What would it mean to root out talk of root causes?

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assessment is correct, Justin Trudeau made a grave error in his first week on the job as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

In an interview following the Boston marathon bombings, Trudeau suggested that political leaders should consider the “root causes” of the attack, trying to understand what would prompt someone to cause such terrible harm to innocent people.

In a subsequent interview, the Prime Minister argued pointedly that there was not much for him to consider in this regard:

When you see this kind of action, this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it, or make excuses for it, or figure out its root causes… You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible.

Setting aside the Prime Minister’s eagerness to categorically condemn violence for a moment, what are we to make of his eagerness to condemn the search for root causes?


Paul Heidebrecht of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office

Who could be against the age-old wisdom that it’s always good to think before we act? That it is better to nip problems in the bud rather than wait for them to flower again and again?

Who could be against the modern wisdom embraced by disciplines such as medicine and engineering, disciplines that have advanced knowledge by leaps and bounds precisely because of their laser-like focus on root cause analysis?

I wonder, however, whether the Prime Minister’s sentiments actually resonated with many Anabaptists in Canada.

After all, we have a reputation for getting things done, not for humming and hawing over problems. After all, MCC is renowned for the impact we have made on the ground in countless communities around the world, not for our trenchant analysis of the systemic causes of injustice. MCC is a movement built by women and men of action, not words.

To press this potential point of connection between the supporters of MCC and their Prime Minister further, I wonder if many of us share an almost visceral response to any talk of root causes because we think it smacks of a desire to shirk personal responsibility.

Indeed, it seems that the very expression “root causes” has become a lightning rod for many people in North America in recent years. It’s viewed as a code or signal that someone is trying to minimize the importance of individual choice in human affairs; that personal sinfulness will be, yet again, disregarded as the reason why something bad has happened.

At times this may be a fair critique. It is certainly true that injustices will never cease until people’s hearts are truly changed.

Having said this, contemporary Anabaptists also have other intuitions. Intuitions informed by experiences living in communities and being a part of ecosystems, and experiences building institutions and participating in economies.

We know that it often doesn’t matter what people’s intentions are—innocent people will be victims of crime, will find themselves mired in poverty, will suffer the effects of climate change, and will be hurt by acts of terrorism, oppression, and war. We know that, as a prominent evangelical declaration put it three decades ago, “evil is not only in the human heart but also in social structures.”

And we know that, more often than not, it is just not possible to pin our problems on a few perpetrators.

Thus I think many of us share the intuition that something important will be lost if we root out all talk of root causes.

We worry, for example, that our efforts to support victims of cluster bombs will ring hollow if we don’t do whatever we can to ensure that more people are not victimized by this kind of weapon. And this is why it makes good sense to us that governments from around the world—including Canada—made an effort to negotiate the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Help providing artificial limbs and rehabilitating farmland from unexploded cluster bombs is certainly appreciated as well. But devoting resources to changing the policies of governments is, in our view, essential to addressing this injustice.

After all, like Prime Minister Harper, MCC’s partners and supporters have seen the effects of violence. We have not tried to rationalize it or make excuses for it. We actually have long track record of condemning it categorically. And that is precisely why we try to figure out (dare I say it?) the root causes.

Perhaps we just need to find some other words to make this point?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

A poem and a plea for future victims of cluster munitions

By Ron Janzen, Executive Director of MCC Manitoba

In February 2013, I joined a learning tour to Laos and Cambodia sponsored by MCC’s  Global Family program. In the rural village of Xiengthan, Laos (a heavily bombed area during the 1964-73 US bombing of Laos) our learning tour group visited an MCC sponsored sustainable agriculture fruit growing project. We visited the home of a subsistence farmer supporting a family of 8 children on a few hectares of land. The fruit growing project provides vital supplemental income to Mr. Bousey’s rice paddy crops.

Mr. Bousey and metal sculpture (by artist Ken Loewen) During the visit with Mr. Bousey (pictured at right), I asked if his land was cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO) such as cluster munitions and was stunned to discover that it was not. When I further inquired of him whether any of his family or community members had been injured by UXO he looked intently at me and said “not yet”.

Those two words stuck with me for the days and weeks following the learning tour and inspired this poem.

not yet

“not yet” he quips
looking me in the eye

not yet
he stakes his cow
every morning

not yet
he plants his rice
every afternoon

not yet
he weeds his gardens
every evening

not yet
his children play and roam
every day

the daily reality
of “not yet”?


can hope and
“not yet”

9 years
580,000 bombing “missions”
2 million tons of ordnance
270 million “bombies”

they sound cute
like babies
but they are not

80 million unexploded legacies
“not yet” realized
unfathomable scope
continued devastation

Jesus grieving
MCC working
not yet
peace in Laos
not yet

Also pictured above is a metal sculpture by Altona, Manitoba, artist Ken Loewen. Ken was also on the learning tour and created this sculpture in response to touring the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) in Vientiane, Laos. This centre provides rehabilitation and employment to victims of cluster munitions through research, design, and production of orthotic and prosthetic devices.

Please help build a safer world by joining MCC Canada in saying No to cluster munitions! Sign the petition asking for stronger Canadian legislation to support the international Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Street round ups and check points: Military recruitment in Colombia

As the proud owner of a brand new office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Dr. Andrew Bennett has a hefty job to do.

Appointed in February as Canada’s very first Ambassador of Religious Freedom, he now has the rather sizeable (and, might I say, unenviable?) task of operationalizing the Conservative government’s 2011 election promise.

With a modest annual budget of $5 million and a mandate to respond to issues of religious discrimination and persecution around the world, Ambassador Bennett is now coordinating the work of the recently-opened Office of Religious Freedom (ORF).

Perhaps it’s the Mennonite roots talking, but I hope that when he is prioritizing his lengthy to-do list—protecting religious minorities under threat, opposing religious hatred and intolerance, and promoting pluralism abroad—conscientious objection doesn’t get stuck at the bottom. It is, after all, one of the internationally-recognized elements of freedom of religion or belief.

My hope for such a focus comes not only from the fact that conscientious objection has been a significant chapter in Mennonite history, but that struggling for these rights is a current reality for some of MCC’s global partners.

Mandatory military service in Colombia

For two weeks in March, I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia along with seven Mennonite Brethren (MB) church leaders from across Canada. As part of Menno Colombia 2013—a learning tour jointly organized by MCC’s teams in Colombia and Ottawa—we had the privilege of meeting with local Colombian MB leaders, learning about the work of MCCimg_9609 partners Mencoldes and Justapaz, and experiencing the warmth of Colombian hospitality.

Our journey took us through the geographical diversity of Bogotá and Chocó, and along the winding streets of Colombia’s complex socio-economic, political, and religious realities.

In a country scarred by a nearly 50-year long civil war—a context still rife with tensions between multiple insurgent groups (some with socialist-orientations and others defending large economic interests), paramilitaries, and government forces—military service is not voluntary, but obligatory.

From the age of 18, all Colombian males are required to serve in the national army. While there are, technically-speaking, exemptions for indigenous peoples (very narrowly defined), victims of displacement, young men with dependents, and those with severe physical disabilities, such exemptions are, in practice, routinely ignored.

In fact, as our delegation heard first-hand from MCC’s partner Justapaz—the justice and peace organization of the Mennonite church in Colombia—not only do Colombian youth face recruitment by the country’s various armed groups, but they are victimized by the illegal and irregular enlistment practices of the Colombian military.

Justapaz works tirelessly to tackle such problems. With a focus on transformative advocacy, staff njustapaz-tableot only diligently document individual stories of Colombians victimized by violence and human rights abuses, and fight for land illegally seized by armed groups, but they help conscientious objectors navigate their obligatory military service requirements.

Given the widespread and serious human rights violations that have resulted from forcible military recruitment, this advocacy work is critical.

Justapaz staff told us mind-boggling stories of what have become all-too-familiar scenes: young males rounded up by the military at bus stations or on public streets. In these moments, those who cannot show proper “military service” cards are hauled away on trucks, taken to an army base, and put in uniform.

It all happens so quickly. Most don’t even have the chance to tell their families where they’ve gone.

Some brave individuals might choose to protest, risking fines or even jail time. Others, attempting to avoid this scenario altogether, might purchase forged military service documents (a tactic available only to those who can afford them). Understandably, this seems less risky than standing up to authorities during these illegal street round ups (or “batidas”), and certainly easier than doing time.

Conscientious objectors are also “sentenced” in other ways, saddled with layers of legal discrimination. According to Colombian law, those who cannot prove they have fulfilled their obligatory military service cannot be formally employed, graduate from university, or assume any public office.

While a 2009 Constitutional Court ruling recognized conscientious objection to military service as a fundamental right (according to Article 18 of the Colombian Constitution), this has not been codified into law. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much political appetite for making this happen.

As such, conscientious objectors remain unprotected—unrecognized by military and civilian authorities—and the risk of forcible recruitment or arrest continues on as a dark cloud looming overhead.

In the face of these gritty realities, Justapaz staff are pushing Congress to legislatejustapaz-staff-2 the right to resist mandatory military service while also providing Colombian churches and communities with the tools to help them exercise their rights against illegal recruitment practices.

This, of course, is neither safe nor simple work. Break-ins at the Justapaz office and theft of computers containing sensitive documentation on human rights abuses have been a reality. Even when we were visiting last month, staff suspected their offices were being monitored because of this highly-charged work.

Over to you, Ambassador Bennett

Surely, there are many challenges (and potential minefields) Ambassador Bennett will face as the work of Canada’s ORF takes shape. Many in the ecumenical community—and well beyond!—have already cautioned that for this work to be done effectively, it will require intensive diplomacy (actions beyond merely naming and shaming the violators of religious freedom), solid engagement with international civil society actors, even-handedness, and sensitivity in dealing with the complex intersection between religious freedom and other human rights.

But this office may also offer significant opportunities for our partners in Colombia, and, indeed, in other parts of the world, who must navigate their deepest moral, political, or religious convictions in the face of such issues as obligatory military service.

Here’s to hoping…

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

Why changes to CIDA matter to MCC

Major changes in certain departments of the federal government can prompt supporters to ask us about the potential impact on MCC.

This reaction is understandable, given the events of recent years.

After all, changes at Citizenship and Immigration Canada have impacted MCC’s refugee resettlement work. Changes at Correctional Services Canada have impacted MCC’s restorative justice work. And it is hard to forget the controversial funding decisions at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that have impacted the work of MCC’s coalition partners, and MCC itself.

In any case, the tabling of this year’s federal budget on March 21 prompted questions because of the surprise announcement that CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) are going to be amalgamated.

Perhaps because of MCC’s longstanding focus on relief and development work, CIDA has always received more than a passing amount of scrutiny from our supporters. Indeed, it may be the only Canadian government agency that most of our U.S. colleagues are able to name!

Now that agency will be no more.

This week, MCC added its voice to the chorus of commentary coming from international development practitioners, scholars, and critics. Beyond the basic message that this change will have little immediate impact on MCC, I think there are two points worth stressing.

First, MCC is very interested in the Government of Canada’s approach to development and humanitarian assistance, and not only when our own work is directly impacted. We are interested because changes in this area have the potential to impact—for good or ill—the people we are called to serve.

In other words, government policy can also touch “the neglected and forgotten in the world,” to use the words of our Executive Director, Don Peters.

This is why, throughout its history, MCC has welcomed the opportunity to share our perspective when the government has considered changes in this sector. For example, I recently re-read a submission made to a Parliamentary committee that was studying Canada’s Official Development Assistance way back in 1986. I think the title gives a pretty clear indication of the message: “Thy Neighbour’s Keeper.”

The second point to stress is that it is too early to tell what this change will really mean, given that the details and timeline have not yet been announced. We will be watching the implementation legislation very carefully.

We do know, however, that this change will not only impact CIDA. The creation of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD) will also mean big changes at DFAIT.

Thus MCC has encouraged all three ministers in the new department to ensure that the “policy coherence” the government has touted as a rationale for this change serves to strengthen—rather than temper—Canada’s commitment to the interests of developing countries.

Beyond hoping that the Minister of International Cooperation will push for synergies or linkages that privilege—rather than downplay—the needs of the poor, we have encouraged the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, and the Minister of International Trade, Ed Fast, to consider ways in which their own department’s work can be enriched by Canada’s experience and expertise in development and humanitarian assistance.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking. Perhaps, like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, we should already be mobilizing supporters to tell the government that trade and diplomacy should not trump aid at the new DFATD.

I think the actions of Ministers Baird and Fast will tell us whether this change really is an opportunity, or a cause for concern—and not just because of the impact on MCC.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director