New learnings in a familiar place

In April I had the pleasure of visiting the Maritimes as part of my work with the MCC Ottawa Office. As a Maritimer myself, it was a wonderful trip in many ways. It was a chance to talk with all kinds of folks about advocacy and the work of the Ottawa Office, and an opportunity to make connections with local partners of MCC, university groups and churches in the region. For me, the crux of my excitement was the chance to share my work with family, home church and long-time friends, all steeped in the familiar.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

A railway-turned-pedestrian bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton.

But another major highlight was being challenged to look back and reflect on my early life and education in a new way. At St Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, my MCC colleague Christina Farnsworth led faculty, staff, students and a local Indigenous chief in the Blanket Exercise. It was my first time participating in this exercise, designed in part by KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

The Blanket Exercise is a participatory and interactive way of learning the history of North America, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It examines life before the arrival of Europeans, interactions with early settlers, the development and violations of land treaties, the (often deliberate) spread of diseases, the forming of reservations, and implementation and impacts of the Indian Residential School System.

It was especially noteworthy to participate in this exercise now, as we await the official closing of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) next week. Commissioners of the TRC have been travelling across Canada since 2010, listening to individuals, families and communities share their stories about the residential schools policy, developed and maintained for decades by the government and churches of Canada.

(Background) Walter Thiessen, Raymond Funk, Rosie Funk                  (Foreground) Agnes Kramer-Hamstra 

Agnes Kramer-Hamstra, representing an Indigenous person, stands on a blanket, representing the land. Photo by Mary Main.

As I listened, I was struck by how this perspective had not been part of my own understanding of Canadian narrative until fairly recently. I remember learning about Indigenous peoples from an early age, but looking back I recognize major gaps in that learning. We would talk about first contact with settlers, about the fur trade, and about cultural and traditional practices of various First Nations across Canada. We would talk about treaties made in those first few decades of contact. But this history was often presented in a way as to make these important things seem irrelevant today.

In high school I remember we examined some of the major human rights issues of our time and of history. But so often we looked at these issues from a global perspective. And while it was not explicitly said, Canada’s actions, both past and present, were often held up on a kind of pedestal — Canada is, after all, the “peacekeeping nation,” right?

During these formative school years, I also remember seeing news stories of local ethnic-based tensions, such as clashes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in rural New Brunswick. I remember being worried and upset by these clashes. But, again, despite growing up in a very politically engaged home, I did not have the proper understanding to grasp the roots of these tensions.


Debbie MacDonald reads from a “scroll” which identifies one story from the larger narrative of how Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land. Photo by Mary Main.

It was not until a fourth year university class on “Genocide and War Crimes in the Twentieth Century” when I first recall discussing the now notorious residential schools policy. My professor led us in discussions of global events, but then always brought the issues back to Canada. I remember being shocked and ashamed when he went into depth about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, especially in the context of the residential schools. The experience left me with significant questions, notably, “How could this have happened?” and “Why am I just hearing about this now?” This class also left me with a determination to tell others about this side of Canadian history.

But back to the blanket exercise and prospects for reconciliation …  The exercise speaks loudly of the need to listen and try to understand Canadian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. It also serves as a call to action. The apology expressed by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 on behalf of the Government of Canada for the residential schools and the initiation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were essential first steps for rebuilding relationships and helping lay the ground work for reconciliation. But now the real work begins – for us all.

We don’t necessarily know what this will look like in the coming months and years, but one way to begin is to both listen and intentionally talk about these issues whenever we can: in our churches, in schools, as part of community gatherings, as part of our advocacy campaigns.

I’m grateful to have participated in the blanket exercise and to witness its impact on others in my home province as well. I’m also grateful for the chance to visit the familiar while continuing to gain a new and deeper understanding of the history of my country. I hope and pray we can keep this conversation going and see real change – all across this amazing land.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office. She is originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick.

The price of peace

This week’s guest writer is Nathan Hershberger. Nathan is from Harrisonburg, VA, USA, and studied theology and history at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Virginia.  He is currently serving with MCC as an English teacher in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.

The Islamic State group or ISIS is a difficult topic for pacifist Christians, and rightly so. It seems impossible to argue against U.S. or Canadian airstrikes when they are arguably holding back religious cleansing. I have lived in Iraq with MCC for about a year and I still don’t know quite what to say. A seminary student showed me a photo of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier who has reportedly beheaded a number of ISIS fighters and said to me, “This man is a hero.” I was left speechless. This student is a kind and generous man who loves Iraq and wants to remain in his country—a rare and precious thing in his generation. Is brutal war against ISIS the price of peace here?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials — including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits — were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities.  (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Fighting ISIS with any and all possible means seems so self-evidently necessary.  I confess that when U.S. airstrikes began in August and seemed to cut off an ISIS advance that threatened Erbil (where I live), I felt safer. If ISIS had made it to the city, it would have triggered the displacement of over a million additional people and left more Christians, Yezidis, and other minority groups vulnerable to ISIS.

This feeling of necessity is true not just of airstrikes in Iraq, but Western-led military interventions in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. On its own terms, each airstrike, weapons shipment, and campaign seems limited, efficient, and completely justified.  In Libya, strike the army of Muammar Qaddafi before it can massacre the population of Benghazi. In Iraq, destroy an artillery piece aimed at Erbil in order to ensure that Kurdish Peshmerga can defend the city from ISIS. In Syria, ship weapons to rebels to help them push back both ISIS and Assad.

With the greater caution of the Obama administration, Western powers seem united behind a foreign policy of surgical strikes. What the West seems to be faced with is not only an enemy that personifies evil itself, but the means of fighting it with a precision and economy that leaves our hands feeling clean, mostly.[1]  What can a Christian pacifist say to that?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Heads of households register their families in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. These materials were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Heads of households of displaced families register in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

But despite the new sense of distance and control, Western-led intervention in the Middle East is intimately trapped in a spiral of conflict. We are fighting an endless war where each victory makes the next battle necessary and seemingly inevitable. ISIS itself is a product, in part, of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Libya, where a seemingly surgical intervention in 2011 appeared to have scored a victory, chaos and civil war now reigns, inviting further intervention. Each of these campaigns seem necessary, but all together they are tracing a slow spiral of destruction in which war and peace are indistinguishable.

What, then, is the alternative?

The conflict in the Middle East, with the war in Syria at its heart, has turned more and more into a regional war, and thus, the solution—short of total victory for one side or another—has to be regional and diplomatic. Additionally, relief aid and economic development throughout the region must be higher priorities for the international community both immediately and in the long-term.

But these answers feel deeply inadequate when I am speaking with students forced from their homes by ISIS.  All I can think of in those situations—but don’t usually have the courage to say—is what Father Ibrahim,[2] a local Orthodox priest, said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks before Easter. “We are Christians. We have to love the stranger. We have to love ISIS. And we have to love the next ISIS too.”

[1] Despite their increasing precision, airstrikes do continue to kill civilians.  A few weeks ago, the U.S. bombed a power plant in eastern Mosul and an apartment building next door collapsed, reportedly killing 68 people. UN-SSI Daily Security Brief, April 22, 2015, UNAMI.   As the bombing campaign intensifies in urban areas like Mosul and Fallujah, and as ISIS begins to use human shields, such incidents will almost certainly increase, driving those affected to identify more with ISIS.  The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to adequately investigate these incidents.

As to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Defense current military operations in Iraq and Syria since last August have cost over $2 billion.  (For current reports of the U.S. bombing campaign and its costs and targets, see Canada budgeted $122.5 million for its military operations in Iraq in 2014-2015.  For its expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, it has budgeted $406 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. These costs are above and beyond salaries and the routine costs of maintaining an army. See

[2] Name changed for security reasons.

Solidarity, resistance, recovery: Thoughts on a Mother’s Day walk

I chose to spend a portion of Mother’s Day this year participating in the Sisters in Spirit walk that honours and remembers missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was a holy thing to walk slowly and reverently with several hundred women, men, elders, children and youth through Winnipeg’s downtown; to absorb the drumming, dancing and singing; to hear the speeches and the prayers at the gathering place. This witness of remembrance for lives lost or vanished, this call for an end to violence – it was sacred space.

As I walked, the reasons for my being there became clear.

IMG_20150510_140851Solidarity – I wanted to stand with the Indigenous people in my community, people who have experienced the violent death or disappearance of a beloved mother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, auntie or friend. As a mother who has lost a child – my middle son died of cancer as an eight-year-old – I have a small window into the excruciating agony that families experience when a precious loved one is snatched away.

The reality of violence against Indigenous women in Canada is a travesty. Nearly 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing since 1952.[i]  This represents a rate nearly four times greater than the representation of Indigenous women in the Canadian population. One study indicates that the national homicide rate for Indigenous women is seven times higher than for non-Indigenous.  Not only do Indigenous women experience a disproportionate amount of violence, the violence is also much more extreme.

Like many others, I want to stand with those who suffer from the violence and call for it to end. We must all work together to address the poverty, racism, marginalization and violence that makes so many Indigenous women statistics. Showing up with the Sisters in Spirit is one way to do that.

IMG_20150510_125510Resistance – I wanted to participate in this Mother’s Day community action because, to me, it is a powerful way of resisting all that is crass and commercial about Mother’s Day. One of the realities of our advanced capitalist system is that it commodifies everything it can – joy and happiness, peace and security, water and clean air.[ii] We see the most egregious examples of this at Christmas time, but it increasingly happens on Mother’s Day too.

At Mother’s Day we are programmed to again head to the mall to buy stuff – jewelry, clothing, electronics, appliances, spa visits, vacations and more – to show our mothers we love them. According to one source, Canadians were projected to spend $107 each on Mother’s Day, with an overall Canadian total close to $500 million. Many of us have bought into the lie that love is about buying and giving stuff, rather than expressing gratitude, compassion and caring.

Capitalism also teaches us that we are individuals – and only individuals. Our purpose in life is to seek our own personal gratification. Sure, if I buy a TV I will help to employ the people who built or sold the TV, but there is little in the capitalist agenda that promotes community. There is little inherent in capitalism that shapes us to work for the common good – to build just and caring communities.[iii]

The women who organize the Sisters in Spirit walk know that life is precisely about caring, compassion and community. Their actions are a wonderful act of resistance to the Mother’s Day of capitalist enterprise.

IMG_20150510_134325Recovery – Ever since I learned of the roots of Mother’s Day, I have longed for a recovery of its spirit and vision. According to at least one (if debated) tradition, the day has its origins in the work and proclamation of Julie Ward Howe, an American suffragist, writer and lecturer who lived from 1819 to 1910.

Moved by what she witnessed of both the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian wars, Howe issued her Appeal to womanhood throughout the world (later known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation) in 1870. The proclamation was a clarion call to women to condemn war, and to stop preparing their sons to kill the sons of other mothers.  She understood that women – mothers, in particular – possess a special responsibility to build a world of peace.

The women of Sisters in Spirit hold a vision for Mother’s Day very much like Julia Ward Howe. They call people to mourn the murdered and missing, to acknowledge that all human lives are precious and deserve protection, and to work together to end violence against Indigenous women – indeed, against all life. Sisters in Spirit embrace a vision of justice, peace and healing. They embody the true spirit of Mother’s Day.

[i] This statistic, from the RCMP’s National Operational Review on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, has been challenged by various people, including Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, who indicates that the number is likely much higher.

[ii] See Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 105-109.

[iii] See Bell, 94-97.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

We’ve banned cluster bombs now let’s stop funding them!

This week’s guest writer is Erin Hunt, Programme Coordinator at Mines Action Canada (MCC is a member) and a Senior Researcher on Victim Assistance for the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Originally from Victoria, BC, she holds an M.A. in Human Security from Royal Roads University and has been involved in campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions since 2003. 

Canada has finally ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions and totally banned these inhumane weapons. After signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions in December 2008, Canada ratified the Convention in March of this year. It will be fully bound by the provisions of the Convention on September 1, 2015.

At Mines Action Canada, we are still concerned about the national legislation used to implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The two and a half year long process to pass this legislation is indicative of the importance of the Convention and the widespread concern about loopholes in the legislation known as Bill C-6.

Clustermunitions_webrotatingphoto13_1We had the pleasure of working closely with MCC staff and other campaigners to push Canada to fix the loopholes. And we were pleased to see the government make a small amendment to the legislation before passing the bill. That small amendment did not fix all of the problems but it was a victory nonetheless, demonstrating that ordinary people can influence policy and strengthen Canada’s position against an inhumane weapon.

Now that Canada has ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions some people may think our work is done. But a good deal more work remains. One of the biggest issues that Canadians can assist with is investment in cluster munition producers.

The 2014 report “Worldwide Investments in Cluster Munitions; a shared responsibility”, authored by Dutch peace organization PAX, shows that 151 financial institutions around the world invested US $27 billion in the seven cluster munitions producers identified in the research. Two of these financial institutions are from Canada.

06B18LancerCBU2The government frequently said that Canada’s national legislation to implement the ban on cluster munitions outlawed investment, but the language is not clear. Without strong language in the legislation, it is up to us as clients to ensure that Canadian financial institutions do not invest our money in cluster munition producers. Now is the time to contact your financial institution and ask them to outline their policy regarding cluster munitions.

Financial institutions listen to their clients. This spring, NEI Investments and Desjardins announced they have banned investments in cluster munitions producers. Both financial institutions already had cluster munitions policies in place for specific funds and have now extended that exclusion to all products, according to the financial companies.  We hope that with your help we will see more Canadian financial institutions following this example over the next few months.

This September the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions will take place in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Review Conference will mark the 5th anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions becoming international law. States parties to the Convention will gather in Dubrovnik to assess progress over the past five years and to plan for the future of the convention. Civil society will be there pushing governments to live up to their obligations under the treaty to clear land, destroy stockpiles, assist victims and universalize the ban.

That meeting will highlight some of the many successes of the Convention. We hope that one of those successes will be the end of Canadian investment in cluster munition producers. By drying up the financial support for the production of cluster munitions, we can help create a world free of these horrific and banned weapons.