The Paris agreement. And now what?

This week’s guest writer is Stephanie McDonald, senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.  

As I entered the site of the Paris Climate Conference, known as COP21, late last November, I was surrounded by representatives of 196 nations, including negotiators, civil society leaders, people of faith, business executives, politicians and Indigenous people.

They had all gathered in the French capital for the talks. Some were there as official country delegates, others to show, en masse, their support for a deal that would slow global warming and ensure all on the planet had a chance to survive and thrive.

José Miranda 1

José Miranda. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

But it was the people who weren’t in attendance who were on my mind the most.

The noticeable voice missing in Paris was that of small-scale farmers from the developing world — people who are on the front lines of changing weather patterns, and whose lives are being disrupted the most by climate change.

Two months earlier, in September, I had traveled to Nicaragua to meet farmers and learn how they were being impacted by our changing climate. The country was well into the second year of a drought and farmers spoke of at least a decade of unpredictable rainfall and growing seasons.

I met José Miranda, a father of three, in northern Nicaragua. His family has never had excess harvest to sell on the market, but until five years ago they at least produced enough for their household consumption. Since that time, they’ve had to purchase more of their food, and cut out items that are too pricey.

José told me something chilling that I wish all of the negotiators in Paris could have heard: “Until 2007 we had pigs. We had grain before to feed them and now we don’t. My uncle used to have cattle and then the water source dried up. The only thing left is for the people to disappear as well.”

Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot

Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

In the community of Pavón, 150km to the southwest of José, I met Guillarmina Castro.

She too wasn’t in Paris to tell how she lives close to a river that used to flood with the heavy rains, sometimes cutting off Pavón for up to two weeks at a time. The last time the river was high was with Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Now the river is dry.

Guillarmina is working with a project funded by Mennonite Central Committee Canada, through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, that is teaching conservation agriculture (CA). Its three main practices – soil cover, crop rotation and minimal disturbance of the soil – have had success in increasingly arid regions. Guillarmina is having to adapt to what appears to be the new normal in her area.

Thankfully, she has reason to be hopeful. “We get better yields and can produce with less rain,” she said.

Now what?

On December 12, delegates to COP21 reached an agreement and the climate talks concluded. It was the words of one man in the gathered faith community in Paris that helped me put in perspective the question of “now what?”

In 2013, Yeb Saño was a negotiator for the Philippines at the annual climate conference, that year held in Warsaw, Poland. As the talks were underway, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing over 6,000 people.

In his  address to fellow diplomats in 2013, Yeb wept as he spoke of the devastation at home. He said he would fast until the conference ended or until concrete commitments for action on climate change were made. Yeb inspired the global movement Fast for the Climate.

Yeb Sano, Fast for the Climate

Yeb Saño and Fast for the Climate, Paris. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

At an event in Paris in 2015, Yeb said, “We need to stop believing a single conference will define our collective future. It is through every act of caring and love that we build a future free of climate change.”

It was a powerful reminder that each of us has agency, countless times every day, to show love and caring for our neighbour. We can be conscious of our purchases, what we consume and how we get around.

We can also applaud our government when they get it right, such as providing financial support to those most affected by climate change, as the Canadian government did in late November.

And we can tell our representatives that we care about the issue of climate change and what it means for farmers like José and Guillarmina who are dealing with the impacts right now.

A reconciling wind

A fresh and hope-filled wind is blowing across the land.  It is called Reconciliation.  Spearheaded primarily by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), this wind emerges from a wider Indigenous-led movement demanding restored relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. It beckons all Canadians to join a journey that promises to be difficult but also beautiful and life-giving.


Reconciliation Walk, 31 May 2015, Ottawa. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

A sign of this reconciling wind took place in Winnipeg on December 18, 2015 when six universities, three colleges and the Manitoba School Boards Association came together in unprecedented collaboration to sign a historic agreement called the Indigenous Education BlueprintCanadian Mennonite University was one of the signatories.

The ground-breaking document commits the institutions to work respectfully with Indigenous leaders to advance reconciliation through education, research and skill development. It binds them to “concrete practices in order to respect, celebrate, and support Indigenous peoples, knowledge, and success.”

The agreement builds directly on Call to Action #62 of the 94 distinct Calls to Action issued by the TRC when it issued its complete and final report in December.  Action #62 calls for the residential school legacy, Treaties, and past and present Indigenous contributions to this country to be a mandatory part of the curriculum in each province and territory.

In referring to the tragic legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, head commissioner for the TRC, has said, “Education is what got us here and education is what will get us out.”  In his view, and the view of many Indigenous people, lack of awareness about the residential school system – indeed, about Indigenous people and their contribution to Canada – is a key factor in the broken relationship between Indigenous and settler peoples across the country.

dragonfly-icon-reconciliaction-400pxStephen Kakfwi said recently that Call to Action #62 is the single most important of the 94 Calls to Action. “Ignorance and lack of awareness is the basis of racism and indifference and apathy,” he insists.  “Ignorance dehumanizes us as Indigenous people; it dehumanizes all people.” Kakfwi is a residential school survivor who has served as president of the Dene Nation and premier of the Northwest Territories, and is currently president and CEO of Canadians for a New Partnership.  He insists that Action #62 could be a game changer for Canada.  “Canadians will no longer be able to say ‘we didn’t know.’”

Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel, Mohawk activist and artist, says, “We cannot continue to invest in the societal ignorance of such a huge part of our history. . . . Every single minister of education must be implementing the real history of Canada’s colonization.”

KAIROS is actively promoting Action #62 as part of a campaign called Winds of Change and encouraging Canadians to sign a petition that presses each provincial and territorial government to work with Indigneous leaders to implement the mandatory curriculum called for by the TRC.  KAIROS is a coalition of 11 national churches and church organizations actively promoting reconciliation and encouraging Canadians to embrace the winds of change and to take action for reconciliation.  KAIROS has developed a report card, identifying a baseline of where each province and territory currently stands in teaching about residential schools and Indigenous peoples; it will update this report card as changes are implemented.

Please circulate the petition and sign it!  It is small but exceedingly important thing that we all can do to foster reconciliation and to build a better future for all Canadians.

The hope-filled wind of reconciliation is blowing across the land. It beckons those of us who are settlers to learn that which we have not learned about Indigenous people – and also to un-learn the destructive myths, stereotypes and untruths that have held us captive for so long.   As the TRC has stated over and over, reconciliation promises to be a long and challenging journey, but it also envisions a beautiful future of justice, healing and respectful relationships.  How can we not welcome and embrace wind?

Reconciliation march

Reconciliation Walk, May 31, 2015, Ottawa. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator, MCC Ottawa Office

What’s the 411 on the Arms Trade Treaty?

During the marathon (by Canadian standards!) election campaign, the Liberal Party claimed its vision for “a more compassionate Canada”—a “sunnier” Canada that would re-engage multilateral institutions, re-invest in public diplomacy, and reverse the decline in foreign aid.

Three months after their win, the Liberals have moved into Langevin Block. Political staffers are slowly (but surely) taking their positions. And everyone in Ottawa has hit the ground running, trying to give legs to the many promises made on the campaign trail.

The slogan around town is, “Canada’s back.” 


All photos courtesy

As the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion has a role to play in rebooting Canada’s image (with his renamed department). His mandate letter, while containing a dash of politics-as-usual, also signals some decisive foreign policy shifts—even a re-commitment to peace operations, mediation, and conflict prevention.

To what extent any security paradigm-shift will be implemented remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one encouraging step is the promise to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Given the widespread accessibility of cheap weapons has been a key factor in exacerbating conflict and fueling displacement around the world, MCC welcomes this promise. The illicit flow of small arms and light weapons (even a steady trickle across porous borders) can wreak havoc, destabilizing communities, negatively impacting development, supporting the emergence of extremist movements, and even sustaining the power of autocratic regimes. Weapons diversion is, according to the UN Secretary-General, a “colossal problem around the world.”

Massive injections of arms from the outside can have a destabilizing effect across entire regions. After the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that were poured into Libya by the international community—which was arming various actors within the conflict—began feeding terrorist movements in Mali, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. It’s also no secret that so-called Islamic State militants are well-armed because they’ve laid claim to Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons seized from over-run (U.S.-backed) Iraqi military bases.

In other words, the international community—with its $1.76 trillion annual arms trade—has a role to play in ensuring volatile contexts don’t get flooded with weapons that provide corrupt governments or armed groups with the primary means of perpetuating violence and intimidation.

Bullet Proof treatyEnter the Arms Trade Treaty. Coming into force just in time for Christmas of 2014, the ATT is the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional (non-nuclear) arms, ranging from light weapons to fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, and warships, as well as their related ammunition, parts, and components. The treaty imposes strict conditions on arms transfers (export, import, transit, transshipment, and brokering), requiring states to assess the potential for weapons to be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

All said, it’s a crucially important convention. But, of course, it ain’t perfect.

Critics will note (quite rightly) a central weakness of the ATT—that the assessment and authorization of whether an arms transfer risks undermining peace and security is undertaken solely by the exporting state. In other words, the treaty doesn’t really challenge the political interests of arms exporters (not a huge shocker; after all, what did we expect?). And while there are transparency measures, there is no enforcement regime.

Yet the creation of the ATT acknowledges the enormous costs of not regulating the arms trade. Besides, what other instrument puts states on the hot seat, forcing them to justify their arms sales to gross human rights violators?

So, whither Canada?

Well, to date, Canada is the only member of the G7 and the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark treaty.

The rationale of the previous government? That Canada already has a strong export-control system for weapons.

Canada’s track record, however, tells a different story. Recent deals to countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, Libya, and, most notably, Saudi Arabia, raise troubling questions about how the government determines who it sells weapons to.

Federal export controls require that when selling arms to countries with persistent records of serious human rights abuses, Canada must first obtain assurances that there is no reasonable risk the weapons could be used against civilian populations.

Stop the violenceGiven that Saudi Arabia annually tops the charts as being among the worst human rights violators in the world, how could Canada’s (largest-ever) $15 billion contract to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudi National Guard pass muster? Far from being merely “jeeps” (as Trudeau called them on the campaign trail), these vehicles—some of which will be weaponized with turrets and cannons supplied by a European subcontractor—are surely capable of mass destruction.

Still, the foreign affairs minister is standing by this contract for its economic value (though taking some flak for this position). Yet acceding to the ATT is in his mandate. It’s right there in his letter.

Yes, I recognize that foreign policy is, as one columnist recently put it, “more about dark arts than sunny ways.” State interests rule. But I’m still holding out hope. Effective arms control is possible when there is political will (and public support).

Sure, the ATT is flawed, and it isn’t a panacea. Conflicts won’t simply end tomorrow because of it (though they will be harder to carry out and sustain!). Yet it is a tool that outlines how governments can, and should, exercise greater restraint in the weapons trade—a tool that can help shift norms and behaviour over the long-term.

That is a critical achievement indeed.

Jenn Wiebe is MCC Ottawa Office Director

  • Listen to Project Ploughshares Executive Director, Cesar Jaramillo, interviewed on CBC Radio’s Day 6: “Is Canada failing to live up to its human rights commitments with its arms deals?”
  • Read Ernie Regehr’s Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot be Won on the Battlefield (2015): Chapter 7, A Treaty to Control the Arms Trade.
  • Check out a joint letter (by partners such as Project Ploughshares) to Minister Dion, calling for Canada’s rapid accession to the Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Take a look at the Ploughshares Monitor from summer of 2015, featuring an article on the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.


Unanimous consent in welcoming refugees

This reflection was written by Cora Siebert, former advocacy research intern in the Ottawa Office.  Cora completed her assignment in December.

The Syrian refugee crisis has flooded the news for months. And what Canadians should do about it has been debated among politicians through the federal election and within civil society. Yet with new government commitments to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, along with a surge in private sponsorship from civil society – we’re starting to see a united front on the issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and Canada has the capacity to help.

Altona refugees

The Daas family’s arrival in Winnipeg. The family is sponsored by Build a Village in Altona, MB. Photo/Ray Loewen and

During my time as an advocacy research intern in Ottawa, I’ve tracked election promises from political parties on refugee resettlement, done research on the policies guiding Canada’s private sponsorship program, and read about the crisis for months in the newspaper. I’ve been trying to understand the complexities of the crisis from my desk.

Yet the reality of the situation really hit me on December 10th when I walked down Sparks Street and up to  Parliament Hill to listen to Question Period. Amidst the obvious enthusiasm from one side of the room for a new era in government, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Honourable John McCallum stood up to announce a wonderful day for Canada. December 10th was the day the first plane full of 160 new landed immigrants arrived in Toronto.

The next day a unanimous motion was passed in the House of Commons, agreed upon by all parties even before it came to the floor. It was first introduced by the NDP critic for Immigration and refugees Jenny Kwan, and then jointly seconded by the Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau and Conservative Immigration and Refugees Critic Michelle Rempel. The motion read as follows:

That this House, on behalf of all Canadians, warmly welcome our new Syrian and Iraqi neighbours, and indeed all refugees who have escaped conflict around the world and arrived safely in Canada, a country with an unwavering commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law.

McCallum and Philpot

Among the dignitaries to welcome this family of Syrian refugees on December 31 were Honourable John McCallum (Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship), Honourable Jane Philpott (Minister of Health) and Arif Virani (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship). Photo/Jane Philpott Twitter

The unanimous resolution demonstrates that no matter what our political stripes may be and no matter where we’ve stood in the past, we as Canadians have been able to stand together on an extremely pressing issue. And this cross-party support for welcoming Syrians and Iraqis within the political sphere has no doubt been reflected through civil society and displayed through social media. If you search #WelcometoCanada and #WelcomeRefugees on Twitter, you will see wonderful photos and videos of families being reunited, welcome performances by choirs and symphonies, and the help being provided in resettlement from non-profits such as the Red Cross.

Many of the recent arrivals have family members here in Canada, waiting years to be reunited. In September 2015, the government expedited the process in which Syrians and Iraqis could be privately sponsored through removing the requirement to provide proof of refugee status from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to be sponsored. With the momentum from the new government to bring in Syrian refugees as soon as possible, many of the first arrivals were therefore privately sponsored families and individuals, eager to join family in Canada.

Despite refusing welcome to some refugees (such as Jews) in its history, Canada has a strong tradition of effectively resettling refugees in times of crisis. Some examples include: 10,975 Czechoslovakian refugees coming to Canada after Soviet forces put down a pro-democracy movement in 1968; 7,000 Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin in 1972; 1,188 Chilean refugees fleeing from Pinochet’s rule in 1973; and the arrival of over 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees starting in 1979 and into the 1980s, following the fall of Saigon in Vietnam. By the 1970s Canada was widely regarded as a haven for the oppressed. In 1986 the UNHCR awarded the people of Canada its Nansen Refugee Award for their significant and sustained contribution to helping refugees.

Kitchener refugees

The Alasad family was sponsored by 3 Mennonite churches in Kitchener, ON.  Photo/

Refugee resettlement has always been an important issue for MCC as well. The very creation of MCC in 1920 was in response to fellow Mennonites suffering from persecution and famine in the Soviet Union. MCC supported thousands as they sought refuge in North, Central and South America in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. And in the late 1970s, some of those same people who had been helped by MCC in their journey to Canada, reached out to MCC Canada offices, wanting to assist some of the millions of Southeast Asian refugees  fleeing their homes.

In January 1979 MCC Canada worked with the Canadian government to draft the first formal sponsorship agreement that would allow churches and other organizations to privately resettle refugees. This was an important development in Canada’s Private Sponsorship for Refugees Program, the program still guiding private sponsorship today, and the one responsible for bringing that first plane of 160 new permanent residents to Toronto on December 10.

I feel privileged to have witnessed this period in Canadian history while here in Ottawa. While politics may so often seem divisive and unproductive (especially during an election!), it is important to stop and acknowledge the important gains made through political processes. Politicians, non-governmental organizations (including MCC Canada) and Canadian citizens have worked hard to get the resettlement of Syrian refugees on the political agenda. Canadians also continue to commit to sponsoring refugees, not only from Syria but from all over the world.

We as a nation should be extremely proud.