From Canada to Reunion Island: Finding common ground through faith and compassion

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Cora is a graduate of the University of Guelph in political studies. 

Over the past year I spent seven months living and working on a small island in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, La Réunion or Reunion Island. Now I’m sure you’re either wondering why you’ve never heard of this place before, or you’re having flashbacks to the major news story of Malaysian Flight 370, found on Reunion Island this past June. Even with this momentary claim to fame, Reunion Island really should be timelessly well known: because it’s amazing.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Takamaka Mountains. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Yes, it’s amazing because it’s a tropical island with beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and tasty food fusions. But in my opinion, what makes it most amazing is the unique blend of people it holds. With a population of 840,000 there is a great deal of diversity within an island roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island. Ethnically, Reunion is a mix of people from African, Indian, European and Chinese origin who identify with a variety of different religions including Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam.

In such a small and isolated place like Reunion, I was not surprised by the great importance people placed in religion. I was, however, amazed by the sense of shared identity among people in Reunion Island no matter which religion they identified with. Some people practiced multiple religions, for example by attending services at both a church and a mosque. At the high school I worked at, one of my students told me that she had started to practice Hinduism as a personal choice, even though the rest of her family was Muslim. Most people were very open to talking about their religion and were interested to know about my beliefs.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

Kavadi. Photo by Cora Siebert.

On Reunion Island people were constantly celebrating some religious holiday, whether it be Easter or the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. While I was there I attended Kavadi, a Hindu celebration of sacrifice, which involved a huge procession of different ceremonial rituals of offering. With a multitude of different celebrations and customs practiced, there was a sense that everyone did these things from a common starting point–faith. Religion wasn’t what divided people into separate communities, faith was what drew people of various religions together. I was told the reason behind its name, “La Réunion”, was to celebrate the coming together of many different peoples.

I thought about this shared bond of faith when I came across an article in the Globe and Mail in early September. The article identifies communities of different faiths from across Canada, creating partnerships in order to sponsor Syrian refugees. Mennonite Central Committee has partnered with the Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton, so far reconnecting 32 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt to relatives in the city. This number will surpass 150 by the end of the year. Likewise, a United Church in Perth Road Village, Ontario was looking to sponsor a refugee family, but had a hard time fundraising with a congregation of only 50 people. After partnering with 21 churches, as well as the Islamic Society of Kingston, they were able to bring a refugee family to Canada — relatives of someone from the Islamic Society.

To me, the Globe and Mail article demonstrates the positive impact of people seeking to focus on common goals they share with others, instead of letting differences leave them to work in isolation. As Canadians, we tend to pride ourselves in being a multicultural society, which we are. Yet I think it’s easy to find ourselves living our day to day lives in more of a divided fashion than we give ourselves credit for. Canada’s metaphor of a cultural mosaic may lead us into living within the social and religious lines that have already been drawn for us. We’ve become accustomed to attending certain social gatherings or being members of associations in which we have commonalties with others. And we may not recognize the commonalities we have with those outside our regular routines.


A cross atop of Le Grand Bénare. Photo by Cora Siebert

These joint efforts to assist refugees demonstrate that compassion for others is another virtue all religions share. The notion that we should treat others as we would like to be treated is something agreed upon by peoples of numerous religious and ethnic backgrounds. And as we find ourselves living within a world which can appear to be plagued with violence and hatred between religions, this shared ideal of showing compassion to others should not be forgotten. If you haven’t heard of Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, launched in 2008, I highly recommend checking out her website or TED talk. Armstrong is a British author, known for her writing on the commonalities among religions. In her writing she calls for people to recognize compassion as a dynamic force in an ever so polarized world.

I think the Globe and Mail article portrays real-life examples of Armstrong’s idea of positive action brought about through the shared ideal of compassion. The joint projects to help refugees shine an encouraging light on ways in which we as Canadians have and should continue to reach out to those of other religions. Faith was what caused communities I found in Reunion Island to celebrate and worship together. Likewise, a common desire to help those in need is helping to build bridges between religious groups in Canada. Faith and compassion are principles shared by billions of people around the globe. I think that’s something to recognize, celebrate, and build on.

Donuts and mining: Canadian elections, trade and foreign policy

This week’s guest writer is Anna Vogt, MCC advocacy and policy analyst for the Latin America Caribbean region. She lives in Bogota, Colombia and is from Canada’s Yukon territory. This piece originally appeared on MCC’s Latin America Advocacy Blog.

I was in a grocery store in a small Colombian city the other day, hoping against hoping to find the elusive holy grail of imports: cheddar cheese. While I did not find any cheese, what I did come across was even more unlikely. There, in the middle of the bakery section, were stacks of boxed donuts, each one adorned with a maple leaf sticker proudly proclaiming the contents a Product of Canada.

Just like those donuts, we may not often expect to find Canada in Latin America, yet the longer I live in Latin America, the more I learn of Canadian presence in the region.

The Marlin Mine,  San Marcos, Guatemala.  Photo by Anna Vogt

The Marlin Mine, San Marcos, Guatemala. Photo by Anna Vogt

We are currently in the midst of an election campaign in Canada, but within all the rhetoric, there is not a lot of honest analysis about our policies outside of Canadian borders, especially in the Americas. Part of what it means to be part of an active citizenship, however, is being aware not only how Canada’s policies impact Canadians, but how our policies also impact those living in other parts of the world, such as Latin America.  What Canada does as a country in the rest of the world shapes who we are as Canadians? Elections are a strategic time to think critically about connections and possibilities.

The current government has three goals for its engagement in the American Hemisphere, first outlined in 2007 under the title The Americas: Our Neighbours, Our Priority:

  • Increasing Canadian and hemispheric economic opportunity;
  • Addressing insecurity and advancing freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; and
  • Fostering lasting relationships.

In practice, these goals have been highly focused on trade and economic policy in the region, implemented through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Currently, Canada has Free Trade Agreements with seven countries in Latin America (Honduras, Colombia, Panamá, Perú, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico) and is in negotiations for five more (Caribbean community, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic).

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Trade can have a positive impact on a society, but if precautions are not taken, engaging in trade with few regulations in countries of conflict or with high levels of human rights violations can increase harm and cause negative social impacts. In the majority of Canadian FTA negotiations, local civil society has spoken out against the agreement because of fear of worsening conditions. Colombia, for example, is the most dangerous country in the world to be a union leader. Civil society worries that the current FTA, which does not adequately monitor its impact on human rights, provides implicit approval for impunity. Also in Colombia, the FTA has opened the doors for assault weapons export–weapons currently banned in Canada–to Colombia, a country that already has over six million internally displaced people because of violence.

Many of our FTAs facilitate Canadian company access to extractive sectors in Latin American countries. These corporations are viewed as the most important actors in generating economic growth, yet there is a concerning lack of accountability, amid accusations of human rights violations and irreparable environmental destruction. Currently, Canadian companies are only responsible for upholding voluntary corporate social responsibility standards. As a recent Globe and Mail article states “Canada is host to 75 per cent of the world’s largest exploration and mining companies, as well as more than 100 medium– to large-sized oil and gas companies, many of which operate in developing countries. Major and minor players in Canada’s extractive industry have been the subject of serious allegations of complicity in grave human rights abuses.”

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

The Marlin Mine in Guatemala, owned by the Canadian company GoldCorp, is one of the most emblematic for concerns raised about human rights violations, environmental degradation and lack of prior consultation, but it is not unique. In Honduras, for example, Canadian mining has displaced Indigenous groups and contributed to violence, after an FTA was signed after a military-backed coup in 2009.

In fact, laws and regulations currently in place favour the activities of Canadian companies abroad above all other considerations.  A report entitled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility, outlines how Canadian companies are taking advantage of, and actively encouraging, weak legal frameworks around extraction in multiple Latin American countries.

It is important to keep in mind that previous governments, from other political parties, have also encouraged similar policies in the past, especially where extractive industries and free trade are concerned. We must hold all parties and candidates to account on these issues.

Let’s make sure, therefore, to ask questions to all parties about their foreign policy platforms when in office, including questions about economic policies. Is trade conditional on human rights standards being met by local governments, or does Canada engage in trade under any condition? How will different parties regulate Canadian companies working abroad accountable to respect human rights and uphold environmental protections?

As a Canadian living in Latin America, I would like Canada to be more known in the region for its donuts than for harmful foreign policy. Sadly, this has not been the case so far, but elections are a great opportunity to raise critical questions and demand change.

To vote or not to vote?

As the federal election campaign grinds on, I am feeling increasingly disillusioned.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people, including many Mennonites, walk for reconciliation in the closing days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

As an Anabaptist-Mennonite and an MCC worker, I am discouraged that some of the issues that should be front and centre in this campaign are hardly being mentioned. I think of the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other issues related to the relationship of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.  I think of the needs of people who are truly poor and unable to provide adequately for their families. I think of the changing climate and the many issues related to the devastation of our natural environment.

I am also disgusted by the lies, the attack ads, the bad behaviour and the fear-mongering. Not to mention the ways that the entire parliamentary process itself has been eroded over the past years.

Why bother voting and participating in a system which falls so far short of what it should be?  What is a modern-day Anabaptist to do?

A colleague of mine has said, “Just complaining is irresponsible.”  He says to people like me, “If you think the electoral or political system needs improving, get involved.”  He has done exactly that by serving as a campaign manager for a candidate he supports.  My own father had a similar response back in the early 1980s – he ran for office in two federal elections.  Many others have made similar choices.

What a long way we’ve come since the 16th century!

Anneken Janz, a Dutch Anabaptist, was drowned on charges of sectarianism in 1539. Engraving from Martyrs Mirror; scan from Mennonite Library and Archives.

Anneken Janz, a Dutch Anabaptist, was drowned on charges of sectarianism in 1539. Engraving from Martyrs Mirror; scan from Mennonite Library and Archives.

For my Anabaptist forebears, voting, campaigning or even running for office would have been unthinkable. They knew where they stood when it came to issues of the state – far away! They saw “two kingdoms” – the church and the “world” (including the state). With some exceptions, they believed that the state, while having a God-given purpose to maintain order in society, was out of bounds for followers of Jesus. As people committed to nonresistance, they could not conceive of participating in state institutions and “bearing the sword” on its behalf. In the words of martyred Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler, they saw the state as “outside the perfection of Christ.”

To be sure, the concepts of democracy and universal suffrage were still centuries in the future from those early Anabaptists. So was the idea of the state as a vehicle for the common good.  So we can forgive those Anabaptists for their dualistic and separatist beliefs and attitudes about engaging with the state and the instruments of society. Many states were, after all, killing them!

The separatist stance of the early Anabaptists is no longer possible or even appropriate in our 21st century Canadian context – except perhaps for people like the Old Order Mennonites, who do not vote, but who also do not participate in numerous social programs, such as CPP, medicare and so on. There is integrity to their separateness.

But most of us in the Anabaptist tradition in Canada today are so enmeshed with the systems of the state and of government–indeed, we benefit enormously from those systems!–we left our traditional “two kingdom” theology behind long ago.

So where does that leave us, especially at election time?  If we don’t remove ourselves completely from the entire political process, do we dive in with wholehearted abandon? My response is no.

For me as an Anabaptist-Mennonite, it is important to retain a healthy suspicion of state institutions, including their political and electioneering processes. It is important to remember that no party has a monopoly on truth and no government will usher in the reign of God, even though I personally believe that some candidates come closer to articulating policies that reflect kingdom values. Indeed, where governments and political systems perpetrate systemic evil and egregious injustice, they must be resisted.

At the same time, as an Anabaptist-Mennonite, I believe that during election time, I have a responsibility to bring my faith convictions to the public sphere. I am responsible to use my power and privilege – and my vote! – in service to others. And I am called to take into the polling booth, my commitments about care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable; reconciliation with Indigenous people; the pursuit of justice and peace; care for God’s creation; integrity, honesty and respectfulness in public life.

In his recent address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis stated:  “Politics . . . is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interest in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

With all due respect to Michael Sattler, the pope’s words help to lift my disillusionment.

So, yes, I will vote.  I hope you will too.

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