Connected despite our differences

This week’s guest writers are students at the University of Winnipeg.

by Rebekah Grism and Serena Smith

We recently had the opportunity to go on a young adult food study tour with Canadian Foodgrains Bank, along with six other participants. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 churches and church based agencies, including Mennonite Central Committee.  The churches work collaboratively as a Christian response to hunger, by obeying God’s command to act with compassion and justice towards people who are hungry (Micah 6:8). This is applied by improving food security, improving nutrition, and providing food assistance when needed.

Rebekah Grisim & Serena Smith

Rebekah (left) and Serena (right) joined six other Canadian young adults on the CFGB tour.

We are both students at the University of Winnipeg and we are interested in social justice and international development.  We are both strongly connected to the Mennonite church and are very thankful for having been given this opportunity by Mennonite Central Committee.

During the study tour, we travelled to Nicaragua with the objective to nurture a sense of community and people connections that Canadian Foodgrains Bank believes to be at the very heart of a Christian response to hunger.  We achieved this by learning about a number of projects being implemented in rural Nicaragua, through conversation with project participants, and experiencing how they live on a daily basis.  We were able to live with the families participating in projects that focused on improving food security in order to fully understand their daily struggles and how they have been affected by the projects they are involved with.

We had the privilege of staying with a family involved in an MCC project which focused on learning and experimenting with conservation agriculture techniques in order to increase food production with little environmental impact.  We resided with a couple, Luis and Melba, and their two young boys, Luis Jr and Angel.  Luis and Melba were able to double their food production using the conservation techniques they learned from MCC.  They were thankful for the lower cost of inputs involved in conservation agriculture which meant the money they saved on buying chemical pesticides, could go to purchasing other necessities for their family.

Luis

Luis

Luis and Melba and their family have very few possessions; however, the experience that we  gained from living with them is something we will take away and remember for a very long time.  Although we had awkward moments due to the language barrier, they were so gracious and welcoming to us.  Something that was very meaningful to us was how, despite our many differences from Luis and his family, we were connected by our Christian faith.  Our favourite memory was reading our Bibles with them by flashlight, as they had no electricity in their home. We were able to read the same passage, each in our own language, and feel connected as a family in Christ.  Melba’s favourite verse is, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).  This was a reminder to us that no matter what type of circumstances we find ourselves in, God will never abandon us but will remind us of the truth of his unconditional love.

Luis and Angel

Luis Jr (left) and Angel

As we said our goodbyes to Luis and his family we felt as though they had given us so much and we were left wondering what we could do in return.  We asked them what type of message they would like us to bring home to Canada about their family.  They wanted us to share their gratitude to MCC and Canadian Foodgrains Bank for improving their food production.  They also expressed their strong belief in prayer and asked that we pray for their family as they raise their two young boys.

There is great power in prayer, therefore do not forget to pray for those in our world experiencing hunger, as we are all connected as one family under our God.

Peace in a war museum?

A visitor to the Canadian War Museum’s newest display – “Peace: the Exhibition” – might be forgiven for being skeptical about the museum’s ability to adequately and comprehensively portray the meaning of and search for peace.   After all, what might one expect from a museum devoted to war?

The exhibit is actually a fascinating portrayal of the diverse ways Canadians have been engaged in building peace over the centuries.

PAIX_BandeauxWeb490x200AngThe exhibit is divided into three sections called Negotiation, Organization, and Intervention. Within each section, text, photos, audio recordings, film clips, and artifacts tell many stories. Within Negotiation, we learn about Canada’s role in the establishment of UN peacekeeping in 1956, about the “law of peace, power and righteousness” within the Six Nations Confederacy, and about the signing of treaties between the Crown and Indigenous people.

Within Organization, we learn about Canada in relation to World War I, nuclear weapons, Vietnam-era draft-dodgers, Southeast Asian refugees, and a ban on landmines.  The section on Intervention is devoted to Canadian military involvement in World War II, in Afghanistan, and in Haiti.

peace buttonsThe Mennonite “story” is told in various ways:  through the WW I military exemption cards of two church leaders, the boots of a WW II alternative service worker (Elmon Lichti), the profile of a WW II Mennonite soldier (Leslie Neufeld), some MCC school and relief kits like those shipped to Afghanistan and Haiti, and MCC’s iconic peace button: “to remember is to work for peace.”

Staff of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, and MCC Ontario in Kitchener provided information and artifacts for the exhibit.  The Ottawa Office’s director, Paul Heidebrecht. participated in a “human library” at the exhibit’s opening, offering stories about Mennonites and conscientious objection to war.

The exhibit is creative, artistic, interactive, and has been assembled with care.  One of my favourite sections was a place where one can listen to audio recordings of peace songs – everything from John Lennon’s “All we are saying is give peace a chance,”  to Cat Stevens’ “The peace train” to the Canadian Mennonite University choir’s rendition of “We are people of God’s peace.”

At the same time, I left the exhibit feeling dissatisfied.

I was disappointed the exhibit fails to grapple with the meaning of peace, as varied and diverse as the definitions might be.  It simply accepts the notion that peace is whatever people choose to call peace. As such, the exhibit is completely uncritical of the notion that war makes peace.

Secondly, I was troubled by the significant emphasis on Canada’s involvement in war.  Given that the entire War Museum is devoted to war, could this exhibit have focused on other things?  For example, the emergence of mediation and conflict resolution, the growth of restorative justice and alternative dispute mechanisms, the development of trauma healing, and the recognition of cross-cultural bridge-building as channels for building peace?  Not to mention some of the amazing people of the peace movement?

Thirdly, I was perplexed that the exhibit asked so few questions.  I did not expect it to deviate widely from traditional interpretations on Canadian involvement in WW I and WW II. But I did expect the exhibit to more adequately explore divergent voices and ask probing questions.  I did expect the exhibit to raise questions that would provoke critical reflection on the part of visitors – perhaps questions like these:

  • Some people say war and armed force can build peace, while others say that peace can only be built through peaceful means.  What do you think?
  • Some people believe we advance security by eliminating terrorists, while others say that security is found in identifying and addressing the root causes of terrorism. What do you think?

The War Museum is to be commended for picking up the challenge of exploring Canadian stories of peace.  I hope many people will visit the peace exhibit.  I also hope that the exhibit will generate a much deeper conversation on the nature of peace, the necessity of peace, and the peace-filled ways we can build it together.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

Five years later – reflections on the apology to survivors of Indian residential schools

By Harley and Sue Eagle

On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology to the survivors of Indian residential schools. What did it mean then? And what does it mean now, five years later?

In reflecting on this, another Harper—Elijah Harper—comes to mind.  Last year, he was keynote speaker at a Peterborough conference called, “From Indian Residential Schools to Truth and Reconciliation.” Elijah Harper, known for stopping the Meech Lake Accord, shared his thoughts and observances about the procedure that was followed during the Prime Minister’s apology and the events that unfolded that day in 2008.

Elijah Harper, 1949-2013

Elijah Harper, 1949-2013

During the reading of the apology, Parliament was “in session” in that the Speaker of the House was present in the Speaker’s chair, and the Mace was in its place on the Clerk’s table, a ritual showing that the proceedings were official.  When visiting foreign dignitaries or heads of state speak in the House, the official parliamentary ritual dictates the Speaker to be in his chair and the Mace in its appropriate place. Upon the completion of Prime Minister Harper’s apology speech, however, when the Indigenous leaders got up to speak, Elijah Harper noted that the Speaker left his chair and the Mace was removed. For Elijah Harper,  a survivor of residential schools, as well as a former MLA and MP, who was well acquainted with parliamentary procedure and ritual, the message was clear:  Parliament was no longer in session. These Indigenous people were not respectfully acknowledged as leaders of Nations. For many of us who were witness to the apology, we missed this entirely.

It’s been five years since the apology, which was to be a “positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together…”  There have been some positive government and church responses – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, various healing funds, resources created. Yet for the most part, it’s been business as usual for government. The federal government has lacked appropriate engagement and consultation in the 2012 Omnibus Budget Bill which has had huge impacts on First Nations.  It continues to make significant funding cuts to First Nations organizations, and has done little to close the 30 percent funding gap between provincial and First Nations child welfare agencies.

An apology requires meaningful action to be sincere.  What non-Indigenous Canadians can do is to take the apology seriously and take part in expressions of reconciliation.  We can voice our concerns to government, to commit to learn about the history and educate others.  We can take part in relationship building initiatives, acknowledge the benefits we have received and continue to receive at the expense of Indigenous peoples regarding land.

Last month, Elijah Harper passed away at the age of 64.  His leadership, genius and brilliance will be missed.

Harley and Sue Eagle are co-coordinators of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Work.

Bridging divides… and scandals

Last week I joined a group of religious leaders, politicians, and journalists at McGill University for a conference that aimed to “advance an ongoing conversation about a constructive and positive role for religion in Canadian society.”

In addition to being motivated by the desire for people of faith to be “more outward-oriented” and relevant to the “issues of the day,” the conference steering committee placed a strong emphasis on the need for “a new level of maturity” and “civility” when religious beliefs, values, and principles are appealed to in public policy debates.

As reported by religion columnist Douglas Todd, it was a mature and civil conference. There were speakers who identified with the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh traditions, as well as no faith tradition, and everyone seemed to get along.

Having said this, I was left with two lingering questions.

First, I wondered whether the agreeable tone would have been maintained in the presence of more self-identified secularist and atheist voices—i.e., those Canadians most worried about opening the door to religious voices in the public square. The title of the conference was “Bridging the Secular Divide,” but it actually seemed to be more of an opportunity for interfaith bridge-building (of course, that too is a worthy pursuit).

For example, most participants seemed to share the view that there have been—and there still are—barriers to people of faith expressing their full identity, motivations, and convictions in the realm of politics. Perhaps the context of the conference elevated this sentiment, given recent controversies in Quebec over restrictions on religious dress, not to mention the recent introduction of a Charter of Secularism in the National Assembly of Quebec.

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Peter Stockland moderates a keynote session featuring Daniel Weinstock and Bill Blaikie

There were lots of helpful suggestions for overcoming the challenge posed by these barriers. Political philosopher Daniel Weinstock urged religious adherents to grow “democratic thick skin.” Member of Parliament John McKay shared his “top 10” rules for political engagement. And Canadian Council of Churches General Secretary Karen Hamilton insisted that “we can be listened to when we all come together as faith traditions.”

I’m not sure, however, that these suggestions get at the heart of the challenge. And this is the second question I am still reflecting on a week later: Are misunderstandings of—or disparaging attitudes toward—religious beliefs, values, and principles the main barriers that need to be overcome? Is religious language the gap that needs to be bridged?

I am not convinced that people of faith struggle to be heard in public policy debates primarily because of attitudes toward religious language or even religion per se. Rather, I wonder whether the more significant challenge is the deepening distrust of institutional voices of all kinds in Canadian society.

On the train ride home from Montreal I skimmed the Globe and Mail’s online news headlines, and was bombarded with a litany of scandals involving several Canadian Senators, the Mayor of Toronto, a former Ontario Premier, a former Montreal hospital administrator, and a Harvard university dean (and that was just the home page!).

Indeed, digging a little deeper into the news on any given day, we can read about troubling activities involving not only governments, but hospitals and schools. Not to mention banks, construction companies, and other businesses. Not to mention the media and other elements of civil society, including, of course, charities and churches.

What institution hasn’t been touched by scandal in recent times?

No wonder Canadians are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that the organizations they belong to, or identify with, represent or speak for them. The deepening entrenchment of individualism is surely helped along by the disenchantment that results from the behaviour of institutions.

More to the point, no wonder the Government of Canada is no longer keen to consult institutions (including their own!)  as they develop new laws and policies. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the new reality that individual citizens command, and demand, as much (or more) respect and authority than organizational figureheads, representational bodies, and so-called experts.

No wonder the Prime Minister hasn’t been able to find time in his busy schedule to meet with religious leaders who have spoken out in recent years on issues like climate change and poverty. If Canadians aren’t listening to leaders like these, why should he?

What does this mean for MCC’s approach to advocacy? In my view, we need to recognize that the bigger divide in Canadian society is found between individuals and institutions rather than secular and religious voices. This is the crucial disconnect that needs to be bridged.

I don’t think we need to leave our faith convictions at the door when we enter the offices of Parliamentarians and civil servants. If we want to be heard, however, we need to continue to nurture the trust of MCC’s supporters—and the broader public—before we knock.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director