What if we cared more? My introduction to advocacy

???????????????????????????????Like many people, I love traveling, and a trip to New York City was a welcome idea. After too little sleep and too much coffee, our team arrived in the Big Apple. We were meeting with the people from MCC’s advocacy offices in Washington, DC and at the United Nations.

I’m no idiot, but already by this point in my internship I had realized there were a lot of things about politics I had yet to learn. Like a lot of Canadians, I voted in the last federal election, paid a bit of attention to headlines concerning Parliament, and read articles in a national newspaper. But for the most part, I have very little knowledge of what is actually going on in the Canadian government.

Advocacy office staff NYC

Staff from MCC’s Ottawa, Washington, and UN Liaison offices met for joint meetings in New York, September 12-13, 2013.

I’ve had friends criticize my desire to join the MCC Ottawa team, effectively saying that taking part in advocating to governing bodies is akin to joining Babylon in her oppression of minority groups. However, it seems inevitable that humans will find ways to govern and organize ourselves, and political bodies are the manifestations of those organizational aspirations. It seems to me then, that Kingdom-focused Christians who advocate for the “least of these” have perhaps the most vital voice to be heard by governing bodies. So I’d packed my bags in the Fraser Valley, and arrived in the National Capital region.

Back to New York. “The City That Never Sleeps” certainly is a good moniker. Standing at Ground Zero was incredibly moving. The two pillars of light that stretched into the sky were a visible reminder of the pain that this city, indeed humanity, has endured. Now to top it off, we were meeting with MCC staff dedicated to monitoring and advocating with the United Nations and the US government. Part of the benefit of having this meeting in New York is the access to the United Nations, and as Canadians, we also had the opportunity to meet with the Canadian Ambassador, Mr. Guillermo Rishchynski.

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Two beams of light, symbolizing the twin towers destroyed on 9/11, dominate Manhattan’s night sky.

It’s a big world out there, and many of us likely feel that institutions such as the UN Security Council, House of Commons, and Congress are completely out of our realm of influence and impact. And yet, in a democratic society, the men and women who work in governing bodies are charged with the task of communicating our needs and desires to others in the world, and finding solutions to balancing these needs with the desires of others.

Yet when we have concerns, we far too often seem to acquiesce and say “well, the government is doing their own thing” or “the corporations hold the vote anyways,” instead of advocating for a change in our government’s policies. It’s as though once we’ve voted, we’ve done our civic duty. “Sign a petition? That’s too much to ask of us!” It’s as though we live in a culture of apathy. Unless we are personally affected by an issue, we barely demonstrate concern.

Canadians were horrified by the use of chemical weapons in Syria last month. And yet, we bury our heads in the sand (or snow), sip lattés, and prepare for the hockey season. Believe me, as a BC boy, I get it. Ottawa is a long way from the Fraser Valley; the changes happening in metro Vancouver’s infrastructure are more likely to be of immediate consequence.

Earlier this week, a team of experts suggested that Canada has failed to engage in the international arena in significant ways in recent years. I think there’s a parallel here; while Canadians fail to engage in our national politics, Canada fails to engage in global politics. This week the UN General Assembly is meeting. Although Prime Minister Harper will be in New York, he will not be joining other world leaders in addressing the UN. Again.

What if we’re called to more? What if we demonstrated that we cared about more? What if we knew what was going on in the world around us? What if Ban Ki-Moon’s statements were as commonly discussed at the dinner table as Miley Cyrus’ latest antics? Would that have the potential to create a culture of politically engaged citizens? Would that engender a generation that sought to work for peace, spread the gospel and share their gifts? Would we have a better understanding of how to love our neighbour?

By Mark Tymm, MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern. Mark is an Anabaptist of Northern Irish/Canadian descent, a musician and a graduate of Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford.

Looking back to move forward

This week MCC Canada is celebrating its 50th birthday.  The wider MCC system is nearly 100 years old, but MCC Canada itself is marking a half century this year.

I spent the past two years writing a history of MCC in Canada in anticipation of this 50th anniversary. I poked around in archives, reading letters, minutes and reports, I scanned numerous periodicals, and I interviewed dozens of people. I was trying to unearth the story – no, the many stories – that constitute MCC Canada’s history.  It was an enormous challenge and also a great privilege.

MCC began in 1920 when Mennonites in North America provided food aid to starving people in the Soviet Union.

MCC began in 1920 when Mennonites in North America provided food aid to starving people in the Soviet Union.

History is not very “cool” these days.  And yet, I believe that knowing something about our history – as individuals and families, churches and institutions – is very important.  Here are four reasons why I believe people associated with MCC Canada need to know its history:

  • So that we know our roots and understand how they have shaped an identity.  We as individuals are all a product of our history. We have been formed by the people, the places, and the contexts into which we were born. I am who I am, in large measure, because of circumstances, influences, and choices which preceded me. The same is true for an institution like MCC.  We know MCC as we know its history.
  • So that we remember those who have gone before us.  MCC Canada would not be what it is today, if thousands of people had not given sacrificially of their money, time, wisdom and imagination to make the organization what it is today — if they had not transformed a committee into a movement.  We do well to remember the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds the work of MCC in Canada.
  • So that we can say thank-you to those who have given us brilliant ideas and pioneered innovative responses to need.  Those who articulated a vision for restorative justice and provided practical ways of expressing it. Those who dreamed up the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as a way of offering an emergency response to hunger. The men who negotiated a refugee sponsorship agreement.  The women who gave us thrift shops and Ten Thousand Villages (formerly, Selfhelp Crafts). The Ontarians who created the iconic peace button: “to remember is to work for peace.”  Thank-you!
  • MCC service worker Janet Kroeker and friend at Port Hardy, BC.

    MCC service worker Janet Kroeker and friend at Port Hardy, BC., 1970s.

    So that we are kept humble and learn from our mistakes. When we face the past with honesty, we hopefully recognize the situations where we have failed, where we have lacked courage, and where our work has been tainted with attitudes and practices that do not reflect the reign of God.  If we do not know the past, we cannot learn from it.

Knowing our history does not mean living in the past. Nor does it mean that we resist  change – far from it.  It does mean that as we face the future, we can move forward with intentionality.  We can let go of certain things, because they are not essential to who we are.  We can embrace other things because they are core to our identity.  We can adapt in ways that have integrity. As we learn our history, we can make deliberate choices about the future, rather than drift according to whatever wind is blowing.

Mi’kmaq theologian Terry LeBlanc tells the story about a young boy walking into a deep unknown forest with his grandfather. The young boy was terrified of becoming lost.  As they walked forward, the grandfather looked back regularly.  When the anxious boy asked what he was doing, the grandfather replied, “We look back so that we know from where we have come. We look back so that we do not get lost.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office. Her history of MCC in Canada, written under the auspices of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, will be published by CMU Press in November.

Righteous Indignation?

This week’s guest blog is written by Ed Wiebe, Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Refugee and Migration Program.

Over the weekend I usually keep an eye on BBC News, and increasingly note how migration related stories roll across the screen. Such stories used to be far less prominent in Canada and remained mostly a distant reality. Not so any more.

According to the BBC, the bodies of six migrants apparently killed in a shipwreck were recovered on a beach in southern Italy in August.

In early August we saw what Italians were shocked to find on their resort beaches — boatloads of migrants with Syrian origins, washing up amidst the summer vacationers.  Among the still-upright boats were also ones that had taken on water, and people in the water — some dead, some still alive.

Every month more than a thousand migrants arrive in Italy by boat. What was noteworthy in this instance was that they did not arrive on deserted, rocky shores further south, but on the warm sandy shores further north. The serenity of vacationing was broken.

Seasonal migrant workers have been coming to Europe for many decades. What is new is where they now come from – Turkey, Syria and Egypt, as well as Sri Lanka, Congo and Eritrea – and why they come. They are not coming for seasonal work – rather, they are in desperate search of a new homeland because of civil war, poverty, environmental degradation, or local backlash against their ethnicity or gender.  In other words, they are forced to migrate.

TFW

A display drawing attention to the plight of temporary foreign workers. Photo credit KAIROS.

That is as close as such issues used to get to us here in Canada.  But not any more.  What is different here, though, is our relative distance from the genesis of people’s voyages.  Here those journeys often begin in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.  And the people often have work permits in their hands — albeit temporary ones. The expectation (the law, actually) is that they will work for a designated period at a designated workplace and then return home.

That is how it is supposed to work, and how our Minister of Immigration soothingly describes it when talking about labour shortages that “are hurting our economy.”  The reality inside the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program is quite different and carries with it eerie semblances of the scenes in Europe.

Canadian media have recently noticed that there are headline-gripping tales right here in Canada.  A scan over just the past few months shows stories about TFW’s here being exploited, short-changed and abused.  For example, Denny’s Restaurant franchise in BC was fined $1.4 million for short-changing temporary workers, and not repaying their travel  as required under the contract.

In Halifax, allegations of employers paying only $3 an hour were proved true and the employers fined (Global News, July 25, 2013).  In Alberta, a recent study revealed rampant abuses such as employee-owned dorms where their own workers were being charged for rents of up to $500/month for each space, with up to eight workers crowded into two bedroom suites. Routinely, such incidents are not uncovered through monitoring by the Federal TFW program, but rather anecdotally from workers themselves or community and union activists.

Most workers never report anything; they are too fearful of employer sanctions or being laid off, as had been the case of early complaints by the Denny’s workers. Some of those had been simply laid off and sent home with earned wages being left in arrears, nor travel reimbursed as promised. It was only the new batch of such workers who experienced the same, but were bravely able to bring their concerns to light.

Most alarming of all though, is the fact that the TFW program is now the largest immigration category of all in Canada. It has become the darling of industries ranging from the fast food, the oil patch, and construction labour.

As consumers we are now all implicated. As Christian we should be concerned – perhaps even righteously indignant?