Canadian Foodgrains Bank: One of MCC’s Gifts to the World

Of all the gifts that MCC Canada has given to people around the world—and there are many—one of the greatest might be the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

In 2013 the Foodgrains Bank is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Special events are happening next week, March 4-6, in Ottawa to commemorate the birthday of this innovative response to hunger.

It goes back to the early 1970s, a time of great food need in parts of Asia and Africa. Canadian businessman Art DeFehr had just returned home to Winnipeg from an MCC assignment in Bangladesh, which had experienced famine in 1974.

Ramatou Malon Hassan, a widow and mother of twelve in Niger, receives millet from CFGB to help her sustain her family through a crisis.

Ramatou Malon Hassan, a widow and mother of twelve in Niger, receives millet from CFGB to help her sustain her family through a crisis. CFGB photo.

DeFehr noted that western countries had been very generous in sending food to help, but due to high prices the amount of food they sent had been less in previous years.

That stimulated his thinking; he realized that “hunger relief had less to do with hunger and more to do with whether grain was in surplus or in short supply,” he said.

Together with three others—John Wieler of MCC Canada, Len Siemens of the University of Manitoba School of Agriculture, and David Durksen, who worked at a grain company—they came up with the idea for a grain bank. Based on the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, it would store up food when times were good so it could be shared when times were lean.

The four pitched the idea to MCC Canada; in 1975, the MCC Food Bank was born.

Although the immediate need was for food relief, right from the beginning the Food Bank had a vision to encourage long-term solutions to food crises, for the need for food security, and for ways to address government policies affecting poor people in the developing world—visions that have been realized.

The founders also had a vision for including other church groups. In 1983, that vision was also realized when four other denominations joined MCC in the new Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Today the Foodgrains Bank has grown to be a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies representing 32 denominations working together to end global hunger.

A CFGB growing project at Niverville, MB harvests its 2012 crop.

A CFGB growing project at Niverville, MB harvests its 2012 crop. CFGB photo.

The genius behind the Foodgrains Bank was the belief that people are more likely to give out of what they do, and who they are. For Canadian farmers, that means using their skills in farming to share what they produce—food.

Although many urban Canadians now also support the Foodgrains Bank, farmers continue to be among its core supporters; in 2011-12 they donated over 19,000 tonnes of grain worth $5.5 million.

The story of the Foodgrains Bank is the story of how people across Canada grasped the Bible’s call to share with those who don’t have enough. Since 1983, it has provided over $682 million of assistance to people 78 countries, including 1.1 million tonnes of food and seeds.

At the same time, it’s also a story of how MCC caught a vision for a new way to share with those who don’t have enough to eat—and shared that vision with others.

John Longhurst is Director of Resources & Public Engagement for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Centre for excellence?

ImageLast fall MCC Canada wrapped up our Mining Justice Campaign. Last month I resigned from the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). These two actions were not related.

It’s true that MCC will not be able to devote as much attention to mining issues as we have over the past three years. However, given the global impact of Canadian mining companies—and the priority the Government of Canada has given this sector in its approach to foreign policy—our work for mining justice will continue.

The Centre for Excellence in CSR would seem to be a valuable tool for this work. Hosted by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), the Centre aims to offer a forum where the extractive industry, government, and civil society can obtain timely access to high-quality CSR information and, in so doing, raise the bar for excellence in CSR-related practices.

Why then am I leaving it behind? As noted in a public statement released by a network of civil society organizations on February 14:

For the past three years several member organizations of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) have participated in the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). These organizations were the United Steelworkers, MiningWatch Canada, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives and Amnesty International Canada.

In the last few weeks each of those organizations has ended their participation in the Centre. The Government of Canada’s termination of funding for the Centre at the end of March 2012 was a major factor in the decision of each organization to leave.

The Centre for Excellence was established as part of the Government of Canada’s “Building the Canadian Advantage” CSR strategy launched in 2009. Despite serious concerns about that strategy, several members of civil society decided to participate in the Centre for Excellence because we believed that the multi-stakeholder dialogue space might provide an important opportunity to move forward the debate on human rights and business in the extractive sector and to improve the practise of Canadian extractive companies.

The CNCA members previously involved in the Centre for Excellence remain committed to multi-stakeholder dialogue, and are receptive to other avenues that may provide for a more solid platform than that offered by the unfunded Centre for Excellence.

In short, this particular Centre for Excellence has failed to live up to its promise. Given that the mandate of the Ottawa Office is to relate to the federal government, our participation doesn’t make much sense if the government is not at the table in a meaningful way.

IMG_0410This is not to diminish the significance of opportunities to engage with mining industry representatives. And it is not to diminish the good intentions of government observers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canadian International Development Agency, and Natural Resources Canada. Indeed, I wish those intending to continue with this effort well.

I should also be clear that I find this outcome quite disappointing on a personal level. After all, I didn’t attend a dozen Executive Committee meetings and help plan a couple of workshops over the past few years for no reason.

I remain convinced that real progress can be made when the concerns of all stakeholders are considered.

I remain convinced that we should welcome opportunities to talk with the people we disagree with.

And I earnestly hope that the communities MCC and our coalition partners work with will one day associate the word “excellence” with Canadian mining companies. But that will require a long term commitment, not just a name.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director


Why I support Idle No More

photo by Dan Dyck, courtesy Mennonite Church Canada.

Jared Redekop of Winnipeg participates in “Settlers in Solidarity” event. Photo by Dan Dyck, courtesy Mennonite Church Canada.

On a frigid January morning, I joined about forty other mostly Mennonite folk at a busy Winnipeg intersection, where we held signs, sang, prayed and walked, to demonstrate our support for the Idle No More movement.  We were there as “settlers,” offering our solidarity with Indigenous people who are seeking a new relationship with the government of Canada and Canadians.

My reason for being there relates to my heritage as the granddaughter of refugee immigrants.  All of my grandparents arrived in Canada in the 1920s from the Soviet Union in the wake of war, revolution, terror and famine.  Like 20,000 others, they had lost their homes and their future.   They hoped that Canada would provide a new home where they could practice their faith, build their communities, and find economic security.  Despite a decade of Depression, Canada more than met their hopes and dreams.

My father, born in southern Manitoba just a few years after his parents’ arrival, was effusive about the opportunities Canada  afforded to the immigrants.   He saw the hand of God at work in the way Mennonites prospered in Canada.   In 1957, as the 28-year-old editor of a new English language inter-Mennonite newspaper, he wrote,

 Before us lay a mighty expansive chunk of natural resources and opportunity. We chose where we wanted to live, bought land for a dollar an acre or thereabouts, and made our living. West, north, or any direction spelled opportunity. An undeserved opportunity to be sure, but there it was, ours as a gift of God’s hand  (The Canadian Mennonite, 31 May 1957, p. 2).

 My father’s words express the sentiments of many Mennonite immigrants who were deeply grateful to Canada for providing a new home.    It also, unfortunately, reflects the mentality of most immigrants who settled Canada – that the land was empty and simply waiting for their settlement, and that God ordained it for their use. The immigrants had very little knowledge of the Indigenous people whose land they were entering and whose access to that land and its resources had been drastically limited.  They had no understanding of how they were participating in a colonizing enterprise.

I like to believe that later in life my father would have taken a different view than the one he expressed in 1957.  I like to believe that, instead of seeing Mennonite opportunity in Canada as a gift from God, he would have seen it as a debt owed to the Indigenous people.

Like him, I am deeply grateful that my grandparents were able to find a home in Canada in the 1920s.  I share their love for this great country.  At the same time, I recognize that my privilege has been bought at tremendous cost to the Indigenous people who are my neighbours.   My desire to support Idle no More is a way of acknowledging the debt and seeking a reconciled relationship between Canada’s Indigenous people and its settlers.

For more on MCC Canada and Idle No More, see the Ottawa Office January Newsletter.

Esther Epp-Tiessen began as Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office at the beginning of February.  She has just completed a history of MCC in Canada which will be published by CMU Press in Fall 2013.

Communities affected by mining in Mexico call for alternatives

Previously posted on MCC Latin America’s advocacy blog

Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are prominent in the international news about mining issues in Latin America. However, there are extensive mining operations and concessions for exploitation in Mexico as well, by both national and international corporations.

opponents of Fortuna Silver’s Cuzcátlan mine

Opponents of Fortuna Silver’s Cuzcátlan mine.

In January, a gathering of people from communities in Mexico, Central America, and Canada that are impacted by mining operations gathered in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico to share experiences and discuss responses to these mega-projects. There were several speakers from the current “Idle No More” Aboriginal movement in Canada.

The following photo essay from The Guardian newspaper, shows highlights of the event.

The Model is Unsustainable

“‘We don’t want this type of development, period. We want something else. This model of extractive mining is unsustainable,’ declared Gustavo Castro Soto of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA, using its Spanish initials). Many of the people at the Yes to life! No to mining! event challenged the notions of development used to justify the growth of the mining industry, reclaiming a range of customs and practices used by indigenous communities around the region to live a more autonomous and sustainable life”

Gustavo Castro works with Otros Mundos, an MCC Mexico partner organization in the State of Chiapas.

Defending Our Land

opponents of Fortuna Silver’s Cuzcátlan mine

John Cutfeet (front right) of the KI First Nation in Northern Ontario, Canada presents a gift.

“At the conference, Noé Amezcua from Mexico City paid tribute to ‘each and every person who is at this moment crossing the border between Mexico and the US. Last year, more than 400 people died at the border. Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and other people from Mesoamerica … They were brothers and sisters that were displaced from their lands, because of war and now because of the mines. I ask of everyone to hold in our memory these brothers and sisters who have lost their lives in the desert, searching for a better life. And so our struggles, our hearts, our spirits and our minds are focused on fighting to defend our land.’”

Noé Amezcua works with CEE – Centro de Estudios Ecumenicos [the Centre for Ecumenical Studies] – another MCC Mexico partner organization.

By Adrienne Wiebe, MCC Latin America Policy Analyst