Praying by the prison, Part 2

By Randy Klassen, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Does our place make a difference to our praying? That’s the question that came to me one morning last fall, as I realized my morning prayer walk took me right across the river from Saskatoon’s federal prison, the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC). How do my prayers take my location, my community, into account? Christians are often taught a posture of prayer with eyes closed—but if that also teaches us to shut our minds to the realities of life in our neighbourhood or our nation, our praying will be not only blind, but lame.


I see things differently now. I am reminded that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer—and that for many in the praying community (whether the disadvantaged in my city, or across the globe, or behind prison walls), access to food is a very live issue. And more: for all of us, food issues involve and implicate us in complex global issues of economics and politics. In praying about bread, I am, indeed, reminded that my lifestyle, including my food habits (buying, growing, eating), have an impact on how God responds to this petition from others. Praying about bread is highly relevant, as it is the place where theology intersects with agri-business, commerce—and also justice.

So where do bread and our prisons intersect?

“Give us this day our daily bread.” One of the primary causes of inmate unrest and rioting is food service. Saskatchewan recently experienced this after the provincial prison system changed providers last summer, outsourcing to a large multinational catering company. The economic savings sound impressive: from about five or six dollars a meal (presumably including both food and labour) down to about three and a half dollars. But food quality was predictably down-graded. Regina saw significant protest; inmates in Prince Albert’s women’s prison also registered problems. The premier’s infamous response to the uproar resonated with many people: “If you don’t like the prison food, there’s one way to avoid it, and that’s don’t go to prison.” But such a response sadly lacks an understanding of the many downward currents in our society (notably, the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, insufficient social workers or foster caregivers to work with struggling families, or lack of employment and social programming in small communities) that suck people into criminality.

RJ group

A group of inmates discuss restorative justice at Dochester Penitentiary, News Brunswick. MCC photo/Shane Yuhas)

Premier Wall’s comment begs the question: should food be part of “punishment” in prison? A number of American prisons are known to serve so-called “disciplinary loaf” (also known as “nutraloaf”)—even though the American Correctional Association discourages its use (and Canada gave up the practice only about twenty years ago). Nutraloaf is designed to meet all nutritional needs, but rate exactly zero on any culinary scale—a tasteless lump of indeterminate composition and unpleasant ingestion (read here for one food critic’s take: “a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell”). It is controversial in American prisons (and even contested in court as “cruel and unusual punishment”), but continues to be baked up and served by blind Justice.

Closer to home, a group of people “concerned for the well being and dignity of prisoners in Canada” recently published an open letter to the federal government. A number of food-related issues are listed, including the following concerns:

We protest the high prices of food in prison. We decry the lack of expiration dates on all products in prison. We also protest the lack of training we receive inside prison to prepare healthy meals. Some prisoners in minimum or medium security institutions live in independent living units, where they are expected to prepare their own meals. They receive 35$ per week for food. With the high cost of food, that amount is insufficient.

Apparently for residents of Canadian prisons, the prayer for daily bread is no mere formality.

“Give us this day our daily… bison.” This prayer to the Creator would have epitomized the life of the ancestors of most of Saskatchewan’s prison inmates. Two centuries ago, bison were free and plentiful on the central plains of Turtle Island, and the First Nations of these territories centred their lives on the hunt and the generally plentiful provision of this food source. Then came the railways, the hunters from insatiable North American and European markets, and the unimaginable destruction of the herds (from tens of millions in the pre-contact era, to about one thousand left in 1889, only 85 of which were roaming free on the prairies). Like a series of falling dominoes, the 1870s and 1880s saw the bison wiped out, treaties signed, the Indian Act and Indian Residential Schools established, railways built and settlers arriving in western Canada—all feeding the current situation of too many broken communities, and massive over-representation of Indigenous peoples in our prisons.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” A decade ago, six federal prisons operated their own farms. These became places of meaningful employment for inmates, they provided fresh milk and eggs for the community, and (for those working the dairy) gave opportunity to learn what it means to care for another living being. In 2010, the federal government announced it was closing these prison farms for economic reasons. The story of the protests regarding the closure of the Kingston (Ontario) dairy farm, has been well told in the documentary film “Til the Cows Come Home” (2014). And while it’s premature to say that the cows are finally coming home, on June 2 the federal government announced it was going to review and revisit the prison farm issue. This is exciting news that prison farm supporters have long awaited.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Many prisons have inmates working in their kitchens, learning food prep skills that are both restorative (building self-confidence and a sense of hope) and marketable. A few prisons in Europe have taken this to a higher level yet, opening up restaurants staffed by the incarcerated. The Clink (four sites in the UK) and InGalera (Milan, Italy) have each become gastronomic sensations in their own locales. They provide food service for the public and hope for the incarcerated. These are marvelous ways for God to pour—or should we say, knead—grace and mercy into this most basic of human needs:

“Give us this day our daily bread.”


MCC photo/Dave Klassen

Excitement and apprehension: Canada and the UNDRIP

This week’s writer is Miriam Sainnawap, co-coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in Treaty 9 territory (northwestern Ontario).

In May, I attended one of the most highly attended meetings at United Nations in New York City. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (15th session) is where Indigenous peoples worldwide gather to build solidarity and form alliances with other Indigenous peoples and organizations, and to bring the concerns confronting their communities to the UN.
UNDRIP 2“We are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification,” Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said, on behalf of the Government of Canada. Her announcement indicated that Canada will fully adopt the United Nations of Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Canada’s previous government had endorsed the declaration in 2010 and named it as an aspirational document, but had maintained some significant objections. With Bennett’s announcement, those objections were lifted.

As I stood up for the standing ovation in a conference room, I was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension. I was excited that finally Canada is taking this meaningful and important step forward with Indigenous peoples. I was also apprehensive as to whether Canada will actually do what is needed for full implementation.

While the Declaration addresses the complex issues of Indigenous rights in Canada, it is more helpful to understand the UNDRIP is a substantial document with 46 articles addressed in principles with short details.

The Declaration aims to protect and support the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, language, culture and economic development, among other things.  It was developed over a 25-year by a working group of Indigenous people from around the world.

Jingle dancer

Jingle dancer Sherry Starr memorializes the children who died in Indian Residential Schools at a mass blanket exercise, Winnipeg, June 4, 2016.  Photo credit/Alison Ralph

The adoption of UNDRIP is an important symbolic gesture, requiring a major commitment to policy changes and laws, but adherence to the Declaration will unlikely lead to real change on the ground, unless there is full participation and partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Bennett indicated that the implementation process would follow in accordance with Section 35 of the Constitution, would recognize and affirm the existing Aboriginal and Treaty rights, and would commit the Crown to its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples. In other words, the Declaration will align itself with Canadian law, because the document is not legally binding and not enforceable in its application.

My anticipation remains in how the Declaration will be implemented. It is critically important for the government to engage in careful conversation and consultation with Indigenous peoples.

Let’s ensure the government holds to its public commitment to work with Indigenous peoples. It is a step and only the beginning.

A prayer for refugees for World Refugee Day

The United Nations has designated June 20 as World Refugee Day — a day to commemorate the strength, courage and resilience of millions of refugees.  To help churches and groups mark this important day, MCC has prepared a worship and information packet  called “Hospitality and Hope: Resources for Worship, Learning and Action.” The following prayer, written by Steve Plenert, is excerpted from the packet. 

Lord Jesus Christ,

We remember that in your infancy you were a refugee. The political leaders of your country sought to end your life, and so your parents fled with you to another country in secret. We don’t know how long before you were able to return to your home and your people.

Help us, O Lord, to grow in compassion for those who are displaced from their homes in our day. Help us not to see them only as problems, statistics or threats. Help us to see refugees as fellow humans who have been forced to flee their homes, and as people who have gifts to share with us.

RefugeeO God, we know refugees and displaced persons must make excruciating decisions, and we ask for your mercy upon them. We ask for mercy for parents who take children from their homes. Mercy for children who leave parents too weak to travel. Mercy for those who choose to stay for whatever reasons and who live with severe consequences for those choices. We ask for mercy for those whose housing is inadequate – cold in winter, hot in summer, insufficient for privacy or hygiene or satisfaction. Have mercy on your children who have left their homes, O Lord.

O God, we know – sometimes too well – the causes of displacement and migration. We pray for the situations that have led to the refugee crises in our world. We pray for those who promote extremist ideologies, that they would change their ways and not choose violence. We pray for repressive regimes, that they would seek to engage people in building freedom.

Help us, O Lord, to be compassionate and to know how we can help those who have been displaced. Help us to know when it is time to provide relief, when it is time for resettlement, and when advocacy for peace and change is what is needed most. Give us courage and strength to be people of compassion and justice in the face of complex and overwhelming demands.

We know that you love all people, dear Lord. Help us to be the instruments of your love and peace in the world.  Amen.




“Je suis BENI”

This week’s guest writer is Jean-Calvin Kitata, Coordinator of Peace and Justice Programs for MCC Quebec.  Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he came to Canada in 1996 as a student, but he became a refugee when political events at home made it impossible for him to return. He lives outside Montreal with his family.

Hundreds of thousands of Congolese, both in the country and in the diaspora, held mass demonstrations on May 26, 2016, to demand answers from their government about the resurgence of civilian deaths in the territories of Beni, Butembo and Lubero in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the provincial coordination of the North Kivu Civil Society, more than a thousand people have been killed since October 2014.

These massacres, among the worst in recent Congolese history, have been met with a curious indifference and media silence. That is why I am writing this article.

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Fidèle Kyanza (centre) directs  MCC partner MERU (Ministry of the Church for Refugees and Emergencies) in North Kivu. The program provides education for children who have been displaced by violent conflict.  (MERU NK photo/Prince Mangala)

The protesters, mainly Congolese from civil society groups and opposition political parties, marched throughout the DRC and in a number of cities throughout the world in solidarity with the victims of these barbaric murders and to express their dismay about these recurring massacres that devastate families and displace thousands who find themselves in unbearable misery.

The territory of Beni has been a subject of focus since 2014. This part of the country is home to both extraordinary natural resources and murderous ravages. Armed groups invade villages, and even cities, and kill with machetes, spades, hoes, and axes, leaving the civilian population traumatized.

The murder by machete of dozens of civilians overnight on May 12 became the straw that broke the camel’s back and enraged Congolese around the world. Images of the carnage are heartbreaking, and inspired an outpouring of emotion online and on social media.

The attack was carried out by Ugandan rebel group “Allied Democratic Forces” (ADF). ADF is a militia group formed in 1995 by Jamil Mukulu.

Oddly, these horrific murders are occurring in a zone where the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is working to “protect the civilian population.” Note that the UN mission has been in the DRC for over 15 years and, at 17,000 troops, is the largest UN contingent deployed in the world.

Congo 2

Noela Nabuke, left, and Angelique Mwamini, are both residents of the Mubimbi IDP camp near Minova, DR Congo. They participate in a  program, supported by MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, to help residents of IDP camps grow their own food. (ECC Photo/Patrick Bulonza)


The despairing civilian populations who have been victims of these crimes are fed up with this mission. They do not believe that MONUSCO soldiers are doing enough to end the massacres. Their joint military actions with the Congolese government army to ease the people’s terror of the rebels have failed to bring peace.

Furthermore, a report by the Congo Research Group states that “responsibility does not lie with the ADF alone. In addition to commanders directly tied to the ADF, members of the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the national army; former members of the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie–Kisangani/Mouvement de libération (RDC–K/ML), as well as members of the communal militias have also been involved in attacks on the civilian population.”

Following the May protests, the members of the North Kivu Civil Society sent an open letter to the President of the Republic, Joseph Kabila. The letter stated that, between October 2014 and May 2016:

  • More than 1,470 people have been abducted or are missing
  • More than 1,750 homes have been burned, sometimes with people and goods inside
  • At least 13 health centres have been burned, sometimes with sick patients and healthcare personnel inside
  • More than 27 schools have been destroyed, others abandoned, still others occupied by displaced people, military dependants, or armed groups
  • Several villages have been entirely occupied by armed groups
  • Women have been raped and children have been unable to go to school.

The collective of North Kivu Civil Society organizations is also calling on the international community to “declare the targeted massacres in the territories of BENI and LUBERO genocide and to launch an independent international inquiry to identify and try the perpetrators.” Along similar lines, two Congolese internet users, Wondo and Kyaghanda, have launched an online petition addressed to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.

As a peacemaker, I pray that their actions will convince judiciary authorities to launch an international inquiry to identify not only the perpetrators of the massacres, but also those who ordered them and their accomplices.

So, in the spirit of “Je suis Charlie,” “Je suis Paris,” “Je suis Bruxelles,” … I declare in solidarity and support — “Je suis BENI.”

Je suis BENI 2

Marlin Mine: On land, destruction and hope

This week’s guest writer is Carol McNaughton from Calgary, Alberta.  A graduate in social work from the University of Calgary, she recently participated in a three-week young adult learning experience in Guatemala and Mexico called Uprooted.  Her reflection first appeared on the Uprooted blog.

I still have a vivid memory from 3 years ago during Planting Peace (another MCC Alberta young adult program) when our friend Maggie wept as she asked us whether we knew what Canadian mines were doing to her country of Guatemala. I was shocked as she described how a Canadian mine has caused incredible devastation – both environmental and social – for her community.

Maggie’s face was in my mind all day as we travelled through the Guatemala highlands to San Miguel, where Marlin mine operates, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp. We first met with a number of community organizers in San Miguel at a Catholic Church where they are resisting the mine. They took the time to tell us how the mine has affected their community, a tale of destruction consistent with what Maggie had told us in Canada.

It was an honor to hear the stories of these strong women and men willing to speak out against the mine. They spoke of the visible environmental signs of destruction caused by the mine: their river is now polluted, animals and humans are becoming sick, and they have to buy water from other municipalities because the mine used up their natural spring (it was said that the water the mine uses in 1 hour is equivalent to what 1 family in the community would use for 25 years).  Apparently a couple of boys in the community now have a skin condition and difficulty walking, all because they played in the river by their school, which also happens to be where the toxic chemicals used to separate out the gold get dumped. They also spoke of the social implications for the community: almost all of the people who lived by the mine have been forced to move elsewhere, bars and prostitution have sprung up, and there is great division in the community between those who support the mine and those who speak out against it.

We heard how the company promotes the positive ‘development’ it is bringing to the community, but how many of its promises have not been fulfilled. We heard how the mine employs some community members (for lower wages than originally promised) while deemploying many more people through pollution. We learned how the people agreed to allow the mine into their community under coercion.

The advocates also spoke of the difficulties of speaking out against the mine. They receive threats from mine workers and powerful people striving to silence them. and they struggle with this deep dilemma — if they  if they succeed in getting the mine to leave, what next? In all likelihood, the mine will simply move on to destroy a new community.


It was difficult to sit and hear of the incredible hardship that the mine has inflicted on the community. Yet there was also incredible resilience and beauty in the community organizers’ words. Again and again they came back to the concept of returning to the earth and the importance of reconnecting to the sacredness of the mountains, the earth, and the water. They voiced a deep recognition of the value for the earth, their need for healthy land, and the importance of stewarding what they have been given for the next generation. This was a hope founded in a weaving together of Indigenous spiritual values and the teachings of the church. We also heard beautiful stories about how women are finding their voice and are central to the resistance. It was incredible to hear about the group’s perseverance in raising consciousness, striving to hold the mine accountable, and seeking to build peace in their community despite differences of opinions.

When I asked what stories they would like us to share with our communities back home in Canada, we were asked to share the story of how the mine has ended people’s livelihoods and caused so many problems. “How is it that they can just come and do this to our land?” They spoke of how the mine is slowly killing their community, especially due to the deeply polluted water. They asked us to raise awareness, for this reality is occurring in many other countries and will continue to happen else where.

After lunch we drove to several spots overlooking the mine while Elsa and Edwin explained more about what was happening there.  We saw a place that used to be filled with houses, but now is a deep open pit mine.  It was also startling to see a huge “pond” filled with toxic sludge, which is slowly being turned to cement while excess liquid is piped into the river. We heard of the efforts being made to refill the open pit and plant trees, efforts which our local guides were highly skeptical of, knowing it would be used to make the mine look good but the amount of chemicals in the land will make it impossible to use the land any time soon.


As we stood overlooking the mine, the message we had heard earlier in the day from Father Eric rang in my ears: how can we have peace in the world without stopping the desire for more? He had spoken of how the North’s consumerism drives the demand for gold and leads to this destruction. We need to learn to live with less, rather than living with excess, so that we can all continue to live. Standing in rural Guatemala,  I find myself implicated in this story… How do I stand there knowing my own consumerism and greed play a part in destroying this once beautiful mountain?

At this point I have no good ideas of what to do next and no idea of how this experience of seeing the mine might change how I live.  For now, I think that is okay – it is a complex problem I am only beginning to understand, so I won’t grasp for solutions quite yet.

I will sit and lament for this deeply broken world, this grieving community of San Miguel, these mountains and rivers destroyed. I will sit in the beauty and discomfort of knowing that we are all deeply connected – in the best and worst ways – and my story is interwoven with the story of these people we have met in Guatemala. I will also sit in hope, having glimpsed the strength of these people.  I gratefully accept the reminder that we all need to find ways to return to the earth, honor the sacredness of the mountains, and recognize how deeply connected we are to the land.