Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

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Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

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Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

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Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.

A settler encounters the Doctrine of Discovery

This week’s guest writer is James Schellenberg, Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Low German Program. 

As an almost 67 year old ‘settler,’ born and raised on the Manitoba prairie, and connected to the land through seed-time and harvest, it was profoundly disquieting to have that connection challenged when I was confronted with my culpability in the implementation of the Doctrine of Discovery.  Two days of presentations on this topic at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg in early April occasioned this disquiet, and made me think.

When my great-grandparents settled here on the ‘empty land’ of the Canadian prairie in the newly-formed Province of Manitoba in the 1870’s, they were simply grateful for the opportunity to acquire land. They were grateful for the opportunity to ‘subdue’ the prairie by the sweat of their brow, and to make the land productive–by their definition.  It was with a deep and grateful satisfaction that they laid the foundation for what they hoped would be a secure future for their children and grandchildren. They truly and humbly felt that they were doing what God had called and gifted them to do.

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Low German Mennonites in Salamanca, Quintana Roo, Mexico.  MCC photo/Kennert Giesbrecht

Three generations later, when I as a child encountered Indigenous people, it was almost as if they were the interlopers, and we were the legitimate inhabitants.  And nowhere was I challenged in that perception. At school we learned about the discoverers and explorers, and reveled in their exploits.  At church we heard about ‘native missions’ and felt good about our efforts to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’.  Even after I grew up and studied, and gained some sensitivity about stereotypes, my perspective in the teaching of Canadian history was still very much that of the ‘discoverers’ and settlers.

Therefore it was profoundly disquieting to be confronted with an aspect of my history that felt like something I should have known and should have seen.  It was disturbing to see, in documented detail, how closely the church has been aligned with empire, and how conveniently doctrine could accommodate the aims of empire.   It was painful to be reminded of the many ways this has played out also in the relatively recent history of our own country, and how also we, as Mennonites, have been participants.  How could we claim not to see the injustice and wrong in a policy of assimilation that wrested children from the arms of their mothers and grandmothers, no matter how pious the terms it was couched in?

So it has been unsettling, and it has made me think. It is one thing to acknowledge an injustice, and another thing entirely to put things right.  What was done in the past cannot be undone, and recognizing the root causes of pain and dysfunction does not address their consequences.  It is so easy to let the unease and disquiet become an end in itself.  It is too easy to let meetings and conversations feel like an end, rather than the means to an end.  And so I need to remind myself of the need to move beyond reflection and conversation to action.  Acknowledgement of complicity in an injustice calls for participation in the work for justice.

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Low German Mennonites from Mexico are looking for land holdings in Colombia so that their children can continue the farming tradition that is valued in their communities. MCC photo/Kennert Giesbrecht

And it calls for vigilance in the present.  How do the assumptions that underlie the Doctrine of Discovery continue to provide rationale for what we do?  A situation that has come up recently in the course of my work with the so-called ‘Low German Mennonites’ has unsettling echoes.  In their seemingly insatiable quest for land that will allow their children also to be people of the land, Low German Mennonites from Mexico are considering the purchase of land in Colombia. They are simply looking for fertile land with abundant rainfall where they can find it, and where they will, with assurances from government about their independence in questions of education and religion, be able to live quietly and productively on the land. The ‘empty land’ that they are being offered, however, is land from which the legitimate owners have been forced, during the years of violence and instability in Colombia.

Given our own history in Canada, we in MCC cannot simply take the ‘moral high ground’ and condemn the action of land-seeking Mennonites from Mexico.  But we can invite them into conversation with Mennonites from Colombia, who see this quest with entirely different eyes.  We can, acknowledging our complicity in the injustice in our own past, call them and ourselves to a higher standard.

And that just might be one small step in the direction of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

How does Canada “walk the talk” on women, peace, and security?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Canada has a self-professed feminist prime minister.

Right out of the post-election gate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced Cabinet (“Because it’s 2015,” he explained. End of story.). Then there is his snapchat video on how men can be better feminists, his statements on gender parity at the World Economic Forum, his comments pushing for gender equality while in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women, and the list goes on…

“I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug,” he said recently in New York (to enthusiastic applause, I might add).

The prime minister is promoting himself globally as a defender and promoter of women’s rights. And, the (decidedly un-feminist) Saudi arms deal aside, there is hope that this perspective will shape Canada’s foreign policy in positive directions.

Indeed, there is already an energetic wind blowing through the women, peace, and security (WPS for short!) agenda.

On International Women’s Day, several ministers announceddownload Canada’s “commitment to gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls” (a rhetorical shift, as “gender equality” previously had been scrubbed clean from programs and policies, replaced by a focus on “mothers and children”). This commitment included the renewal of Canada’s National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325a historic resolution calling for women’s meaningful and active participation in peacebuilding.

It’s an important agenda for any feminist prime minister.

Why?

As even a cursory glance at media headlines tells us, armed conflicts continue around the world. And while women and children are the minority of combatants, they are disproportionately impacted by war—targeted by armed actors, facing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, and having fewer resources than men to protect themselves.

And yet they are regularly excluded from peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

UNSCR 1325—unanimously adopted in 2000, and followed over the years by interconnected resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242—recognized the important role women play in every stage of peacebuilding.

These resolutions highlight the need for the prevention of violence and the protection of women in peace operations, and the participation of women in peace negotiations, political decision-making, and institution-building in post-conflict societies.

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Doreen Ruto, director of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development of Kenya, leads a retreat for first responders on trauma healing. She died in January 2016.  (MCC Photo/Katie Mansfield)

They embody a monumental shift in how the international community grapples with the rights and security of women leading up to, during, and after conflict.

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General called on member states to give legs to these resolutions by developing national action plans that implement concrete initiatives, monitor progress, and strengthen policy coherence across government departments.

In 2010, Canada responded with its own five-year National Action Plan. And, since Ottawa loves its acronyms, we call it C-NAP for short.

Led by foreign affairs (and collaborating with defence, development, public safety, justice, and other departments), C-NAP made broad and ambitious commitments to the WPS agenda through 28 different actions and 24 indicators.

Women Peace and Security Network-Canada has done thorough analysis on C-NAP’s successes and shortcomings (check out their 2015 and 2014 reports), and there was an external review that offered 6 recommendations (the need for high-level champions, better monitoring/evaluation, stronger consultation with civil society, etc).

While C-NAP expired at the end of March, efforts to renew it are now underway. And the great news is, interest in the WPS agenda can be heard in other quarters as well.

On March 9th, the Liberal Senate Forum Open Caucus—a space for non-partisan exploration on issues of interest to parliamentarians, media, and the public—held an expert discussion on women, peace and security.

In the Lower Chamber, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development—at the urging of its sole female member (!), Hélène Laverdière—conducted a study on WPS. Alongside other civil society witnesses, MCC’s partner KAIROS testified before the committee, drawing on its grassroots partnerships in DR Congo to highlight the need for ambitious funding for women peacebuilders around the world. The Chief of Defence Staff also testified about a policy directive for integrating UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions into Canadian military planning and operations.

So, the wheels of government are turning. Global Affairs representatives, present a few weeks ago at a conference put on by Women Peace and Security Network-Canada, are also in active listening mode, looking for ways to make progress on a renewed agenda.

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Chea Muoy Kry (front), executive director of Women Peacemakers in Cambodia, trains young people on domestic and sexual violence and gender issues. (MCC photo/Amanda Talstra)

And there are ways to improve. As some conference participants aptly noted, we shouldn’t reduce the WPS agenda to sexual violence. We should also be actively considering the ways in which trade regimes, property laws, natural resource extraction, and so on, also impact women’s rights and lives in post-conflict situations.

And we need to find ways to bring the agenda from the margins to the center of policy conversations. As a (rather hefty) 2015 UN-commissioned Global Study illustrated, while there has been a normative shift on the global importance of the WPS agenda, implementation remains weak, and funding levels have been shameful.

In other words, while a rhetorical shift is welcome, we need to walk the talk.

As Canada makes its bid for a Security Council seat (Trudeau was busy recently doing as much), the prime minister could be a real champion for feminist foreign policy by putting women peacebuilders at the heart of the international security agenda. 

It’s an obvious win. And an obvious extension of his values. As Prime Minister Trudeau said himself (rather cheekily) to the UN crowd, “It’s just really, really obvious. We should be standing up for women’s rights and trying to create more equal societies? Like duh.”

My thoughts exactly.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director

More than a single story: Migration in the Americas

This week’s guest writer is Anna Vogt, policy analyst and advocacy support for MCC Latin America Caribbean (LACA), based in Bogota, Colombia. This reflection was first posted on the Latin America Advocacy blog and is the first of a special series of articles on migration.

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Stories of people on the move dominated headlines throughout 2015: refugees from Syria; deportations and raids of Central Americans living in the United States; the journey of unaccompanied minors north through Mexico and many other stories. So far, analysis for 2016 predict more of the same: people continue to move throughout our globalised world at the highest rate since World War Two.

It is easy, however, to read headlines and come away with a stereotyped idea of migration. How well do we really understand the complexities of this theme, especially from a Latin American and Caribbean perspective, where this blog is based? How does our understanding influence public policy and how we treat our neighbours?

In the book Advocacy in Conflict, Casey Hogel emphasis that, “The power to define a campaign or movement’s narratives- and the amount of diversity and nuance that is allowed within narratives- has huge ramifications for the level of solidarity that activism espouses.” A complex understanding of migration, from migrants themselves, is vital if we want to realistically advocate with people on the move, not simply assume we understand their situation.

As Hogel mentions, that complex understanding starts with asking who is defining the narratives around migration: those who are experiencing the pressure to migrate and the migrants themselves or others?  Yet the majority of the time, migrant experiences are not present in public coverage of the theme. In a recent report, researchers found that migrants were referenced in only 15% of British newspaper articles on migration and that 85% of British articles on the topic did not even include a migrant perspective.

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The report goes on to state that “46% of stories represented migrants as a threat or a danger to the economy and to society, while 38% represented them as victims. Furthermore, migrants’ voices were mostly absent from the coverage of migration.” Given similar news coverage in Canada and the United States, this is a problem of perception that impacts and reflects on policy decisions and debates.

In fact, readers only heard the voices of migrants when the articles included in the studied portrayed the migrant as a victim. While allowing migrants to share their experiences is a good thing, telling a story of only simplified trauma in a portrayal that presents people only as victims, does not allow the nuances, complexities and contributions of migrants or their agency to shine through. Complex narratives demand more than simply an emotional reaction. They include the facts about who migrants are, where they have come from and why, in order to contribute in a meaningful and realistic way to advocacy.

Migration is a normal part of life and society, both in the north and the south, yet migration is “still framed as extraordinary and involving extraordinary individuals and stories…. As with most of us, the majority of migrants lead lives which are fairly normal and not particularly newsworthy. Their migration experience may not be a key or significant feature of their identity. Or it might just be seen as another characteristic to be shared, but not shown off or emphasised, with their neighbours.”

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A complex understanding also examines the variety of forms of migration that take place throughout the region. Did you know that many migrants move from one Latin American country to another, instead of heading north?  That more Mexicans have left the US to return home than have left Mexico to move north in 2009-2014? That the amount of migrants coming from Africa to Latin America has dramatically increased over the last five years?  That 15,000 migrants from the United States live in Colombia?  (Check out thiscool app for a global perspective of migration!)

During orientation at MCC, participants watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk on the danger of a single story. How we talk and write about people and issues matters because our beliefs either perpetuate stereotypes or challenge them and the structures that hold them in place.

We are excited, therefore, to present a new blog series on migration in LACA, where we want to tell more than simply a single story about migration, portraying migrants as neither simply victims nor villains, but ordinary people, seeking to live ordinary lives. Throughout the course of the series over the next few months, we will cover topics ranging from south-south migration, migration and climate change, urbanization, reintegration, armed conflict and migration, those who choose not to migrate, migration and gender, and much much more.

We invite you to participate and to pay attention to the diversity of meanings included with the theme of migration throughout our series and in the people around you.

To read subsequent posts on migration, visit Latin America Advocacy Blog.

Blessed are the peacemakers: celebrating life and light

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

This scripture verse was constantly on my mind and in my heart during a recent MCC advocacy visit to Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. Despite intense challenges within each country context, our delegation was inspired by the courage and dedication of the many peacemakers we met along the way—people motivated by Christ’s calling for peace, justice and hope and those working to build bridges across religious and ethnic divides.

Canadians are regularly bombarded with images, articles and stories about the violence, despair and hopelessness in parts of Africa.  In many ways, these stories are representative of a harsh and truthful reality, and we should not dismiss the pain of this reality. But they do not convey the complete picture.  It is arguably even more important that we attend to the stories of those working for peace and justice, despite the obstacles and harsh realities.

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A community garden run by people who have been internally displaced (IDPs) and are living with host families in North Kivu province of DRC. The IDP families and host families work in the fields together, despite ethnic differences.  Photo/Bekah Sears

As our small MCC delegation visited partners in Nigeria, DRC and South Sudan, I was reading The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. I want to highlight two chapters, “Resisting the Forces of Death” and “Celebrating Life.”

Nouwen opens his chapter on resisting death by recounting some of the great horrors of our recent history: the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and poverty and injustice in Central America. For Nouwen, these examples of death and violence illustrate the profound necessity for peacemaking. “Peacemaking is not an option any longer. It is a holy obligation for all people whatever their professional or family situation. Peacemaking is a way of living that involves our whole being all the time.”

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MCC partner Project for Peace and Reconciliation in DRC. Photo/Bekah Sears

However, Nouwen says our call to peacemaking does not end there. He warns that a sole focus on the darkness has the danger of making us into hard, bitter people who will eventually lose sight of the peace and justice that inspired us in the first place. In this dark place, Nouwen argues, we risk becoming the very forces that we are fighting against. As someone working in advocacy to government, I personally struggle with feelings of darkness and despair.

Instead, Nouwen claims, “[T]he first and foremost task of the peacemaker is not to fight death but to call forth, affirm and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest.”

Nouwen describes a peacemaking founded in humility, in that we are all made in the image of God; therefore, the posture of peacemaking must be compassionate, walking and standing alongside those who are suffering, and must embody as a deep sense of joy only found through the celebration of light.

Our recent partner visits were enriching, challenging and inspiring as they focused on the desperate yet hopeful cry for peace to spread across all areas of conflict, where there is hurt, despair and violence.

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The delegation and MCC Nigeria staff meet with the Plateau Peace Practitioners Network (PPPN) in Jos, Nigeria. This group includes Christians and Muslims working together in peacebuilding in Plateau State.  Photo/Ben Weisbrod

In Jos, a region of Nigeria with a history of significant inter-religious tensions and violence, we saw Christian and Muslim peacemakers and organizations united together to talk about their hopes and dreams for the establishment of the Jos Peace Institute in the coming months. Together they hope this institute will be a light for the people of Jos and the world in the study and promotion of sustainable peace.

We saw light in the compassion of families and communities in the Eastern DRC who were hosting people internally displaced by ongoing conflict in their homes, even those of different ethnicities. We also saw the dedication and courage of organizations to address the root causes of conflict, leading them to teach the principles of peacemaking even to the various armed groups in the area.

Finally, in South Sudan, we were moved by the staff and volunteers of the Organization for Non Violence and Development (ONAD) and their commitment to carve out alternatives to violence and to always seek peace. ONAD was formed by the desire to go against the grain of violence; it works with countless organizations and projects to support peace, starting with the government right to the community level.

These are the stories and images that stay with me. Of course the contexts are incredibly hard, and at times the work may feel like a drop in the bucket. But the witness of African peacebuilders serves as an inspiration to our delegation as well as others in the region, offering light and hope  in the persistent pursuit of peace. These  beacons of light, though sometimes small, shine powerfully in the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery

This week’s guest writer is Rick Cober Bauman, Executive Director of MCC Ontario.

“The church is the chaplain of empire.”

These words came from Adrian Jacobs, a Haudenosaunee pastor and Circle Keeper, and a former colleague in MCC Ontario. He was a presenter at a MCC Canada workshop on the Doctrine of Discovery, April 5-7, in Winnipeg. He credited the statement to someone else, but he went on to give ample evidence of its truth.

The Doctrine of Discovery (DoD), Jacobs and other Indigenous speakers informed us, is that legal framework and deeply held belief that European explorers and expansionists assumed sovereignty over the lands — as well as the inhabitants and resources — in which they discovered themselves in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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Photo courtesy users.humboldt.edu

If the DoD had fizzled out and expired 500 years ago, it would still have had more than enough power to pillage and harm. But of course it thrived more than fizzled. And, backed by popes and monarchs, it would not just allow — but would require —  the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese to lay full claim to the “new world” they “discovered.”

Why would Mennonite Central Committee bring 45 MCC and Anabaptist church leaders from across Canada to Thunderbird House in the heart of Winnipeg’s north end to discuss a five-century-old “doctrine”?

Largely because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called us to study, understand, and eventually [hopefully] repudiate it. And MCC has been taking the TRC, its witness-gathering, and now its final report very seriously.

But that begs another question: Why would the TRC, concerned as it was with Indian Residential Schools, push churches and church agencies to make repudiation of the DoD so central? The diagram of a dying leafless tree, shown near the end of the workshop, helped to make that clear. A presenter noted that the “dead fruits” on the branches of the tree — fruits such as alcoholism, poverty, abuse and broken relationships. The tree’s roots bore words like white supremacy, colonialism, racism and the Doctrine of Discovery.  The TRC had asked us as faith people to go deeper than the branches, to be brave enough to venture closer to the roots, and to speak a challenge to the cause of fruits dying on the branch.

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Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC Commissioner. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

But if the church was really the chaplain of empire, soothing the souls of conquerors and surveyors, why is the church also directly named by the wise voices of the TRC as needing to make a response?

The answer to this question came out gradually and unevenly. During a Bible study session, we looked for “redemption” and “gospel” in several texts. At least some of these texts told the story of the Hebrew nation pushing its way into the lands of Canaan. The texts looked and smelled for all the world like conquest stories with Doctrine of Discovery at their core! And yet for 2 days we faith-focused MCCers clung to our deeply held conviction that the reconciling love-as-power Jesus does in fact offer hope in the face of the despair represented by the DoD.

The first conversation I had after the workshop was with a 20-something Masters student who has paid close attention to social justice movements globally. The Doctrine of Discovery was a new term to him. I winced a little, realizing I may have been in a bubble for a few days. I wondered how this important but abstract concept could be made real.

Can MCC nurture an understanding of the impact of the DoD that will move Mennonites to rethink our own understandings of our place in Canada? Will this understanding move us to act in ways that, to quote the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, offer“redress” and provide genuine “restitution” for the terrible harms experienced by Indigenous neighbours as a direct result of a 500-year old assumption about their being sub-humans in terra nullius?

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Hundreds of people particpated in a mass Blanket Exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, June 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

Perhaps we would be helped by using the Blanket Exercise in each of our churches across Canada. Used as the introduction to our workshop, the Blanket Exercise is a visceral, visual, walk and listen through 500 years of history in this country. It begins with many people standing on a floor covered with blankets; they represent the Indigenous people of Turtle Island before contact. When it ends, the few surviving Indigenous peoples occupy a few remaining blankets, all of them scrunched and folded into tiny sizes and separated from one another. The Blanket Exercise is one of the best popular education tools in a long time and it could pack even more punch with a stronger introduction to the Doctrine of Discovery.

In recent months we at MCC have been highly engaged with hundreds of small groups and churches across Canada who want to welcome refugees, especially those from Syria. MCC has actively facilitated private refugee sponsorship since the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War almost four decades ago. We have become rather proficient at being good hosts.

Now, can our critical study of the Doctrine of Discovery help us unlearn the much longer history of five centuries so we can become better guests?

Statelessness: here and now

Some weeks ago, I was one of three staff members from the Ottawa Office who went to the first ever Summit on Statelessness in Canada hosted by a number of organizations, including the Canadian Centre on Statelessness.

Naively, or perhaps ignorantly, I assumed that “in Canada” referred to the fact that the summit was taking place in Canada. I assumed going into the day that we would be talking about the problem of statelessness in the developing world. This was not the case at all.

Centre for statelessnessThe focus of the day was statelessness within Canada, an issue that I had never heard of nor thought about. According to the Government of Canada, there are zero stateless persons in Canada. According to stateless persons and civil society advocates, however, this simply isn’t the case.

A stateless person is defined by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” People who are stateless have no citizenship.

Citizenship entails that people have some responsibilities to the state, such as paying taxes, voting, doing jury duty, and following laws. It also means that the state has some responsibilities to its citizens such as providing documentation including: birth certificates, passports, and health cards. Another responsibility is that of being responsible for the implementation and protections of the human rights of citizens.

People are stateless for various reasons. The most common reasons are violent conflict and discrimination. Conflict, mainly because volatility, the breakdown of institutions, and perpetual displacement can make it much difficult to register births, and unregistered babies, if nothing is done, will most likely end up stateless. Discrimination, because the rules that govern citizenship often are biased to favour men, and to favour the ethnic majority of a country. There can also be additional gaps in a country’s legislation relating to nationality that lead to statelessness. These gaps could be eliminated by countries adhering to two UN conventions on Statelessness, one from 1954, and one from 1961.

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Qia Gunster (R) was born in the U.S. but raised in Canada. He has no citizenship. Photo courtesy Daily Vice.

The question, “Can’t stateless people just gain citizenship from their country of residence?” is one that I have asked. The answer, unfortunately, is often No. People who are stateless, and there are at least 10 million of them globally, are not legally recognized, and thus, no state is obligated to protect their rights. Additionally, people who are stateless are often afraid to go to the authorities because they do not have documentation, so they can be arrested for living illegally within a country, even in the cases where it is their country of origin.

Life for a stateless person, even in Canada, is very difficult. Without identity documents, many simple, day to day activities are made impossible. These include: booking a hotel room, getting a library card, finding a legal job, renting or buying a house, going to school, getting a drivers license, and even getting a Costco card.

Donovan McGlaughlin, a former stateless person, spoke at the summit and knows the reality of statelessness in Canada on a personal level. Without citizenship, he felt his rights were worth “less than a dog.” This may be true, as there are legal guidelines regarding how animals in Canada are treated, but no such protection for stateless people.

Donovan was born 61 years ago, the son of a Native American father and a white social-activist Canadian mother. Because of his father’s race and his mother’s political views, American state officials told them that he would be taken into custody when he was born and would be brought up in the residential school system. Understandably, his parents did not register his birth. His birth took place somewhere between his home in the United States and Guelph, Ontario.

Because he did not know where his was born, both Canada and the US denied him citizenship. Canadian officials told him to go back to where he came from and enter legally and American officials wouldn’t allow him into the country because he did not have documentation. This lack of a birth certificate, despite having ancestry that should have guaranteed him citizenship in both in Canada and the US, meant that he had been, until very recently, unable to get any identification documents. As such, he lived a very nomadic life and suffers both from health issues and social exclusion.

I belongThe Government of Canada has not signed the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. This document provides a set of guidelines for how to allow stateless persons to have a life free from harm due to the status of their citizenship. However, Canada does not follow these processes as outlined by the United Nations.

Additionally, Canada does not have a set of principles or operating guidelines of its own to deal with statelessness. The information available for remedying statelessness within Canada is not at all clear. Even Donovan’s legal counsel, trained in citizenship law, said it was quite confusing. Even in cases where the government recognizes the plight of a stateless person in Canada, and are in the process of granting citizenship, they have asked persons to supply a birth certificate and passport, both documents that are impossible to have when stateless.

Currently  a United Nations campaign to end statelessness operates under the hashtag #IBelong.

For more information, visit the website of the Canadian Centre on Statelessness  or ask your library to buy the book Lost Canadians, written by Don Chapman, a former stateless person.

 

By Esther Isaac, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office.