Elsipogtog: an opportunity to rebuild trust

This week’s blog is written by Christina Farnsworth, MCC representative for the Maritimes. She is based in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.  – Aristotle, Nichomanean Ethics, Book VIII, translated by W.D. Ross

The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels. – James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada, October 15, 2013

In a blog posted here in September, I reflected on the importance of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples together to work out how we can live in peace and friendship. The need for peace and friendship has arisen still more urgently as I have reviewed coverage of the recent confrontation at Elsipogtog and the Sacred Fire Encampment near Rexton, NB.

KAIROS Elsipogtog

Mi’Kmaq Elder Billy Lewis and members of the Halifax KAIROS cluster participate in a solidarity event on fracking. New Brunswick, June 2013. Photo courtesy of KAIROS.

Since July, a coalition of Mi’Kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Acadian and other Maritimers has gathered to protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. On October 17th, the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction to remove protestors who had been blocking access to SWN Resources equipment since September 29th. The situation deteriorated into violence with the RCMP using non-lethal force and pepper spray. Five RCMP vehicles were burned by the protestors, and it is reported that some protesters threw Molotov cocktails at officers.

Aristotle says, “When men are friends they have no need of justice,” and this sentiment is echoed in the Bible when Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:30). If we loved our neighbours and cared for them and their interests as much as we care for our own, would we need to be reminded by laws to listen to those who are struggling to make their voices heard?

The media has been full of images of burning police vehicles, police snipers, Elders and Indigenous People facing off with lines of RCMP officers. If we focus on the events of October 17th exclusively, I believe that we will miss a greater reality and opportunity: there is a legacy of struggle and distrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People in Canada; and we have the chance to build new bridges if we choose to engage in respectful dialogue around our differences.

The Sacred Fire Encampment has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to peacefully protest shale gas exploration (also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) and industry in New Brunswick. When I visited the encampment this past July, I met people of all ages and walks of life who share concern for the environment and have worked together to make their concerns known. Much of the proposed fracking is on traditional Mi’Kmaq territory, including that of Elsipogtog First Nation; it should be noted that no land was ceded by Indigenous Peoples in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 1700s.

We cannot reduce what was over three months a non-violent protest uniting New Brunswickers of all backgrounds to a face-off between Indigenous People and the RCMP. As Canadians and as Christians, we need to be asking how we can re-build trust, how we can ensure that all involved are heard and valued.

We also need to be cognizant that this protest is speaking to two issues. One is a deep concern around the protection of the environment; the other confronts a lack of awareness of Aboriginal rights and responsibilities related to land and resources. This is not the first time Canadians have witnessed dramatic events that link these two issues. Some have referenced Oka when talking about the October 17th altercation. Others have pointed to the Ipperwash Inquiry Report as a resource that could have been useful in averting the violence. If we truly want to be inclusive, honourable and selfless as a country, as Governor General David Johnston described Canada in his recent Speech from the Throne, we cannot allow ourselves to write off legitimate problems because of the methods that were used to highlight them.

After he wrapped up his recent nine day visit, James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noted in his Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada that “resource extraction should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without adequate consultations with and the free, prior and informed consent of the aboriginal peoples concerned.” Until the question of rights over land and resources is addressed, how can we discuss the use of resources in good faith? And are we as Canadians requiring that our governments and our industries meet the requirement of free and informed consent before beginning any development on Indigenous lands?

Our society is deeply divided with fear, misunderstanding and a lack of safe space for dialogue. Elsipogtog, and other contexts like it, provides a new opportunity for creating such space, bridging gaps of mistrust and fear, and building a reconciled community. It offers a possibility for deeper and more just friendships.

Throne speech? What throne speech?

The 41st Parliament of Canada formally resumed on October 16 with a speech from the throne read by Governor General David Johnston. One week later, it would seem that a reasonable question to ask is: Did it matter?

The point of all throne speeches is to lay out the government’s agenda for the new session—in this case, for the remaining two years of the Conservative government’s majority mandate.

2013 Throne SpeechIn the weeks leading up to the pomp and circumstance of this event, anticipation built as cabinet ministers signaled new and renewed priorities such as “Defending Canadian Consumers” or “Supporting Victims and Punishing Criminals.” But then, even before the commentators had finished commentating—and before the opposition parties had the chance to ask a single question in the House of Commons—the Prime Minister flew to Brussels to announce a new trade agreement with the European Union (another long-anticipated event).

Besides the throne speech, this announcement also overshadowed a Parliamentary tussle over a motion that would allow the government to resurrect any legislation that had died on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued. And then, of course, the media firestorm over the Senate expense scandal picked up where it left off last June.

So much for “hitting the re-set button,” “making a fresh start,” or “changing the channel.”

Granted, in the months ahead there will be opportunities to debate the merits of specific proposals announced in the throne speech. After all, it would seem that what really matters is the particular legislation or program initiatives that are brought forward, not the speech that laid them out in very general terms last week.

However, even though it may not have legal standing, in my view the throne speech matters because of its ceremonial function. It is a ceremony that is public and powerful. It is a ritual that is part of—and provides insight into—the larger project of building Canada’s national identity. Although Canadian throne speeches may lack the profile of the U.S. President’s inaugural or annual State of the Union address, I would argue that they do similar work.

Clues to this larger purpose are not only found in the government’s celebration of past accomplishments and announcement of new deliverables, but in the overall style and tone of the speech.

As in other recent throne speeches, it is clear that the government sees its primary role as defending and protecting Canadians by restraining evildoers and enhancing economic competitiveness. We are reminded again and again that threats of all sorts abound in the world around us, and that we require a strong and stable government to steer the ship and mind the till.

Yet my point here is not simply to take issue with the current government’s vision.

Indeed, even when a vision of Canada was described in the throne speech in terms that I could imagine a New Democratic or Liberal government using, I found myself feeling uncomfortable.

Take the preamble, for example.

As one might expect, the beginning of the speech is full of evocative phrases. Parliamentarians are reminded that “our nation has embraced a unique set of indelible qualities that must guide [their] deliberations.” These qualities include our inclusiveness, our honourableness, our selflessness, our smartness, and our caring.

All of these are good things. Illustrations are provided for each quality that may in fact describe Canadians—and our nation—when we are at our best.

My problem is the way this entire discussion points to and elevates a version of Canadian exceptionalism. Canadians are not only inclusive, honourable, selfless, smart, and caring, we are uniquely so.

This presumptive tone pops up in other places throughout the speech: “Canada stands for what is right and good in the world”; “This is the true character of Canadians—honourable in our dealings, faithful to our commitments, loyal to our friends”; or “Canadian men and women built this country. In so doing, they founded a constitutional democracy, among the most enduring history has known.”

I recognize that most would agree this is the job of governments—to build us up, not to bring us down. I also recognize that Canada does have a particular kind of character, and that all citizens bear some responsibility to shape that national character in positive ways.

Senate throneIt is partly out of this sense of responsibility that MCC pursues advocacy. Not as an end in and of itself, and not because we are concerned about the reputation or standing of Canada in the world per se. But because we know that Canada’s character will give shape to policies and actions that impact the lives of vulnerable people close to home and far away. And so, like the government, we are also in the business of articulating a larger story.

Indeed, beyond the important engagement that happens with particular government legislation, policies, or actions, we also need to step back and devote energy to giving shape to an alternative or counter-narrative. Beyond problem solving or tweaking the agenda set for us by the government, we strive to set a different kind of agenda for future policy debates.

This is not an easy task, given the efforts of so many larger, better connected, and savvy actors such as the government. MCC doesn’t get to read speeches from thrones!

But we can remind people which throne really matters.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Hope, conservation agriculture, and World Food Day

This week’s guest blogger is Dan Wiens, coordinator of Food Security and Livelihoods for Mennonite Central Committee.  Dan is himself a farmer.

I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa early this morning–October 16, World Food Day–to begin a three-week agricultural tour of southern Africa. The air this morning is crisp and the sky a brilliant blue. I left autumn weather in Canada and arrived here in the southern hemisphere to the freshness of spring.

CA 3The purpose of the tour is to visit farmers, researchers, and others involved with conservation agriculture (CA). Conservation agriculture is a farming model that protects and builds soil health using the three principles of minimum soil tillage, maintaining ground cover (mulch), and using crop rotations to build soil fertility. The information I’m gathering here in Africa will help MCC, in collaboration with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, design a pan-African conservation agriculture program.

African farmers are in trouble. Soil health has been on the decline for decades and productivity is steadily going down. This situation contributes to keeping over 239 million Africans chronically hungry. Finding a low input and sustainable agricultural solution is critical. CA is a proven farming model, especially in the semi-arid regions that characterize much of Africa. Farmers practicing CA have seen as much as three-fold increases in crop yields in just a few years. This has lifted many farmers and their families out of poverty and hunger.

CA 1

Monica Kutingala, a conservation agriculture farmer with husband Simon Kutingala, waters the sweet yams with rainwater collected in their new water storage trench called a hafir. This new source of water made it possible for the family to plant their first garden on their farm in Ekenywa village, Arusha district, Tanzania. The couple switched from traditional agriculture in 2006 and have seen many benefits, including increased crop yields.

Another exciting part of this story is that CA requires only inputs that are readily found in the farming communities. Organic ground cover or mulch (often grass) is one example.  There is no need for expensive outside inputs such as chemical fertilizers. The only significant outside input that is required is knowledge.

The general idea we have for the upcoming CA program is to vastly increase the number of African farmers practicing CA. Promotion of CA will be done by the many African community-based organizations that have strong relationships with farming communities. These organizations are in partnership with MCC and other CFGB member agencies and they are uniquely positioned to promote CA.

On this beautiful World Food Day morning, my hope is that over the next three weeks I will find the information required to develop an effective CA program. On this World Food Day, I can’t think of a more appropriate or exciting task for an MCC agriculture worker.

Exploring what it means to live in peace and friendship

This week’s blog posting is written by Christina Farnsworth, MCC regional representative for the Maritime provinces. With family in Ontario, several years of study in Colorado, a sojourn in France, and travels to many other places, Christina finds it hard to say where she is “from.” But she is enjoying the beauty, warmth and uniqueness of eastern Canada.

The first time I attended a Peace and Friendship Gathering at the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia in 2010, I was apprehensive. I had just moved to the Maritimes after spending a number of years outside Canada, and two months after that move, the then MCC Maritimes Regional Representatives had offered me the chance to attend this four-day cross-cultural gathering where I could expect to experience Indigenous-led program and learn about current issues. I didn’t know what the program would look like and was certainly unaware of local issues. I was afraid that I might give offense through my ignorance and given that I didn’t know anyone there, knew that I was going to be out of my depth.

Christina Farnsworth, MCC Maritimes Regional Representative, and Ishbel Munro, Program Director at the Tatamagouche Centre, are snapped here just after the Closing Ceremony for the 2013 Peace and Friendship Gathering. The Gathering brings together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to connect, experience Indigenous-led Ceremonies, learn about current issues and explore how we can live out the Peace and Friendship Treaties together. MCC has supported this work since 2001.

Christina Farnsworth, MCC Maritimes Regional Representative, and Ishbel Munro, Program Director at the Tatamagouche Centre, are snapped here just after the Closing Ceremony for the 2013 Peace and Friendship Gathering. The Gathering brings together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to connect, experience Indigenous-led Ceremonies, learn about current issues and explore how we can live out the Peace and Friendship Treaties together. MCC has supported this work since 2001.

My first Gathering was uncomfortable, eye-opening, horizons-broadening and beautiful; participating in Circle and sitting around the Sacred Fire brought me into unexpected, deep connection with individuals whom I had never met before. I received Teachings from Elders about Indigenous spirituality and care for Creation, and spent time in solitude in the mornings confronting my own understanding of what it means to be Canadian, and how the history that I learned in school had left out Indigenous stories.

Fast forward a few years, and this past August I had the opportunity to return to the Peace and Friendship Gathering, this time as the MCC Maritimes Regional Representative. This year we heard from individuals who had participated in the Idle No More movement and in anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick. We listened as residential school Survivors and the children of Survivors shared their deep pain and the dark history of what Canada had tried to do to Indigenous culture.

During the 2013 Peace and Friendship Gathering, participants were invited to partake in a Sweat. The Sweat Lodge can be seen in the left corner of this picture. The gathering brings together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to connect, experience Indigenous-led Ceremonies, learn about current issues and explore how we can live out the Peace and Friendship Treaties together. MCC has supported this work since 2001.  Gathering Leader and participant, Mi'kmaq Elder Cathy Gerrior, describes it this way; "The annual Peace and Friendship Gathering at the Tatamagouche Centre is an important gathering bringing native and non native people together in a good way.  Because this gathering is based in Ceremony and the Sacred, many important topics can be discussed in a meaningful way and the Sacred Fire, Sweat Ceremonies and Elders are available to help give guidance, support, and healing for those who have need. i personally love seeing people come to the gatherings for the first time.  They often seem to have a level of excitement and a bit of fearfulness about them.  i love seeing them emerge from the Sweat Lodge, that they often helped to build, beaming and feeling very alive.  They are all smiling broadly and eager for their Feast.  Their fears seem to have vanished and the conversations afterwards seem to have a different layer of understanding and depth. My family and i look forward to these gatherings every year."

During the 2013 Peace and Friendship Gathering, participants were invited to partake in a Sweat. The Sweat Lodge can be seen in the left corner of this picture. The gathering brings together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to connect, experience Indigenous-led Ceremonies, learn about current issues and explore how we can live out the Peace and Friendship Treaties together. MCC has supported this work since 2001.  Gathering Leader and participant, Mi’kmaq Elder Cathy Gerrior, describes it this way; “The annual Peace and Friendship Gathering at the Tatamagouche Centre is an important gathering bringing native and non native people together in a good way.  Because this gathering is based in Ceremony and the Sacred, many important topics can be discussed in a meaningful way and the Sacred Fire, Sweat Ceremonies and Elders are available to help give guidance, support, and healing for those who have need. i personally love seeing people come to the gatherings for the first time.  They often seem to have a level of excitement and a bit of fearfulness about them.  i love seeing them emerge from the Sweat Lodge, that they often helped to build, beaming and feeling very alive.  They are all smiling broadly and eager for their Feast.  Their fears seem to have vanished and the conversations afterwards seem to have a different layer of understanding and depth. My family and i look forward to these gatherings every year.”

I listened to these stories, and felt very blessed to have been invited to participate in Indigenous Ceremonies after people who also profess to be Christians had tried so hard to eradicate these same Ceremonies. I remain grateful and humbled by the love and hospitality shown to me by the Elders even after they have endured continuing prejudice from non-Aboriginal Canadians.

In leaving this year’s Gathering, I choose to commit myself to continuing the relationships that have begun around the Sacred Fire, and to educating myself about the Peace and Friendship Treaties. These are legal documents, sacred to the First Nations who entered into them, and place obligations on me, as a non-Aboriginal person living on Mi’kmaw land that was never ceded to the British Crown or Canada. Attending these Gatherings has given me a safe space to explore what it means to live in peace and friendship with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

We need more opportunities for these kinds of connections and conversations. Isaiah 1:16-17 calls us to wash ourselves and make ourselves clean. To put away the evil of our doings from before the Lord’s eyes. To cease to do evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless and plead for the widow. How else can we do that except through acknowledging the wrongs that have been done, often in the name of Christ, and asking for forgiveness? I hear many say that we didn’t do those things, that it wasn’t our fault. I don’t believe that I need to bear guilt for what was done, but I know that I live in a culture that has flourished on the back of historical injustice and that if I do not take responsibility for this and seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed, I perpetuate that injustice. I am so grateful that in the Peace and Friendship Gatherings, I have been given an opportunity to participate in reconciliation and to learn to recognize my Lord and Creator in the gifts and traditions of another People.

Prorogation: A reason to celebrate?

Now you see it…now you don’t.

Before Parliament rose for the summer, my colleagues and I in the Ottawa Office were playing peekaboo with a piece of legislation.

In the final (crazy) weeks of spring sitting—chock-full of extended sitting hours,cluster munitions late night debates, and countless time allocation motions—Bill S-10, An Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was notoriously hard to pin down. Some days, we would see it listed on the day’s Order Paper, only to have it be a “no-show.” Other days, while not on the official agenda, the bill would catch us off-guard by making an appearance in a late night debate.

It was all a bit dizzying.

When the House finally rose for summer recess on June 19th, we gave our bill-monitoring duties a rest, assuming we’d get back in the proverbial saddle again once fall session kicked off on September 16th.

This date, of course, has come and gone, and business on Parliament Hill is still on hold.

Just days before the session was set to resume, the Prime Minister got his request fulfilled by the Governor General to officially prorogue Parliament. Also known around town as “hitting the re-set button,” “political reboot,” “making a fresh start,” “pulling the plug,” or “changing the channel” (depending on your perspective), this move means that all unfinished business from the last sitting has been wiped from the agenda.

For those of us preoccupied with all-things Parliament Hill, what this also means is that we have no Question Period drama to watch, no Committee reports to read, and no legislative agenda to keep an eye on—not until MPs and Senators return after thanksgiving on October 16th.

But what does this mean for the bills we’ve so keenly had our eye on?

While prorogation does not impact the status of Private Members’ Business (due to a specific Standing Order, such bills and motions are automatically reinstated at the last stage they reached in the House), it does enable the government to wipe its own legislative slate clean and open the new session with a Speech from the Throne. Delivered by the Governor General in the Senate with the traditional display of pomp and ceremony, this speech will chart out the Government of Canada’s policy agenda as it enters the second half of its four-year mandate.

Once Parliament is underway again, any government bills that have technically “died on the Order Paper” could also individually be reinstated via unanimous consent of the House.

Sounds like a relatively straightforward process, procedurally-speaking. But how likely is the government to decide to reinstate past legislation given their efforts to wipe the slate clean and chart a new direction? And how likely are the opposition parties to unanimously agree to simply reinstate bills that they had serious concerns with?

Adding to the list of unknowns is Bill S-10’s status. As far as the application of “typical” resurrection rituals go, it seems to be a bit of an odd-ball.

Here’s why…

While Bill S-10 is indeed a government bill, it was originally introduced in the Senate first rather than iSenaten the House. Since being tabled on April 25, 2012 by the Government Leader in the Senate (Marjory LeBreton), it had journeyed through all three stages in the Upper Chamber (click here for a riveting overview of the legislative process) and had, just before summer recess, received second reading in the Lower Chamber and been referred to Committee for study.

The procedural option for resurrecting government bills, however, does not apply to Senate business. Given that Bill S-10 had already passed through the necessary stages in the Red Chamber before prorogation, does this mean it could simply be reinstated where it left off (ie. since it was in the House before summer recess, it’s now considered “House business”)? Or does this mean that all previous Senate work on the legislation would be declared null and void?

Complicating things further is the do-we-reform-or-do-we-abolish debate unfolding around the future of the Senate. Given that the Government Leader in the Senate stepped down in the summer, and the Prime Minister did not replace this position within his Cabinet, it is unclear how regular business in the Upper Chamber will even be conducted going forward.

If you’re as interested as we are in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, you’ve likely already scoured the online compendium to find the answer (just to save you the trouble, it’s not there). Even our best sleuthing skills haven’t come up with a definitive answer for Bill S-10’s fate. Our most educated guess is that it will very likely have to start over from scratch.

In truth, this wouldn’t be a bad fate.

As both Canadian and international voices have been urging over the last year, as a country that has never produced or used cluster munitions, Canada should have the best legislation in the world. Unfortunately, this bill has serious flaws and substantial omissions that make it the weakest legislation to come out of the Convention.

Most glaringly, Bill S-10 (aka Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act) creates mack-truck-sized loopholes and exemptions on the use of cluster bombs that undermine the Treaty as a comprehensive ban on an inhumane weapon (and, might I add, make the bill’s title a bit of a misnomer).

Who would have thought prorogation could be something to celebrate?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst