Muskrat Falls: An opportunity for respect and reconciliation

This week’s writers are Dianne and Marty Climenhage, MCC representatives in Labrador.

June 27, 2016 was an historic day in Labrador. It marked the first time that all three Indigenous groups–Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government representing Northern Inuit and NunatuKavut Government representing Southern Inuit–stood together publicly and asked for a halt to Nalcor Corporation’s Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project (Muskrat Falls).

It has been our privilege, as MCC workers in Labrador, to stand with Indigenous partners in their call for respect for their land and their lives.

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Sign at the blockade. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

Since 2011, “land protectors” have been warning the public about the potential risks of moving forward with a project of this magnitude. In 2013, the project began with an estimated price tag of $6.2 billion and was expected to go online in 2017. Due to delays, miscalculations and changes in management, the project is now not expected to go online before 2019 and with an estimated total cost of $11.4 billion in an already financially unstable province.

Prior to the start of the project, only one of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador were consulted. The Innu Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, allowing construction with conditions. NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut were not given the opportunity for involvement on decisions that directly affect their traditional territories.

There are two issues that the Indigenous leaders are calling on Nalcor and the government to consider before moving forward with initial flooding of the reservoir.  First, the rise in methyl mercury levels in the Churchill River system has been reported by Nalcor to increase to the point where consumption warnings are put in place for a minimum of 15 years.  An estimated 2,000 Indigenous people rely on the Churchill River system for their food supply. Fishing and hunting are not only traditional ways of life that must be protected, they can mean the difference between life and death in Labrador. An independent study by Harvard University indicates that if organic material is not removed, methyl mercury levels could increase anywhere from 25%-200% downstream, depending on conditions in the river. This would have devastating results, poisoning the food chain for generations in food insecure northern communities.

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Muskrat Falls will disappear when the flooding begins. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

The second concern is the North Spur. This is a natural barrier that will be used as a wall for the reservoir. The North Spur is made up of layers of sand and marine clay, also known as quick clay. Nalcor has used stabilization methods to reinforce the spur, but there is no precedent for building on marine clay. It is, “moving and alive” according to dam safety expert Jim Gordon. Experts from Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Sweden have all cautioned there is a high likelihood of a North Spur breech and collapse.  This would have devastating effects for communities downstream: lower Happy Valley and Mud Lake.  Mud Lake is an island community in the Churchill River with the only access being boat or skidoo, which would not allow enough time for evacuation according to Nalcor’s emergency timeline.

The provincial government has issued permits to Nalcor allowing initial flooding, up to 25% of the reservoir, to begin any time after October 15, 2016. On that day, protesters from Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and settlers all descended on the main gate of the Muskrat Falls Project in a desperate attempt to halt the flooding of the reservoir until organic matter is cleared. They successfully blocked workers from entering the site over the weekend and on Monday, October 17, nine protesters were arrested for defying a Nalcor court injunction. There are currently 4 people on hunger strikes from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Three of them–Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister–traveled to Ottawa to take part in a rally at the Human Rights Monument on Sunday. On Monday they planned meetings with Amnesty International representatives, Indigenous and government officials.

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Brooklyn Woolfrey Allen drumming for Elders at the blockade.  Photo courtesy Jenny Gear

The number of land protectors has increased on site, communities across the country have held solidarity rallies, and Amnesty International and Idle No More have issued statements, all asking the Federal Government to step in and use this case as an example of how they will implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and work toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In May 2016, Canada officially adopted UNDRIP. The federal government announced “unqualified support” of the document that ensures Indigenous rights are considered in every decision they make. True Nation to Nation relationships can only be built if the federal government follows through on what it promised.  Now is its chance.

Shirley Flowers, a member of Nunatsiavut and a partner of MCC, has been holding an almost daily vigil, at times alone, at the Muskrat Falls gate since June of this year.  She sees the risks to her own way of life and the consequences of non-action for her children, grandchildren and generations that follow. Shirley says, “If the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are not respected and followed, then the whole process is tokenism.”

Just as this blog post was prepared for publication, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Government came to an agreement with all three Indigenous Governments and a plan for moving forward together. Though concerns regarding methyl mercury and the North Spur remain, UNDRIP has been considered in the agreement, and Indigenous leadership and knowledge with be part of the process.

“Ingrained in Canadian policy”? Women, peace and security

“The objective is to see the women, peace and security agenda ingrained in the government’s policies and decision-making structures to the point where it informs Canada’s response to any crisis or issue where peace and security is concerned.” -Canadian Foreign Affairs Committee report on Women, Peace and Security, October 2016.

Ingrained in the government’s policy. After months of consultations, on October 6, 2016 the Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee (FAAE) released a report – An Opportunity for Global Leadership – calling for Canada to be a leader on the global stage with the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda.

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Women and children displaced by violence in northern Nigeria. MCC photo/Dave Klassen

Sixteen years ago the United Nations Security Council passed the famous Resolution 1325 – a watershed action calling for participation of women in peacebuilding and the recognition of the unique experiences and needs of women in all stages of conflict: prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery. Since the launch of 1325, six more UN resolutions on WPS have been passed.

Yet, civil society and advocacy groups, as well as the UN lament the limited progress made on the overall global stage: a lack of national leadership, inconsistent funding for grassroots organizations, continuing impunity, and the lack of women at the negotiating table and in leadership roles, among other concerns.

But back to the FAAE’s report. Half of the 17 recommendations call for Canada to strongly promote WPS within multilateral and bilateral contexts. The others call for training, and required financial commitments and programming for WPS within Canadian-directed international programs.

The first recommendation reads: The Government of Canada should make women, peace and security a priority of its foreign policy agenda. And further in the report, that WPS be “ingrained” in Canadian policy directions.

These are powerful words, but what will it take for this goal to become reality in Canada? And more pointedly, is Canada in a place to provide global leadership?

unscr_1325In 2014, at the midpoint of Canada’s first WPS National Action Plan (C-NAP) launched in 2010, the independent organization, Inclusive Security, completed a thorough review. It had many good things to say about the plan. One interviewee described shift of mentality, with WPS going from a “nice to have” element to a “have to have” in foreign policy. But, together with other civil society groups, including the Canadian Women Peace and Security Network, Inclusive Security argued that the WPS agenda has yet to become a central directing factor, guiding and driving overall policy development in Canada.

The next action plan will take effect in 2017. The overarching message of the most recent report by the FAAE calls on Canada to be a help to other countries still struggling to implement WPS – arguably in line with the recent message of Prime Minister Trudeau to the UN, “We’re Canadian and we’re here to help.” But what is the state of WPS within Canada? Is Canada’s own house in order?

One day following the release of the FAAE’s report, the Commissioner of the RCMP Bob Paulson gave an emotional apology and announced $100 million in compensation to the hundreds of women who have experienced sexual abuse, discrimination and harassment by their own colleagues in the RCMP, many who have suffered crippling PTSD as a result of years of harassment. Commissioner Paulson’s apology is a welcomed step, but with abuse so deeply entrenched in the RCMP system, the road to change will likely be long and difficult.

Then there was former Chief of Defence General Tom Larson’s comments in a 2015 interview regarding rampant sexual violence of women in the Canadian military by fellow service personnel. He called this a problem of “biological wiring” instead of addressing it as a systemic issue. General Larson did apologize, but that he would utter these words reveals a tremendous lack of understanding about issues of power, gender and abuse.

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A poster at an event remembering missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

Finally, a systemic and glaring stain on Canada’s past and present is the growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, over 1200 since the 1980s.  So many families have come forward, lamenting the disappearance or murder of their daughters, mothers and sisters. In many cases there are documented examples of police neglecting to follow through with thorough investigations, and or demonstrating deep indifference and racism. In August, the Canadian government launched a public inquiry into these murders and disappearances. This inquiry will look at the acts of crime themselves, and possibly how these incidents are handled or not handled by law enforcement.

The FAAE neglected to reference any of these or other incidents like them. In fairness, the FAAE concerns itself with international rather than domestic policy. But it is important to note that these domestic issues greatly impact the peace and security of Canadian women. They also raise the issue of universality outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – is our own house in order? Moreover, as the quote at the beginning of this post reads, WPS must be ingrained in “any crisis or issue where peace and security is concerned.”

Highlighting these domestic issues is not meant to belittle the scale of violence, exclusion and impunity we see all over the world, but rather to outline some of the challenges ahead for Canada in implementing WPS as truly an ingrained policy.

As a woman – no, wait! as a human being – I am deeply saddened and distressed by these recent and ongoing concerns in my country, as well as my own experiences observing the impact of conflict on women from around the globe. But I am so encouraged by the stories of women peacebuilders worldwide.

This November as part of our annual Peace Sunday, we at MCC invite you to join us in celebrating our partners and the women within our communities in Canada and around the world – women as equal players in the call to peace.  See our resource, Women as Peacebuilders. Also we can be encouraged by champions of peace profiled in the latest publication from Nobel Women’s Initiative, When We Are Bold: Women who turn our Upside-down World Right.

Finally, I hope against hope that the principles of women, peace and security will truly be ingrained not only in domestic and international policies of governments in Canada and around the world but also in our communities, churches and homes.

By Bekah Sears, Ottawa Office policy analyst

World Food Day, climate change and supporting small-holder farmers

This week’s writer is Stefan Epp-Koop, chair of the board of MCC Manitoba. He participated in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Good Soil learning tour to Kenya in July 2016.

When Hiram Thuo’s crops failed in 2009 due to irregular rainfall, he had little choice but to seek food aid. He did so reluctantly, sad that he was no longer able to feed his family. So Hiram, who farms near Naivasha, Kenya, began attending trainings on vegetable production, irrigation, and drought resistant crops.

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Hiram Thuo, posing with his wife (name unavailable), was excited to share about the changes he has made on his farm. Photo courtesy Andrew Richardson.

Hiram’s farm has been transformed over the past seven years. He now plants crops like watermelon, kale, spinach, capsicum, and passion fruit. These crops are highly sought after by local merchants. As a result he is now able to feed his family and sell the extra to traders in the local market, earning approximately $70 per month – money that is used to pay school fees and make further improvements on the farm.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit many farmers like Hiram during a Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) learning tour to Kenya. The trip was part of the Good Soil campaign, a CFGB initiative to engage the Canadian government to increase support for agriculture as part of our international development assistance.

Like Hiram, many Kenyan farmers we visited talked about the impact of a changing climate – in particular increasingly unpredictable rainfall.  And, like Hiram, many farmers have experienced remarkable transformations, thanks to support for training and scale-appropriate technology.

October 16 is World Food Day, which this year is focusing on the impact of a changing climate on food insecurity.  Small-holder farmers, who make up the majority of the world’s farmers and the vast majority of people experiencing hunger in the world, are very vulnerable to changes in climate such as rapidly changing rainfall or temperature patterns.

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The Good Soil learning tour participants posing with a plaque honoring Canadian contributions at ILRI. CFGB photo/Emily Cain.

Yet, while the Canadian government has shown renewed interest in addressing climate change and mitigating its impacts, its funding for agriculture through international development assistance has dropped by 30% in the past three years. Agriculture, however, can play a critical role in enabling people in developing countries to respond to changing realities: people like Hiram and many of the other farmers  we met in Kenya.

Re-investing in agriculture would allow vital research to take place like the work we visited at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi. ILRI does research focused on the needs of small-scale farmers with livestock. We heard of research ranging from innovative insurance systems for livestock to protect farmers from droughts to identifying more reliable livestock feed for farmers with limited grazing land.

When we visited ILRI, much of the equipment proudly displayed a Canadian logo – a sign of a history of Canadian funding. But while there were a lot of old stickers and plaques, Canadian support has declined.  A reinvestment by Canada in agricultural research for small-scale farmers could make a powerful impact by developing scale-appropriate solutions.

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Lucas Makau with tomatoes ready for market. CFGB photo/Emily Caine.

Or it could mean enabling young entrepreneurs like Lucas Makau to start farming in new ways.  Lucas practices conservation agriculture on approximately three quarters of an acre.  This involves minimal tillage, using mulches or cover crops, and crop rotation.  Lucas has applied this to growing tomatoes, which he then sells in Nairobi – an entrepreneurial approach to farming that has generated income for his family.  A key benefit of conservation agriculture is that much more water is retained in the soil, making crops less susceptible to changing weather patterns.  This increases yields and reduces vulnerability.

Whether supporting grassroots initiatives or the structures and research that support them, Canada can make a big impact by supporting more agricultural initiatives through our international development assistance.  We can reduce global hunger and enable small-scale farmers to be more resilient to the effects of climate change – while also benefiting local economies, empowering women, and improving nutrition.

Please take action to encourage the Canadian government to increase aid for agriculture. Learn more about the Good Soil campaign; then order, sign and send Good Soil postcards to the Prime Minister.  In addition, visit http://aid4ag.ca/, which outlines ten priorities for investing in agriculture – priorities that have been supported by over 30 organizations across Canada.

A giving spirit inspired by our past

This week’s writer is Clare Maier, Advocacy Research Intern for the Ottawa Office for September to December. She is from Kitchener, Ontario and studies anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The sanctuary is dark and quiet. The room doesn’t ring with hundreds of joyful voices. Instead, it echoes with the sound of box cars being thrown open and angry voices barking Russian orders not for the benefit of the cars’ occupants. Quiet sniffles, constant throughout the experience, break out around the sanctuary in earnest as the heavy metal box car doors once again creak open, this time, to the emotional and heart-wrenching singing of the reenactment crew. As the documentary And when they shall ask comes to an end, scattered sobs can be heard through the still darkened room.

And when they shall ask is a documentary exploring the history of Mennonites in Russia, ending with the persecution and escape of many communities via the railway in the 1920s. In fact, it was the terrible conditions that lead to people’s emigration from Russia that also prompted church members in North America to form MCC.

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Mennonite immigrants arriving in Rosthern, SK from the Soviet Union in 1923. Photo courtesy Canadian Mennonite and Mennonite Archival Image Database.

While the documentary tells the story of one major migration, it’s important to acknowledge that because of the unique history of Canada, many citizens share an experience of immigration buried somewhere in their family tree. Apart from Indigenous people, much of Canada’s identity is built around immigration, with people coming first from Europe but subsequently from around the world.

Each person is touched differently by the viewing of the film. The elderly remember those hard years in Soviet Russia and their paths to Canada. The middle-aged experienced the adjustments of their parents and learned to fit in at school. The young heard the stories, the fragmented tales of life “back then” and they appreciate their comfortable, safe lives. Together, they are remembering stories of fleeing as refugees from Russia, of arriving in Canada and learning new ways and a new language. They are remembering being welcomed as immigrants.

It’s no secret the world is experiencing an increase in refugee activity once again. Almost daily, stories of Syria, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean feature in the paper and pop up in our newsfeed. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are now more than 65.3 million people who are forcefully displaced around the world. Given the current multiplicity of crises around the world, this number is not likely to decline.

Canada has once again welcomed refugees to its vast wilderness (although most settle in cities), and in twenty years the scene described above may very well tell of the journey from Syria rather than Russia. It may be set in a mosque rather than a church, and its viewers may prefer to eat flatbread and hummus rather than Zwieback and jam. One thing that won’t change is the memories and the shouts of joy at the end of the journey.

Not all journeys, however, end in celebration. Some journeys are physically exhausting, some are emotionally draining, and some, like those crossing the Mediterranean, may end in heartbreak. As I write this, just over a year has passed since the world became intimately aware of the Syrian refugee crisis, stirred to action by the death of young Alan Kurdi. Since then, good things have been happening around the world with many countries taking in refugees and mobilizing other resources.

However, not all countries and not all citizens are extending a welcome to refugees. Some of the major rhetoric surrounding the recent Brexit decision (Great Britain leaving the European Union) was focused on distrust and the ways in which immigrants might be stealing jobs and generally ruining the country. This viewpoint, and the anti-immigration parties across Europe that support it, capitalize on fears, while also taking great care to emphasize cultural differences.

These thoughts and attitudes are not absent in Canada. I too hear murmurings from distrustful Canadians, complaining that the refugees are getting free housing and health care. Again, think back to Great-great-great-great Grandpa Martin (or whatever his name was). How grateful are you that Canada opened its borders for your family? Shouldn’t the same rules apply now?

Together, Canadians continue to welcome Syrian refugees — 31,444 to date, many of them families. A quick browse through old newspapers reminds us that Canadians have responded to their arrival generously, donating toys and furniture, time and settlement services and warm clothes. The articles praise the giving spirit of Canadians and our initial efforts to embrace our new neighbours. Indeed, it is our privilege to greet families at airports and helpfully show them how one sleds properly, but as Christians, it should also be our honour to serve them and walk with them as Christ has so beautifully modelled.

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Douglas Mennonite Church in Winnipeg sponsored and then organized a wedding celebration for Syrian refugees Brian Darweesh and Reem Younes, 2015. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky.

This is not to say that many Canadians aren’t already inviting immigrants into their homes, and that many aren’t already volunteering in other ways. Rather, I offer a gentle reminder of the motivation behind our actions, and a subtle push to do more where we can. As Canadians, most of our family histories have stories of acceptance and assistance. These past actions were not confined to “liking” a sympathetic story on Facebook, nor were they restricted to impartial donations on a Sunday morning. Instead, they involved concrete, sometimes scary, and occasionally uncomfortable expressions of deeply-held core beliefs. As Anabaptists, and simply as Christians, our desire and our mandate is to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and embrace the poor. We do that by following the Example set out for us in Scriptures, showering others with the Love that was showered on us.

We all share stories of arrival and of settlement. Now it’s time to go plant ourselves into someone else’s story. Evaluate what you can do, commit to it, and take one step further. After all, this immigration “situation” isn’t just an international news piece, it’s in our borders, and, luckily, it’s in our neighbourhoods. Go, get involved, it’s not far.