Is this the way to deter human smuggling?

This week’s blog post is by Julia Tallmeister, Advocacy Research Intern at the Ottawa Office, in anticipation of Refugee Rights Day on April 4, 2014.

When people fear for their lives and safety, they may be forced to do all they possibly can to ensure their survival. Often, the prospect of security in a ‘safe’ country overpowers the possibility of detention for entering a country illegally.

MV Sun SeaNational hysteria ensued in 2010 when a group of around 500 Tamil migrants arrived in BC on the ship the MV Sun Sea to claim asylum. Despite the fact that the total number of migrants who entered Canada by boat over the 25 year period between 1986 and 2011 (1,500) amounts to merely 0.2 per cent of the total number of refugees accepted into Canada over the same time, the perceived “boat problem” prompted the Canadian government to propose a number of measures aimed at preventing the smuggling of immigrants into Canada.

Much has already been said about Bill C-31, or Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which came into effect in 2012. To mention only a few of the many changes this bill brought forth, it authorized the automatic and arbitrary detention of “irregular arrivals” (or “designated foreign nationals”) over the age of 16, without review, for up to one year. Migrants are now subjectively designated as “irregular arrivals” by the Minister of Public Safety when the identity of a person needs to be established, when investigations concerning the person or group cannot be done in a timely fashion, or when there is a suspicion of human smuggling.

As explained by Dr. Stephanie Silverman at a recent lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, detained immigrants now face a multitude of challenges. These include the overpopulation of detention centres, exposure to violence, and the lack of statutory rights to legal counsel and translation services, all of which can lead to deterioration in mental health and higher susceptibility to suicidal tendencies. Immigration detention not only has high financial costs – $70,000 per person, per year – but detrimental social effects, as it criminalizes and securitizes vulnerable groups of people, and immigration in general.

Further, “irregular arrivals” who are granted refugee status are still denied access to permanent resident status for a minimum of five years, making them unable to sponsor children, spouses, or other close family members.

All of this is meant to deter human smuggling.

proud2protectenbuttonWhat is paradoxical, however, is that while the federal government tries to “crack down” on human smuggling, it has also been creating incentives for illegal immigration and human smuggling. Illegal entry from the US into Canada has been on the rise since the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) came into effect in December of 2004. The STCA prevents individuals from claiming asylum in Canada if they arrive in the US first, and vice versa. With certain exceptions, asylum seekers must make their claim in the first country they enter. This has led to a drastic decline in asylum claims made at the Canadian border and has forced many refugees to make their claim in the United States, despite the several ways in which the American asylum system falls below international standards.

While the STCA is meant to make the border more secure, it has, in reality, encouraged illegal border crossing and human smuggling into Canada. In 2012 the Integrated Border Enforcement Team reported that human smuggling attempts into Canada had increased by 58 per cent from 2010 to 2011. A recent study by Harvard Law School highlights the human toll of tightening the border, finding that some asylum seekers have drowned in desperate attempts to swim across the Niagara River, and others have been killed or lost limbs while trying to cross railway bridges into Canada.

This is just one illustration highlighting the fact that there will always be tensions between the supposed intentions of a policy or law, and the actual impact. It seems to me that if Canada truly wants to decrease the rate of human smuggling, tightening the border and preventing refugees from entering the country safely and legally is not the solution.

April 4th is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Click here to read about some ways you can reach out to your community and take action to protect refugee rights.

Persistent questions about war tax resistance

It is tax season.  And once again I am confronted by the fact that nearly nine percent of my income tax goes for military purposes.

stop paying for warFor nearly forty years, Conscience Canada has been faithfully encouraging Canadians to withhold the military portion of their income tax as a form of modern-day conscientious objection. It has provided a peace trust fund as a repository where “conscientious objectors to military taxation” (COMTs) may send their withheld tax until such a time as the federal government creates a legal peace fund were they may re-direct the military portion of their tax.

I recently heard a good friend and Conscience Canada supporter speak publicly about his own journey of war tax resistance. He spoke with passion and eloquence and a heartfelt commitment to peace. He noted that Canada has spent $20 billion on a 12-year war in Afghanistan. He posed the question, “What might happen if people opposed to Canada’s participation in war simply refused to pay for it?”

I too have withheld the military portion of my income tax as a way of saying NO to military expenditures that I believe harm humanity and the planet. I was able to do this during several years of self-employment when I did not have an employer deducting income tax from my paycheck. Since I have returned to a salaried job I don’t have the option of actually withholding my military tax. And, to be honest, I have been less than consistent in offering other forms of protest in subsequent years.

Those who persist in war tax resistance over a sustained period of time are courageous people. They are choosing to break the law for the sake of deeply held religious beliefs or commitments of conscience. They are prophets among us.

They are often also quite lonely. My friend asked his audience why more people – presumably pacifists – don’t embrace war tax resistance. He wondered why the wider church has not given greater support to people who seek to express their conscientious objection to war in this way. I sensed a deep loneliness.

As I think of my own responses, I wonder why I personally have been an inconsistent promoter of war tax resistance. I think it boils down to this:  When individuals choose to withhold their tax, they are seeking a way to remove themselves from war and military preparations. Their actions do not directly challenge Canada’s involvement in war or other highly militarized “peace support” operations. They do not critique levels of military spending. Neither do they address Canada’s eagerness to sell military equipment around the world.

To be sure, Mennonite conscientious objectors traditionally sought provisions that would exempt them from military service. They did not really question the notion of war itself or Canada’s role in prosecuting war.  They wanted to make sure that people whose religious beliefs (or conscience) prevented them from killing others would not be required to do so by the state. So the approach of COMTs is in keeping with the longer tradition of conscientious objection.

I guess I wonder if, today, we are called to speak more intentionally to the bigger systems.

Some years ago, MCC Canada’s peace network made that choice. The Canadian government (first Liberal and then Conservative) involved the country deeply in war in Afghanistan, it drastically increased military spending, and it fostered a kind of militarized patriotism unknown to several generations of Canadians. Our peace network (MCC peace staff across the country) was confronted with the question:  Do we use our limited resources of time and money primarily to advance the idea of war tax resistance and a legal peace tax fund for conscientious objectors? Or do we use those resources to speak to the larger policy framework and ethos? To put it crassly, do we advocate for special accommodations for the few? Or do we confront the system that says peace can be built through war and military force?

armedbannerAt the time, our peace network decided for the latter. We subsequently carried on a several-year campaign called O Canada: armed and ready. We resisted Canada’s participation in war in a variety of ways: letters, petitions, a women’s fast, prayer vigils and other forms of public witness.

Did we make the right decision?  I’m not sure. No doubt many COMTs would say that my framing of the issue is a false dichotomy. They would insist that by withholding their tax they are confronting the war system itself. It is not a question of “either or.”

I am moved and inspired by people like my friend who make the difficult and courageous choice to withhold tax, not knowing what this might ultimately mean for them.  “Will you visit me in jail?” he asks.

My own questions persist …

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office. From 2000 to 2010, Esther was peace program coordinator for MCC Canada.

We are all treaty people in so-called Canada

This week’s guest blog is written by Hannah Enns, a student at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. She participated in the Ottawa Office’s annual student seminar, this year focused on the theme “‘Inconvenient’ relationships? Indigenous rights, reconciliation and advocacy.” Read other reflections and view photo gallery.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. We all have a role to play in discovering the truth of our colonial history, in reconciling relationships between settler folk and indigenous peoples, and in working towards a vision of decolonization built on a transformation of relationships and self-determination.

At 6:15 am on Friday, February 14, I stepped off a Greyhound bus and walked down the snowy streets of Ottawa. The sun was rising over the tall buildings and the roads were mostly empty, save for the odd car or pedestrian who was brave enough to face the cold and gusty winds at such an early hour. As I walked, I found myself thinking of the Women’s Memorial March that takes place across Canada around Valentine’s Day. This is a time to remember and bring witness to the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

poignant and interactive way of learning about the often untold history of Canada's Indigenous peoples.

Students participate in the Blanket Exercise, poignant and interactive way of learning about the often untold history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

This sobering thought helped to prepare me for an emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing weekend of stories as I participated in the MCC Student Seminar looking at settler and indigenous relationships. These stories have added to a year-long personal journey of discovery of colonial history and present-day continued colonization practices that our government upholds.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. Whether settler or First Nation, we need to work towards decolonizing ourselves, decolonizing our actions, and decolonizing our country.

The student seminar reminded me that history in North America did not simply start in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Despite what our history books say and what I learned in grade school, life on Turtle Island has a complex history. The Hudson Bay Company or the North West Trading Company did not just simply ‘own’ this land. People have lived here and thrived here for thousands of years. What do you think would be different today if instead of colonizing, Europeans were grateful to the initial welcome of the First Nations and decided not to teach, but rather learn from those who lived here for generations? What if Europeans actually upheld the Two Row Wampum agreement that outlined a beautiful vision of co-habitation, mutual assistance, and — ultimately and most importantly — self-determination of First Nations peoples and settler folk alike?

Colonization and treaties is a crucial place to start when we talk about Indigenous land claim issues. First Nations engaged in treaties for thousands of years before Europeans came to Turtle Island, or North America. They had times of peace, times of war, but ultimately lived side by side each other on this land. A common understanding of not owning the earth, but rather being stewards of the earth is prevalent in First Nation culture. When Europeans came to Turtle Island; however, they brought with them the doctrine of discovery built on positivity towards curiosity and domination on land discovered. Treaties were signed; however, with a player who did not understand the First Nation’s way of life, their values, and overall relationship to the land. Colonization here in Canada has manifested itself into a systematic attempt to annihilate First Nation culture, values, and land based on a want and need for resources.

Rarihokwats, a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, describes his research to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan at Stoney Knoll, Saskatchewan.

Rarihokwats, Mohawk legal research from the Bear Clan, describes his work to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan at Stoney Knoll, Saskatchewan.

We are all treaty people here in so-called Canada. I am a settler ally, and so I must be challenged to act as such. This means stepping away from how I think problems should be remedied, and instead acting in solidarity with First Nations people who are already working towards autonomy and self-determination. This means realizing how I have been complicit with the dominant narrative and seeking out the stories that are far too often silenced in popular discourse.

As a settler ally, I must dedicate myself to taking a stand against social injustices and be an agent of social change rather than an agent of social oppression. As a settler ally, and a treaty person, I must learn about the land that I currently occupy, about the issues in my neighborhood, and about the current fights towards liberation and freedom from oppression.

I live in Waterloo, on Six Nations territory known as the Haldimand Tract. The original tract of land, comprising six miles on each side of the Grand River from source to finish, was promised to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in 1784 for their role as British allies in the American Revolution. Since then, settler society has illegally squatted on the Haldimand Tract, displacing the Six Nations peoples onto what is now only five percent of the original plot of land.

Today, settler society along with our colonial government continues to actively disregard treaties through continued development initiatives and reckless pipeline expansion that endanger not only the land and the river, but also the health of the people.

As a treaty person, settler ally, and resident of Turtle Island, I strongly believe that it is of the utmost importance to remain aware and continue to learn of the many injustices in relation to the legacy of colonialism. This is why I attended the MCC Student Seminar. I need to be continually challenged, as well as continually challenge others, to face a past that is riddled with hidden oppression and to work in solidarity towards a future that holds a vision of wholeness.

As we work for decolonization, may we also strive for a reconciliation of relationships between the oppressors and the oppressed — built on love, respect, and acceptance of all peoples.

A father’s thoughts on International Women’s Day

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. He is the proud father of a three-year-old daughter.

As my daughter and I were reading the popular children’s book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, I was struck that all the machines in the book were referred to as he and him. Obviously assigning gender to inanimate objects can itself be an odd activity. But since the author decided that all strong, rough, hard-working construction vehicles were men, I decided to change the pronoun for every other machine to she and her. Having read the book other times, my daughter at first objected to this “people’s history of heavy equipment,” but she has since grown used to it.

The girls section in a typical toystore.

The girls’ section in a typical toystore.

Having a daughter makes it hard to ignore the social construction of gender. Whether it is clothing or toys, a crowd of pink princesses seems to invade our home on a daily basis, despite our best efforts for balance. Harmless as it may seem that there are no female trucks working at the construction site in a children’s book, it accompanies an absence of stories with girls and women as students, professors, adventurers, pastors, doctors, athletes, problem solvers, creators, heroes, politicians, or leaders.

Indeed, a 2011 study on gender and children’s books found that only 31 percent of children’s books have female central characters, and these characters are often represented in traditional gender roles.

In the coming two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women will hold meetings in New York to discuss how well the Millennium Development Goals have addressed issues of gender equity. So it’s a good time to assess where we are globally in the pursuit of gender equity. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to despair. Consider these examples:

  • According to the UN there is no country in the world where women earn on average more than men;
  • While the percentage of women out-of-school is decreasing, enrollment numbers are stalling;
  • Women still bear the brunt of unpaid care;
  • Nearly half of murder cases facing Aboriginal women in Canada remain unsolved
    Two-thirds of illiterate individuals are women;
  • The majority of young people and adolescents do not have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and education;
  • 1 in 3 women will be beaten, abused, or raped in their lifetime;
  • An estimated 100-140 million girls are living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation with FGM most often occurring for girls before the age of 15.

Despite what we know about the importance of women and girls’ participation in development, the stats could go on.

Thankfully there is also good news. In Canada, more women enroll in college and university programs and are more likely to finish these programs with a degree. Globally, the percentage of girls out of school has decreased from 58 percent in 2000 to 53 percent. And apart from the numbers, courageous individuals like Malala Yousafzai challenge our temptation to remain cynical.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC's Global Family Program.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC’s Global Family Program.

At MCC we are committed — through one of our guiding principles — to dismantling barriers of gender-based oppression, and working to ensure the participation of all community members in program design, decision-making, and implementation. At the project level in Ethiopia, MCC works with socially and economically marginalized women living with HIV/AIDS in vocational training and income generating strategies. In Palestine, MCC works with women in rural areas to raise the awareness of their legal and civil rights and promote women’s participation in civil society organizations. In Canada and the US, MCC is working with local churches to end domestic violence. These are just some of the ways that MCC works towards gender equity.

As I’ve reflected on these things in the lead up to International Women’s Day on March  8, I’m struck that changing the pronouns of a children’s book most certainly is not going to solve these sorts of global problems, and neither will any single project. But in the face of overwhelming gender disparity, we can start by critically reflecting on the subtle and not so subtle patriarchal narratives that hinder gender equity in our homes, in our workplaces, in our countries, and around the world.