their rejection of or identification with any national or political group.

As theologian Miroslav Volf has written in his book Exclusion and Embrace:

The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”
 

To politic or not to politic

This week’s blog is written by Debra Fehr, 4th year Social Work student at the University of Manitoba. Debra attended the Ottawa Office’s annual student seminar in February, and wrote this reflection about it.

How do you get involved with something? How do you become uninvolved?

Sometimes things just happen to send us in a direction. Perhaps a child is born with a disability and we have to get involved to support and advocate for that child. Perhaps we get an inheritance and we get involved with understanding wealth in a new way. Perhaps we get fired from a job or reach a certain age and so we have to get uninvolved. Perhaps we get an offer out of the blue and it takes our involvement in a totally new direction.

Occasionally we make choices to deliberately change direction. How do we decide to get involved or remain uninvolved?

Participants in the Ottawa Office student seminar stop to pray and sing at the eternal flame in front of the Parliament Buildings. This was part of a Witness Walk that concluded the seminar.

Reasons we might not get involved in politics.  Because we are doing fine. Because, over time, the laws have generally worked for me and my family. I don’t have to say anything because the people I know are doing fine with the way things are. If they’re not, perhaps they will just do whatever it takes to get by. Perhaps we put our trust completely in God because God will take care of the lilies of the field, and for us.

Politics doesn’t have clear lines. We often say politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths, meaning that they might say things to you and turn around and speak in a totally different direction about the same topic. To many people of faith, this is seen as two-faced and lying.

These are all good reasons not to get involved in politics.

Reasons we might get involved in politics. Because we are not doing fine. Because there are some serious problems with the laws and my family is not getting what it needs. Maybe if someone says something, if more people know, there might be a chance that things will change. We see a lot of people suffering and we are just tired of the injustice of it all. Perhaps we put our trust completely in God and say my vulnerability needs to be heard by others.

Politics doesn’t have clear lines. Politicians can pick up something that works for Christians just as it might work for athiests.

These are all good reasons to get involved in politics.

I recently attended the MCC Ottawa Office Student Seminar in February, 2015 and the topic was Citizens. Disciples. Advocates. Christian faith and political responsibility. We discussed the separation and intersection of those pieces at great length.

Student seminar participants heard stories from Nigeria, Palestine and Colombia.  These three young men are participants in a program in Nigeria which extends love and support to marginalized youth.

Student seminar participants heard stories from Nigeria, Palestine and Colombia. These three young men are participants in an MCC program in Nigeria which extends love and support to marginalized youth.

Stories Matter. One of the ways that MCC impacts policies at home and in other countries is by sharing stories with politicians in Ottawa. Sharing the story of how people are impacted around the world by various events impacts Canada’s foreign policy, often significantly, and often it just takes one story.

Politicians are people too. Samara Canada, a charity dedicated to be a non-partisan champion of increased civic engagement and a more positive public life, has done exit interviews of politicians from every party and found three things. First,many MPs described their journeys to public life as accidental. Second, most did not see themselves as political insiders. Lastly, there was no one path towards politics – MPs had backgrounds as diverse as law, academics, labour, even religious leadership.

So, it’s an interesting thing. Getting involved or staying uninvolved. Is all of life a little bit accidental? And yet stories matter. Your story matters. My story matters.

My studies in Social Work show me that there is a lot of pain in people’s stories. We’re not that unique, really. We all hurt people. We all get hurt. We all love. Whether its natural disasters, wars or economic downturns, or if it is sunshine, revivals and positive cash flows, we experience these things in connection with others. Much of this is accidental and surprising.

One thing we can do is choose our posture as we walk this road together. Whether we choose “to politic or not to politic,” hopefully we can demonstrate that stories matter. Hopefully, we can choose to act in ways that lessen the pain of others. Hopefully, we can posture ourselves to bear witness to life rather death. May this prayer encourage us:

I Cannot Do This Alone (a prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.

Amen.

Pulling the plug on killer robots?

Technology sure moves fast. Google glass…aerial drones…self-driving cars…and now…

Killer robots?

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference put on by the Canadian Red Cross called “‘Killer Robots’—the Future of Weaponry and International Humanitarian Law.” Bringing together experts from academia, the military, legal community, robotics industry, and civil society, for one mind-bending afternoon we explored the ethical, legal, and technical angles of the issue.

So, what is a “killer robot,” anyway?

Killer robots—more officially (albeit less provocatively) known as fully autonomous weapons systems—would be able to select and fire on targets without human intervention.

Although, for the moment, “killer robots” do not exist, high-tech militaries are developing or have deployed precursor weapons that demonstrate the drive towards more autonomy for machines in military theater. Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. is a leader in this technological development; but, China, Russia, Germany, South Korea, Israel, and U.K. are also participants.

Back in 2012, Human Rights Watch released the first major publication by an NGOindex3 on the topic. Intriguingly called “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” the report analyzed the nature of existing and potential technology, and articulated compelling arguments for why fully autonomous weapons should be preemptively banned before we sleepwalk into a new—and deeply troubling—reality.

Robotic weapons are often divided into three categories depending on the level of human involvement in their actions. There are:

  • Human-in-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force only by human command;
  • Human-on-the-Loop Weapons: which can select targets and deliver force under the oversight of a human who can override a robot’s action; and
  • Human-out-of-the-Loop Weapons: which are capable of selecting targets and delivering force without any human input or interaction.

As a stark shift in policy, taking humans out-of-the-loop would involve the intentional (and unprecedented!) relinquishment of control—delegating crucial moral decisions around who lives and who dies to machines.

Not surprisingly, this is hotly-contested terrain.

Those in the “for-autonomous-weapons” camp have argued that substituting machines for humans in combat is justified (and preferable) because robots—invulnerable to the perils of the human condition (exhaustion, emotional outbursts, perception bias, etc.)—would outperform soldiers physically, emotionally, and ethically. Ethical standards, proponents argue, could simply be “programmed” into machines.

But is this wishful thinking?

Those in the “against-autonomous-weapons” camp articulate compelling legal, technological, and ethical concerns around why killer robots are a bad idea. Full stop.

  • Legal concerns: Robots could never comply with the complexity of the laws of armed conflict (aka International Humanitarian Law) in chaotic contexts. First, a robot would need to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; Second, it would need to morally assess every conflict to justify whether a particular use of force is proportional, and; Third, it would need to comprehend military operations in order to decide whether the use of force on a particular occasion is of military necessity;
  • Technological concerns: While people expect robots not to make mistakes, this is not realistic. As one roboticist told us, robots, tested in very controlled environments (entirely unlike any battlefield!) do not have situational awareness or the ability to recognize aggressive postures as even a child can. What about the risks of malfunction? Cyber attacks? Decoys? And who ultimately is liable for mistakes—the military? people in the lab writing code? manufacturers?
  • Ethical concerns: Would having the capability for autonomous weapons lower the threshold for war because the risk to soldiers’ lives is minimized? Do we want to give human life over to computer codes? Or, as one military general put it, is “death by algorithm not the ultimate human indignity”? 

Clearly, these questions are compelling and should stop us in our tracks. But what are civil society groups and other experts doing about these concerns?

Well, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots—an international movement of over 50 civil indexsociety organizations (including MCC partner, Mines Action Canada) in 24 countries—is pushing for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

In other words, they are urging countries to “pull the plug on killer robots” before they move from science fiction to reality. While I enjoyed The Matrix (well, the first movie at least), I’d prefer these remain only on the movie screen.

Calling for a comprehensive treaty and for countries to pass laws and polices that ban autonomous weapons, the Campaign urges states to implement the recommendations made in 2013 by Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. His recommendations include things such as placing national moratoriums on lethal autonomous robots; participating in international fora on the issue; committing to full transparency on weapons development review processes; etc.

Lest we think a preemptive ban on a weapon is impossible, there is a precedent. In the 1990s, blinding lasers were banned prior to their use on the battlefield (through Protocol IV of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons [CCW]).

Important conversations on autonomous robots are starting to creep ahead in multilateral fora like the CCW, and bold steps are being take in the robotics field. Last year, Canadian-based Clearpath Robotics—a Kitchener-Waterloo based company specializing in autonomous control systems—became the first company to pledge not to make killer robots!

Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved in 20 to 30 years, if not sooner. It is urgent that concerned people continue to ask important questions.

Just because technology can be developed, should it be?

By Jenn Wiebe, Interim Ottawa Office Director

 

From Mary Poppins to “Good Soil” — making the world a better place

This week’s guest writer is Anna-Marie Janzen, Public Engagement Adviser for Good Soil, a special campaign officially launched by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank today, March 25, 2015, and supported by MCC. Originally from BC and now living in Winnipeg, Anna-Marie is a passionate social justice advocate who sometimes pines for the West Coast.

I had my political awakening when, as a child, I watched Mary Poppins and was introduced to my fore-mothers, the suffragettes. I have been fascinated with political process ever since. I clearly recall my disappointment in 2005 when some of my friends could vote in the BC provincial election, but I could not, as I was not yet 18. I was so excited to vote in subsequent elections that the Elections Canada volunteers always asked if it was my first time to vote.

Women's votes in CanadaParticipating in the democratic process is not something I have ever taken lightly. While I recognize that our political system is not perfect, I nonetheless consider it a privilege to participate. That I, as a woman, have a voice in the running of my country is a recent privilege, not enjoyed by all people in this world. It hasn’t even been 100 years since Canadian women (and then only European-Canadian women) could vote and were considered “persons” of this country. Canada’s indigenous peoples only got the vote in the 1960s. Therefore, I believe that it is my responsibility to use my voice to better my country and the world, in the names of my suffragette mothers and all those who have been denied this privilege.

Beyond casting a ballot, there are two important ways I like to participate. First, by encouraging my peers to also care about political processes (a very difficult task, trust me). And second, by communicating with elected representatives directly. Throughout my voting life, I have tried to be diligent in communicating with my Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and other applicable ministers on issues I care deeply about and areas I feel our government can improve. This has ranged from the crime omnibus bill to climate change mitigation, from the arms trade to increasing our international aid budget.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

It is not surprising, then, that I find myself in a job working on exactly these points. I am currently the Public Engagement Adviser for Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s new advocacy campaign, Good Soil, which officially launches today, March 25, 2015. My task is to mobilize Canadians to exercise their political voice. Specifically, I am asking Canadians to communicate with their elected officials on increasing Canada’s aid support for small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Engaging our elected representatives is not only a privilege for us to honour as citizens, it is also a calling we have as Christians. Jesus spent his public ministry advocating for impoverished and marginalized people. He challenged the ruling forces, and called us to love our neighbours. What better way is there to show our love for our neighbours than by doing what we can to ensure that they get the opportunities to live their lives to the fullest extent, free of hunger, poverty and oppression? We can do this, in part, by influencing the policies and priorities set by our own government.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

70 percent of people who do not get enough to eat are farmers.

One of the key ways to help improve the lives of people who regularly experience hunger is by increasing Canada’s official development assistance for agricultural in the developing world.  When focused on small-scale farmers, investments in agriculture can have a huge impact. Such investments can reduce poverty and hunger, improve health and nutrition, empower women, benefit the environment, and build inclusive economies.

We have elected representatives making decisions for our country, and our voices matter to them. They cannot represent us if we do not express our values and opinions. As Canadian citizens, we have the ability to influence how Canada supports the world’s small-scale farmers. We can use our voices to let our government know that this is what we want for our country and our world.

Ours may not be a perfect political system, but it’s a system we can use to make our world a better place.

Please join the Good Soil campaign! Visit www.foodgrainsbank.ca/goodsoil for more information and tools to add your voice on this issue.

 

A spirituality of advocacy

Perhaps it is because we are in the season of Lent… Or perhaps it is because I was recently trying to explain how the work of our Ottawa Office differs from self-interested lobbying… Or perhaps it is the findings of a 2014 research project that challenged us as staff of the Ottawa Office to be more explicit about how our work is grounded in our faith…

Whatever the reasons, my thoughts have turned to articulating the spirituality that shapes the way we speak to government about issues of concern to MCC. What are the components of a spirituality of advocacy? How do we seek to faithfully express and embody this spirituality? I offer the following as preliminary thoughts.

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who came to Jordan in January 2014. One of her children is disabled, unable to walk, speak or eat by himself. They are living day to day in an apartment in one of the poorest areas of Amman with no furniture, no income and no family support. Together with MCC partner Caritas Jordan, we were able to bring blankets and relief buckets prepared in Canada. (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen) (Beneficiaries are from Syria which is an MCC Country of Sensitivity. Last names of beneficiaries are withheld for security reasons.)

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in January 2014.  (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen)

Solidarity.  MCC’s advocacy work arises out of program work – more specifically, from the call of partners that we work with in Canada and around the world. We seek to respond to the longing of real people for justice, for peace and for human dignity, and to call for government actions and policies which will fulfill those longings.  We are inspired by the biblical call to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).  But more than speaking for, we seek to speak with those who demand justice.  In other words, we try to be about solidarity. In the words of Samantha Baker Evens, “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’; we lend our privilege as a megaphone.”

Integrity.   We know that words and deeds go together; deeds in fact give integrity to words (James 1:14-17). Thus, MCC has learned that the words we speak and write to government have weight when they are grounded in the practices of MCC’s supporting congregations and communities as they do God’s work in the world. We can urge our government to welcome refugees because the communities that support us are willing and ready to sponsor refugees. We can call on the government to implement restorative justice approaches within the Corrections system because ordinary MCC supporters are involved in programs like prison visitation, victim assistance, or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).  We depend on the practical service and witness of our supporting communities to give our work integrity.

Respect. In our advocacy work, we try to be respectful of all people in the political system – to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) — whether we agree with them or not. We try not to be drawn into partisan debates, though we admit this can be very difficult. Sometimes our commitment to truth-telling makes us want to loudly denounce particular people or policies (and perhaps there is a time for that). We remind ourselves that no one political party has a monopoly on the truth and that each person in “the system” is a child of God, worthy of our respect and consideration.

Humility.  We seek to be humble in our witness to government, remembering Paul’s words to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  Although we try to listen carefully to our partners, do our research, and get our facts right, we recognize there are times when we don’t have all the information. Sometimes we simply don’t have ready alternatives to suggest. In October 2014 MCC sent a letter to the federal government urging it to reconsider its involvement in a military campaign against the group which calls itself ISIS. Our letter acknowledged that some of our partners in Syria and Iraq actually appreciated those airstrikes.  For MCC, as a pacifist organization, it was a difficult thing to do.  A commitment to humility meant we needed to do it.

drummingLament. Sometimes, when we as MCC workers listen well and are really honest with ourselves, we glimpse the insight that we – as individuals, as an organization, as a church – are part of the problem, rather than the solution.  Even though we as staff may consider ourselves advocates for social justice, at times our partners remind us otherwise.  Our Indigenous partners, for example, remind us of the ways that Mennonites have participated in and benefited from the colonial history of Turtle Island, and the ways that MCC continues to perpetuate unequal relationships with Indigenous people. In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they demand to know whether MCC is prepared for true reconciliation. At times, in the spirit of Psalm 51, we can only confess, weep and lament in response.

Hope.  Our advocacy is inspired by a big hope – an eschatological hope. There are many disappointments in advocacy work.  As much as we hope for the success of a change in policy, or an amendment to a bill, or some helpful new regulations, the results often fall short of our goals. And yet, if we depended on this kind of “success” to carry on, we probably would abandon the task. Indeed, a longtime civil servant once said to one of us, “The people who hang on a long time in government are either alcoholics or Christians.” As people of faith, we are assured that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. We remember the promise that God’s reign of justice and peace will surely come (Isaiah 2:1-5, Luke 4:18-19). And so we carry on, believing that God blesses our meager efforts and makes them bear fruit in ways we may not see.

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

 

 

 

 

A new door opening

Each February, MCC’s Ottawa Office hosts a seminar for university students from across Canada. This year’s theme was “Citizen. Disciple. Advocate. Christian faith and political responsibility.”  The seminar included discussions with Members of Parliament and representatives of non-government organizations, a tour of the Parliament buildings, and a public witness walk, among other things. The reflection below is written by Kyle Tydeman, a student at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, BC, who attended the seminar.

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Twenty-seven students from New Brunswick to BC, as well as several international volunteers, attended the 2015 Ottawa Student Seminar.

It is difficult to describe my experience of the Ottawa Student Seminar. The best word to begin with would probably be the word challenging. Being among a Christian sub-culture of many like-minded people, I expected my previously held beliefs and practices to be affirmed and reinforced. Instead, they were incredibly challenged.

Going into the seminar, my peers and I had maintained glib political perspectives. We saw government and political figures as nothing more than a bunch of bantering individuals, greedily seeking taxpayers’ money. Attending the seminar and encountering people involved in the political process — people who held high hopes for change — forced me to recognize the faces of those relentlessly fighting for the benefit of the oppressed, minority, or forgotten groups. This experience radically shifted any negative preconceptions of mine and replaced them with a hopeful outlook on the world we live in.

MP Harold Albrecht addresses students.

MP Harold Albrecht addresses students.

Although I cannot say I have determined a response to all—or even some—of the world’s problems, I can confidently say I feel empowered to change because of the resources I received during the conference.Thus, the second word is encouraged. Aside from the cliche associations with such a word, the optimism demonstrated by Members of Parliament and representatives of various non-government organizations engaged in advocacy has greatly influenced my perspective on political involvement.

Throughout our discussion times, we heard that political advocacy can be described as “relentless incrementalism”— a statement supported by individuals who are committed and determined. For me, seeing political figures and advocates passionately affirm the need to lobby our leadership to produce change in our world was very encouraging.

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Intense discussion!

In addition, several practical principles, relating to the full scope of citizenship, discipleship and advocacy, became clear to me. The first and foremost point is to get involved locally—without this step, little change is possible. Secondly, when considering what kind of organizations or issues to be a part of, it is important to focus on one specific problem and stick with it, rather than taking on the bulk of the world’s issues. Third, It is important to remember that failure will happen, and that it can be a motivator as well as a form of evaluation.

Finally, through my experience at the Ottawa Student Seminar I met and developed relationships with other people who share my faith, goals and interest in social justice issues. It has been said that it is not what you know, but who you know—and in this context, networking is critical.

With these new relationships, knowledge and motivation, I can say that my desire for the well being of people has received new inspiration. A door is opening and a new way is emerging for me to help my community progress and develop. It is called advocacy.

Two people and a plant: What a begonia taught me about racism and pacifism

I’m from Winnipeg, which has a racism problem. It does. And, as much as I like to think that I’m some sort of exception to this racism, I’m not. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I have played a part in perpetuating that racism, and I’m not proud of it.

Since a Maclean’s article put this issue in the spotlight, I’ve taken some time to reflect on what role I play in this complex and messy problem, which has existed in Winnipeg since well before I was born, and sadly, will be an issue for the foreseeable future.

I moved to Winnipeg’s West End in 2010, which is known as a poorer area and has had a history of gang violence. As I moved from my family’s home in a cozy suburb in the north east of Winnipeg, I was well aware of the racism that exists in the city. However, I thought that somehow, as an “enlightened” individual, I was immune to perpetuating racism. I learned very soon that I was wrong.

Cory's begonia

Cory’s begonia

As a house warming gift, my beloved grandmother bought me a pot of begonias. Although I may not have the greenest thumb, I took good care of those begonias, putting them on the balcony so that they get enough sun, watering them regularly, and showcasing them on tours when family members came to see my new place.

One sunny afternoon, as I was out on the balcony watering my begonias, I saw a large aboriginal man walk by, stop in front of the house and look up at me. Immediately I put up my guard and froze. I immediately assumed that something negative was about to follow. Instead, he asked, “What kind of plant is that?”  Taken aback, I then responded in a very porky-piggish kind of way.

“A… bega…bego…bega…begonia.” I uttered. Like a fool.

“I like plants,” he said. “You keep watering that thing.” He then wished me well and continued on his way.

After this pleasant interaction I felt a mixture of emotions. While up-lifted by this positive, neighborly moment, I felt a profound sense of shame at how I had put up my guard and judged a fellow human being for looking a certain way. The instant he asked me about that begonia I realized that the “wall” that I had built up around myself came crumbling down, and I with it. For that moment in time I became vulnerable, which was beautiful. In that split second, we shared our humanity in a way that we would not have been able to otherwise.

From then on it was just two people and a plant.

The police are frequent visitors on Furby Street. Photo credit ctvnews.ca.

The police are frequent visitors on Furby Street. Photo credit ctvnews.ca.

It’s probably fair to say that most Winnipeggers, if not Canadians, have encountered someone on the street and reacted similarly. Sadly, not everyone was lucky enough to have a begonia there to make the encounter a positive one. These small moments of connection can be mutually transformative if we allow them to be. However, all too often, as we navigate through the public sphere we act guarded.

To me, pacifism can act as a begonia by reminding us to put down our guard, because at the very core of pacifism is the virtue of vulnerability. And it’s this virtue that strips us down to nothing more than our common humanity.

For me, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, pacifism requires a conscious effort to consistently keep one’s guard down while respecting the vulnerability of others, which is uncomfortable, but rewarding. Adopting this as a daily practice, I believe, is one important step in starting to address many of the problems that plague our urban spaces. Whether it be racism, mental-illness, poverty or fear, which are invariably intertwined, these problems often stem from a society building up barriers around itself.  If we collectively make ourselves vulnerable—in both big and little ways–those barriers between us may come crumbling down, because when we’re vulnerable we open ourselves to hear the voices of people who we would otherwise ignore and see more than just the “other”.

If we are going to tackle these problems, we need to change the way we interact on a daily basis, which is why Winnipeg … no … Canada needs a begonia. To me, that begonia is pacifism, because pacifism is so much more than a belief. It’s a daily practice.

By Cory Funk, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office.