Hopes and concerns: Canada’s involvement in Haiti

By Rebekah Sears, MCC Ottawa Office policy analyst.

I love watching our Canadian political processes unfold: elections, tracking the promises, critiquing the results, the whole game of politics. In a time of transition – a change in Prime Minister and also a change in the governing party – there are endless things to watch and monitor: who is in charge of what file, what are the governing party’s plans and promises, when can we expect results?

For us at MCC’s Ottawa Office, some of the files in which we are especially interested include those relating to Canada’s role in the world.  All the work related to foreign affairs, international development and trade is now grouped in the newly-christened Global Affairs Canada (GAC), formally the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

The new Liberal government has promised to “refocus our development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable” (Liberal Party Platform). The platform goes on to accuse the outgoing government of focusing too much on economics and not enough on development. “The [previous] government has shifted its aid priorities to reflect political and commercial interests to the detriment of the needs of the poorest and most fragile countries.”

Haitian cashews

In Mombin Crochu, Haiti, cashew nuts are cooked to be processed into a product that can be transported and sold in larger markets. (MCC photo/José Magloire-van der Vossen)

But the question remains: what will a shift like this really look like on the ground in countries and regions that have been identified as the “most vulnerable” – countries like Haiti?

Haiti has long been a priority for Canada. Successive governments have provided support for rapid onset crisis situations but also for long-term development. Haiti is the least developed country in the Americas, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, and on the global stage ranks 167 out of 187 countries. Haiti continues to be one of the biggest recipients of Canadian humanitarian and development assistance, and Canada is one of its biggest donors.

In the mid-2000s, Canada focused its development assistance on a list of 25 priority countries – selected because of poverty and the possibilities for effective development. Haiti was a prominent member of this list. Strong support for Haiti continued under the Conservative government, even as much of the focus, particularly in the Latin America Caribbean region, shifted to countries that could offer Canada significant opportunities for  free trade and other economic benefits, as opposed to focusing primarily on development.

RS47450_Haiti House of Hope 2015 spring 3-scr

Students practice embroidery in the courtyard of House of Hope, a remedial education program run by MCC partner Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Justice (FOPJ) in Carrefour Feuilles, Haiti. MCC photo by Lowell Brown.

Some development specialists have referred to Haiti as a bit of an anomaly in terms of Canada’s involvement in the region over the last decade (as it has no free trade agreement with Canada). Nevertheless, given Haiti’s ongoing need, they regard this involvement positively.

Earlier in 2015 the Canadian government committed to at least five more years of in-depth engagement in Haiti. Given the ongoing poverty, under-development and corruption, and the new Liberal government’s development priorities, Haiti will no doubt remain a priority.

However, aside from sweeping general commitments to re-focus Canada’s development work on poverty, there are few specifics to the new government’s plan. What form will this development take? Who will be involved? And who will benefit — specifically in Haiti?

It should be noted that Canada’s involvement in Haiti from the early days to the present has not always been welcome. Accusations are still floating around about Canada’s alleged interference within the Haitian state for our own self-interest (especially in terms of rising wages in the textile industries which would cut into Canadian profits), its involvement in the 2004 coup, as well as its participation in the highly criticized UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH.

In the current context, another significant concern is the role of the mining industry in Haitian development. Both before and after the devastating earthquake of 2010, mining companies, including at least two major Canadian companies (Eurasian Minerals and Newmont Mining), have been seeking contracts for exploration and operations in Haiti.

Haiti visit

Ted and Katharine Oswald, MCC workers in Haiti, visited the Ottawa Office in July 2015.  They are shown here with Bernard Sejour (R), Ottawa Catalyst for Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. MCC photo.

Proponents of mining look to the possibilities for development and job creation. However, opponents, including many civil society organizations, fear the consequences on Haiti in general and the areas around the mines in particular. Their concerns include: an already corrupt state; degradation of water, land and other resources; increased violence and persecution of dissidents and human rights defenders; growing inequality and more.

Mining operations in Haiti have been suspended since early 2013 as a new mining law is being drafted. However, as an election process in Haiti slowly unfolds, the Haitian parliament has been suspended for months, causing opponents of mining to worry that a new mining law could be brought in without public debate.

At the same time, the future for Canadian mining operations remains unclear with our new government. Some people speculate the new government will come down harder on Canadian mining companies, enforcing more regulations to ensure as little damage as possible to the local contexts in which they operate. However, trade and economic interests abroad continue to be a major priority for the new government – and mineral imports and trade from Canadian mining operations fall under this overall trade spectrum. Although Canada and Haiti do not share a free trade agreement, general trade priorities are to increase economic opportunities for Canadians. Obviously trade and a focus on economics are important in our globalized world, but context matters in terms of the potential impacts, both positive and negative. As Prime Minister Trudeau noted during the Canadian election campaign,

The Liberal Party of Canada strongly supports free trade, as this is how we open markets to Canadian goods and services, grow Canadian businesses, create good-paying jobs, and provide choice and lower prices to Canadian consumers.

For now, we at MCC’s Ottawa Office — together with our partners in Haiti — are closely watching and waiting to see what Canadian development assistance and economic priorities and actions will look like for countries like Haiti, and beyond.

Harm, healing, hope: reflections on Restorative Justice Week

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Henderson, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Ontario. 

This week  is Restorative Justice Week in Canada. Across the country, people are celebrating restorative justice (RJ) through a variety of activities and events. From Church Council on Justice and Corrections’ Imagine Justice Art Gallery, to a national symposium in Quebec City, to seminars within some of our federal prisons — organizations and communities are holding events and hosting conversations with the intent of engaging the larger community in the concept of restorative justice and the use of restorative practices.

Restorative justice (RJ) is a way of looking at crime that moves us from viewing it solely as the breaking of laws to regarding it as the breaking of relationships. It moves us beyond arrest, plea and sentencing to the needs of all those who have been impacted, including the recipient of harm (victim), the author of harm (offender) and the larger community.

imagine-justice-banner-RESTORATIVE-JUSTICE-WEEKFor the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of working with an amazing group of colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCCO) and with others across the country who are committed to walking alongside women and men returning to the community after incarceration. Through Circles of Support and Accountability, community-based work (ARISE here at MCCO), or prison visitation initiatives, staff and volunteers have committed themselves to walking with those have created harm, listening to their stories, offering support, requiring accountability, encouraging and advocating for truth to be told, while never losing sight of the needs of those who have experienced pain and loss due to victimization.

In other areas of our RJ work, we have the privilege of sitting with seniors who have experienced elder abuse, listening to their stories and being a presence in the midst of pain. We meet weekly with women and sometimes men who are in abusive relationships marked by trauma, again listening, supporting and advocating for them as they begin their journeys toward hope and healing. Yet another aspect of RJ work involves supporting congregations that are struggling with boundary crossing and sexual violence, longing to discover where God is in the midst of the pain and brokenness.

In the midst of working with broken inter-personal relationships marked by pain and desperation, grace and hope, RJ workers are also caught up each day with the pain and brokenness of the wider world.  The news of destruction, violence and fear this past week from Paris, Beirut and Baghdad seems a difficult if not impossible backdrop to Restorative Justice Week.

RJ candle

At the conclusion of a learning tour on prisons, participants shared ideas and commitments to action on small pieces of paper. MCC Photo/Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz.

As a person of faith, a follower of Jesus and a citizen committed to the concept of restorative justice, it has been pivotal for me to return to the foundations from which I work. This is where I find strength and am enabled to move beyond my fear or anger into a place of engagement and resilience. All of us are created in the image of a loving God who invites us into relationship with himself — a relationship that offers grace and mercy, forgiveness and restoration — no matter who we are, what we have done, or what has been done to us. This is always my starting point and the foundation for moving to the next level: namely, that out of our relationship with a loving God we are called into relationships with each other — relationships that are to be defined by grace, mercy, inclusion and an invitation for change. My faith grounds me in restorative justice work which is all about relationships which have been broken and relationships where there is the opportunity for hope and a movement toward change and healing.

These are the foundations that keep me going during the difficult days, the days when change is hard to see and where hope seems illusive, days when the events locally and on the world scene feel overwhelming.

Today and for the rest of this Restorative Justice Week, the lyrics from an old hymn will be the ones playing over in my head and in my car: “This is my Father’s world, and though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

Remembering: Lest we forget

This week’s blog entry is written by Tim Schmucker, Toronto regional representative for MCC Ontario and a contributor to this year’s Peace Sunday Packet, the theme of which is “Crossing to the other side: Living as people of peace in a time of fear and terror.” 

Remembrance Day is, at its core, about remembering the sacrifice of our soldiers and the horrors of war. Without strong and clear remembering, we will forget.

Remembering. Lest we forget.

Today, we live in a context of growing fear. Fear about terrorism. Fear about terrorists hiding among refugees. Fear of the other, the ominous stranger. And Canada is once again at war, to defend us from our enemies.[1] Military power, many say, will keep us safe and protect our freedoms.

On this Remembrance Day, followers of Jesus must remember who they are.

Lest we forget.

Jesus and his disciples also faced fear and enemies. In Mark 4-5, Jesus is in Galilee teaching beside the sea. At the end of the day, he and the disciples embark for the other side. A great gale arises, the disciples fear perishing, but Jesus calms the storm. They then continue crossing to the other side . . . to face their enemies.

After the storm. Photo credit Deposit photos.

After the storm. Photo credit Depositphotos.com.

Crossing the Sea of Galilee meant going to the country of the Gerasenes, to the Decapolis, into the heart of the Roman occupation. Here, thousands of Roman military veterans were stationed and settled; they represented the enemy and the oppressor. Yet Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side.” The disciples were terrified.

Perhaps the great storm that rose up was a storm of fear within them, as they journeyed to enemy territory with Jesus’ teachings reverberating in their ears: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Love your enemies.” We also would feel great fear, taking the initiative to go and meet our enemies and oppressors.

So the disciples, filled with a storm of fear, woke Jesus in panic. “Do you not care if we perish?” Their trust in Jesus was being tested. In times of great storms, Jesus asked the disciples, and he asks us today, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Have you forgotten?

Remembering. Lest we forget.

Jesus calms the storm, but insists that they – and we – continue crossing to the other side. Canada is at war against extremist Islamists in the Middle East, our enemies. Many voices have sounded the alarm of Islamic extremism here at home, suggesting we ought to be very fearful. In spite of the horrific refugee crisis in Syrian and Iraq, some people oppose expediting refugee processing because there might be terrorists among them. Others repeat rumours about Muslim refugees throwing Christians off boats in the Mediterranean.[2]

Ancient Rome's road system facilitated the military control of a vast territory. Photo credit History.com.

Ancient Rome’s road system facilitated the military control of a vast territory. Photo credit History.com.

In the midst of this fear, Jesus asks us to trust him, to remember his Way. He reminds us, as he reminded his disciples,  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Love your enemies.”

Jesus and the disciples arrive at the other side, an area of cities colonised with settlements of Roman soldiers and veterans – the enemy oppressors. They are met by a wild man with an “unclean spirit” named “Legion.” Jesus heals the demoniac, and the unclean spirits enter “a great herd of swine” who then rush down the steep hill into the sea and drown.

Ultimately, this is a story of facing fears and enemies and how Jesus transforms them both.[3]

The demoniac is a symbol of the Roman Empire’s oppression, and of its militarism and war. The unclean spirit possessing the man says, “Legion is my name.” A legion was a division of 2000 Roman soldiers, and these legions were stationed in the Decapolis to control that part of the Roman Empire. “A great herd of swine” is not a reference to a literal group of pigs, but rather a large group of military recruits. “Pig” was also the mascot of some Roman legions and, additionally, a derisive name for new military soldiers.

The demons possessing the man also represent Roman militarism, oppression and war. Jesus expels these unclean spirits into the pigs who run into the sea and drown. Note the clear parallel to Exodus liberation. The enemy drowns in the sea, and the oppressed Jewish people are liberated! However, Jesus doesn’t end the story that way.

The “swineherds” then run off and tell what happened “in the city and in the country,” i.e., among the settlements and barracks of the Roman military. People come running to see for themselves, and, finding the demoniac in his right mind, become afraid. So they beg Jesus to leave the military settlements and go back to Galilee. Jesus and the disciples comply. However, the healed man asks to go with them. But Jesus says no, and sends him back to his community, with a mission: stay among your people – including the Roman military – and share with all how the power of violence and military might has fallen and how love, mercy and peace have ascended!

peace buttonsAs followers of Jesus, we are called to live faithfully in a world permeated by the fear caused by extremist violence. Our faith encourages us to face our fears, reaching out in friendship and love to the stranger, to our Muslim neighbours and newcomers. As followers of Jesus, we renounce all violence and place our trust and hope, not in military might, but rather in the One who calms the storm and calls us to join him in crossing to the other side.

Let us remember. Lest we forget.


[1] On October 21, 2015 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Canada would withdraw from Operation Impact, the bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.  But as of November 7, those attacks are still occurring. See http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/operations-abroad-current/op-impact-airstrikes.page

[2] See http://ryandueck.com/2015/09/16/im-sorry-christian-but-you-dont-get-to-make-that-move/. The incident Dueck says some North American Christians are referring to as the norm can be found here: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/16/europe/italy-migrants-christians-thrown-overboard/

[3] The following interpretation is derived primarily, but not completely, from the work of John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York City: HarperCollins, 1995) and Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

Resilience in Afghanistan

This week’s guest writer is Alain Epp Weaver, co-director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

As I reflect back on my trip this past May to Afghanistan to meet with MCC’s Afghan partner organizations and to visit MCC-supported projects, the most enduring image for me is of bread, or, in Dari, naan. Drive through the streets of Kabul, and every few blocks one sees bakeries proudly displaying their wares. Naan is a staple of the Afghan diet, a flat bread that my traveling companions and I looked forward to each morning at our guest house, brought to us piping hot from a nearby bakery.

Naan bread for breakfast. MCC photo

Naan bread for breakfast. MCC photo.

While its smell and taste were heavenly, what was most striking to me about the naan was its visual presentation. Different bakers take pride in expressing themselves artistically through the shaping and decoration of the loaves: some craft squares, others circles, and still others triangles and parallelograms, with each baker then decorating these loaves with varying geometric designs.

These ornamented loaves of naan express for me the amazing beauty and resilience of the Afghan people. I approached my visit to Afghanistan with my imagination shaped by words such as violence, insecurity, and occupation. And such words do capture some of the realities with which Afghans live day in and day out. The intensification of fighting around Kunduz and the U.S. bombing of the Médicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) hospital in that city are recent reminders of the stark fact that Afghanistan is a country marred by years, even decades, of war and foreign occupation. And personal insecurity has become a routine fact of life for many Afghans.Yet my lasting memories of this visit to Afghanistan are not of stories of insecurity, death, and violence, but rather of the beautiful strength and resilience displayed by the people we met.

Students at MCC-supported center for before- and after-school education. Names withheld for security reasons. MCC photo.

Students at MCC-supported center for before- and after-school education. Names withheld for security reasons. MCC photo.

Over the course of my visit I met Afghans working hard to secure a better future for all of the country’s diverse peoples. MCC accompanies organizations that work to provide informal before- and after-school education for children in low-income neighborhoods, increase women’s literacy and numeracy skills, empower young women to be leaders, reduce violence against women, and increase food security. These organizations are staffed by unbelievably committed women and men who view Afghanistan not in terms of its deficits or the violence that scars it, but in terms of its future and its potential. To be sure, Afghanistan faces significant challenges, quite apart from ongoing violent conflict. An underdeveloped educational infrastructure, for example, means that many government schools operate up to four shifts a day, with students coming for only two or two-and-a-half hours of instruction daily. Even then, classroom space is often inadequate: in one girls’ school our group visited, some classes were meeting in the hallway. Yet these same young women spoke optimistically and passionately about the importance of schooling and their love of learning, exhibiting the spirit of strength and resilience I encountered throughout my brief time in Afghanistan.

Street art in Kabul.

Street art in Kabul.

Many Afghans with whom we met spoke passionately about their desire for peace, for an end to the violence that has consumed the country for years. On one of our last days in Kabul, I saw some Banksy-style street art on the outer walls outside of an office compound. In it, a young Afghan takes aim at a drone: the drone, we see, has been fractured in two, not by a stone or a rocket, but rather by a heart.

The unknown artist would not, I imagine, want to claim that love and nonviolence present some direct, simple solution to the complex, tangled histories of foreign occupations, resistance, and internal conflicts that have shaped Afghanistan for decades. Instead, this piece of street art struck me as an impassioned plea from the heart, a cry that violence—be it carried out by U.S.-led coalition forces, by the Afghan military, by the Taliban, or by others—needs to end, a plea for a future marked by love instead of violence. As disheartening as the political and security realities in Afghanistan might be, the persistent resilience of MCC’s partners in Afghanistan left me hopeful that such a future is possible.