Don’t leave your hat at the door

By Karla Braun, associate editor, Mennonite Brethren Herald

There have been – increasingly so – “Mennonite” names and members of Mennonite churches among Members of Parliament. For example, Jake Epp from Provencher, the representative for the riding where I grew up, was the first cabinet minister of Mennonite heritage. But I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence about any involvement in the political sphere; after all, Mennonites are “a people apart.” Didn’t we come to Canada to be free of government intrusion on our lives? Why then would we choose to intrude on government?

As I grow older, becoming more aware of experiences of the world very different from my own, more passionate about God’s call on his followers to care for his creation – be it human, animal, or vegetable – and more informed about how laws and government policies shape and can be shaped by citizens, I realize it’s not as straightforward as staying away from politics. In fact, as followers of Jesus who pursue peace and justice for ourselves and our neighbours, we have very good reasons to exercise our democratic rights to hold government to account.

IMG_6659So I jumped at Mennonite Central Committee’s invitation to visit Ottawa with other editors of Anabaptist publications to learn about Christians working in the advocacy landscape in Canada.

That the advice “In politics, leave your religious hat at the door; in religion, leave your political hat at the door,” is considered wise is unfortunate, said Dennis Gruending. The MCC Ottawa Office had arranged for the journalist, former Saskatchewan MP, and practicing Catholic to speak to our group at TWU’s Laurentian Leadership Centre. This approach “fails to recognize the whole person and the process of formation,” Gruending said. After all, what good is a faith that doesn’t permeate every area of our lives?

Furthermore, as religious orders have often demonstrated, our gifts “are not just for our own use but also for wider society.”

Citizens for Public Justice director Joe Gunn repeated this call for an outward-looking perspective. As citizens, particularly as Christians, we need to “advocate for something that serves a greater purpose – the community good – even if it doesn’t directly serve me.”

Our desire to share our gifts with others gives Mennonites a compelling reason not to avoid politics. When MCC’s workers “witness to government” on behalf of their development partners, programs, and the voiceless, they’re simply following the second part of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37–39): to love our neighbours as ourselves.

The church is well-placed for long work of advocacy not merely because of our “people power” or the strength of our institutions, but because of our recognition of who ultimately controls history, and our call to reconciliation modelled though the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Rooted in Jesus; “we don’t just chase after flashy issues of the day,” says MCC Canada communications director Rick Fast. “The gospel is our frame.”

MCC Ottawa Office director Paul Heidebrecht recognizes he may not see major change resulting from his efforts. “Advocacy is long-term work; it’s generational,” he says. Regardless of the rate or direction of change, he doesn’t despair; after all, “The universe is in God’s hands, not those of politicians.”

No longer “the quiet in the land,” Mennonites desire to see the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and we’re raising our voices in all kinds of spheres – even political ones – to participate in God’s work to that end. Humbly and respectfully “intruding” in politics (keeping an eye on our guide, Jesus), I’ve learned, may be exactly what faithfulness might look like for a Mennonite today.

Looking for the right words: Human rights and MCC’s advocacy work

Human Rights Day was observed this past Monday, December 10, and brought with it a flurry of announcements:

  •  MCC Canada’s coalition partner KAIROS launched a week of celebration with a slideshow “commemorating the courageous work of our human rights partners in Canada and the Global South.”
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched a new “Right to Food” website, noting that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”
  • An opposition MP launched a Facebook campaign to build support for Bill C-323, The International Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Act (IPPHRA), which aims to make it possible for Canadian courts to hear claims regarding the human rights violations perpetrated by Canadian citizens and corporations operating outside Canada.
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird issued a statement affirming that “the promotion and protection of human rights is a cornerstone of [Canada’s] principled foreign policy.” The minister went on to say: “It is our common duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, and to protect and promote human rights and human dignity abroad.”

I could go on! In any case, I was reminded once again that MCC’s advocacy efforts have lagged behind the embrace of human rights language that is evident not only in Canadian society, but in MCC’s program work in a variety of contexts.Mennonites and Human Rights conference

At a conference on “Mennonites and Human Rights” earlier this fall, I gave an overview of the occasions when the phrase “human rights” or even the word “right” has appeared in communication from MCC to the Government of Canada.

Over the past three decades, these occasions have not only been relatively infrequent, but rights language has tended to be used as part of a larger appeal for the government to take action to support particular communities that MCC works with. Rights have not been appealed to as the central rationale for this action. A few examples where this is the case include letters on Colombia, Palestine/Israel, and Sudan.

To be sure, at times MCC has explicitly supported a strong human rights emphasis in Canadian foreign policy. For example, in a submission to a Parliamentary Committee in 2005 we even encouraged the government to include “religious freedom in its human rights work.” Perhaps MCC should take some credit for the current government’s decision to establish an Office of Religious Freedom?!

However, there have only been two cases where MCC has repeatedly appealed to human rights in making an argument to the government: in defending the rights of conscientious objectors to war, and in defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

KAIROS Saskatchewan

This lack of both frequency and substance becomes all the more obvious when it is contrasted with the advocacy efforts of coalitions that MCC belongs to. Beyond the example of KAIROS, one could look to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which, like the FAO, has made the right to food the organizing principle for their advocacy initiatives in recent years.

Or one could look to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), a coalition of around one hundred voluntary sector organizations working globally to achieve sustainable human development. CCIC has long embraced a rights-based approach to development—an approach that may now conflict with the apparent inclination of the government to see the furthering of Canadian economic interests included in the mandate of CIDA.

What does this disconnect between MCC’s communication with the government and the predominance of human rights language among partners, coalitions, and the government mean?

Perhaps this disconnect should cause us to question MCC’s political savvy-ness! If MCC were to make more use of rights-based arguments in our advocacy, however, what are the potential pitfalls that need to be avoided?

Alternatively, perhaps this disconnect should remind MCC that we need to be clearer about why we have chosen to use other kinds of arguments. But if this answer seems to ring true, how then do we work with—and speak authentically for—partners who use a rights-based framework to guide their work?

Hopefully the answer will be clearer by December 10, 2013…

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Is this the way to usher in World AIDS Day?

It was World AIDS Day this past Saturday.  At the risk of sounding defeatist, recent events in Parliament have put a bit of a damper on my celebratory spirit.

On the front to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic, there are some reasoWorld AIDS Dayns to celebrate, and perhaps a few government actions to applaud. But last week’s decision in the House of Commons certainly wasn’t one of them.

Much to the chagrin of medical and legal experts, humanitarian activists, development organizations, faith communities, and other concerned Canadians, last Wednesday Bill C-398—legislation intended to strengthen Canada’s capacity to send low-cost drugs to developing countries—was voted down.

What a way to usher in World AIDS Day!

Held every December 1st since 1988, World AIDS Day’s current theme—Getting to Zero—outlines targets set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for universal access to prevention, treatment, care, and support.  Included is a call for states to make use of the flexibilities permitted under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in order to improve the flow of cheap medicines to places most in need.

Last week, 148 parliamentarians voted that Canada is doing enough on this front, while 141 voted that we could be doing more. Since you can’t argue with the numbers, the Canada-is-doing-enough camp won, and Bill C-398 was defeated.

Tabled on February 1, 2012 by NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, this legislation—An Act to amend the Patent Act (drugs for international humanitarian purposes)—was designed to make it easier for Canadian companies to produce and export much-needed generic medicines overseas to people battling devastating but treatable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Bill C-398 did not create new policy out of thin air. Rather, it aimed to cut the red tape currently entangling Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). When CAMR was established in 2005, Canada showed impressive leadership as the only country to implement the 2003 WTO waiver on patent agreements.

While laudable in its original intent, however, CAMR has only been used once in eight years to authorize a single shipment of a single drug to a single country.

Should we rest on our proverbial laurels as long as we aren’t effectively delivering on the promise we made? In the last Parliament, MPs didn’t seem to think so.

A previous version of the access-to-medicines bill successfully passed through the House of Commons with support from all parties, but did not become law as it was unable to make it through the Senate before the 40th Parliament came to a dramatic end in 2011.

Africa 2010 105_0This legislation was resurrected in the 41st Parliament, this time with even the pharmaceutical industry voicing support. As second reading vote drew near, however, myths and misinformation about the bill abounded. When it came time to send the bill to Committee for further study—the perfect forum for testing any relevant critiques and getting those on the public record—it was defeated by too many “nays.”

The Government defended this vote, arguing, among other things, that fixing CAMR is not the solution to a complex problem. Besides, Canada is already doing other things to tackle HIV/AIDS, like investing in the Global Fund.

Let’s be clear. Making headway on the fight against HIV/AIDS will, of course, require a multidimensional response. Just because CAMR isn’t a panacea, however, does not mean it isn’t part of the solution. Furthermore, pointing to the other initiatives Canada may be supporting—as laudable as those initiatives may be—is not a compelling argument for leaving CAMR as-is.

If it ain’t working, why not fix it?

Whatever the answer, we must now move on. So what happens next on the access-to-medicines agenda?

Well, get out your binoculars because the minutiae of parliamentary procedure has a few things to say about “what’s next,” and, on the legislative front, this requires looking way down the road.

Here’s why…

Private Members’ Bills (like Bill C-398) have a complicated journey to make through the legislative process. Unlike legislation put forward by Government Ministers, the introduction of Private Members’ Bills depends, quite literally, on the luck of the draw. To get an item on the Order of Precedence, Private Members rely on a lottery conducted at the beginning of each parliamentary session, which establishes the first 30 names on the list of consideration for Private Members’ Business.

Each sitting day, MPs at the top of the list have only one hour in the House to put forwardhouse of commons their legislative and policy proposals. Once an MP like Laverdière introduces a bill, she must garner support for the proposal. In a majority government context this can be difficult, as any initiative without the governing party’s support will not move forward.

Such was the case with Bill C-398.

Since the House of Commons voted down the access-to-medicines bill, no legislation resembling this bill can be tabled again until the slate of Private Members’ Business is wiped clean, typically with the establishment of a new Parliament.

Them’s the rules.

Perhaps on World AIDS Day in a few years’ time, we can celebrate its return?

In the meantime, thankfully many individuals, organizations, and global bodies are in it for the long-haul—dedicated to working for creative and effective approaches to tackling HIV/AIDS.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst