Everyone has something to offer

This week’s guest writer is Mark Tymm. A former intern in the Ottawa Office, Mark is currently working with MCC in Chad.

“What do you think, Paul?” I asked, looking at my supervisor during my internship with the MCC Ottawa Office in the fall of 2013. “How do I need to grow to better address issues of peace and justice? How do I live a life of more intentional discipleship?”

“Well, you’d benefit from some more grassroots or international experience… You’re passionate, but grassroots experience is invaluable,” was his response.

Over three years later, I find myself in N’Djamena, Chad, a hot and dry country in central Africa surrounded by Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Nigeria. I came to Chad first with SALT, a one-year MCC program for young adults focused on Serving And Learning Together. Since completing the program, I have continued with MCC in Chad as a Service Worker, specifically working with our long term partner Ethics Peace and Justice (EPJ). EPJ’s work is centered predominantly on hosting interfaith workshops on conflict transformation across the country.

My time in Africa so far has certainly been eye-opening, challenging, filled with great friendships, perspective-changing moments, and life-giving experiences. One of these rich times was the recent All Africa Peace Exchange.

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Participants in the All Africa Peace Exchange. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Following on the success of an exchange of education specialists in 2015, MCC decided to coordinate a summit of peace practitioners in 2017. This summit took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in January of this year.

Over thirty delegates from fourteen MCC programs across the continent, as well as visiting guests from MCC Ontario and US offices, came together to talk about our peacebuilding efforts. Participants brought a breadth of perspectives and peacebuilding experiences from contexts as diverse as Burkina Faso and Mozambique, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.

One of the presenters at the summit was Issa Ebombolo from Zambia, currently completing graduate studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Issa is the brains behind Peace Clubs, an MCC-funded project that teaches peacebuilding skills to children and youth. The Peace Clubs program began in Zambia but has since spread to South Africa, Burundi, Nigeria and pilot projects are being developed elsewhere, such as Chad.

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Participants from Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ontario discuss the challenges of peace work in interfaith contexts.  MCC photo by Mark Tymm

My new friend shared his wisdom and insight with the group of peace practitioners. Issa encouraged us in our work with grassroots initiatives, rather than asking, “What do you need?” to reframe the question as, “What do you have?” Rather than demanding, “What needs to be done?” he urged us to ask, “What are you already doing?”

Be it life experience, time, energy, knowledge of the current context, or a wealth of cultural wisdom, Issa pointed out the depth of resources African peoples possess, resources which are often ignored. “No one under the sun has nothing; everyone has something to offer in any circumstances, including those we think have nothing.”

What a refreshing reminder for those who seek to create spaces of wholeness, peace and justice!

I have often struggled to identify exactly how a white middle class guy in his mid-twenties can possible contribute to building peace in Chad. Issa’s words also encouraged me to look at what I have to offer.

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MCC staff and partners listen to a presentation on contemporary issues in intercultural partnership in peacebuilding. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Peacebuilders, it seems by nature, are people of high ideals. I know for myself personally, I am driven by the hope that one day injustice will be eliminated, equality and fullness will envelope our societies, and shalom will form the foundation for life. It is also important to remember that despite the messy reality of here-and-now, Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace and good news also exists in a “now-yet-not-yet” kind of manifestation.

Peacebuilding rooted in faith was an important topic at the summit. We discussed MCC’s position of working with the existing local church, rather than establishing new churches. Alain Epp Weaver, director of strategic planning for MCC, noted that MCC’s work “is not focused on planting new churches, but [such churches] have emerged from MCC presence and the desire of MCC workers to share through their lives the gospel of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.”

One of the most exciting outcomes of the summit was the formation of an MCC Africa Peace Network, a formal space for MCC staff to discuss and meet on a regular basis. Though we haven’t met yet, seeing this group of peace practitioners commit to ongoing collaboration and to encouraging and supporting each other’s efforts is an inspiration.

The pursuit of peace continues to be a driving motivator for MCC workers across Africa, and collaboration between programs will no doubt be a good move. Echoed frequently across the continent is a proverb, the origins of which seem to have been lost from the annals of history:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Together we continue towards peace. On the journey, everyone has something to offer.

Savings groups “leave no one behind”

This week’s guest writer is Allison Enns, Food Security and Livelihood Coordinator for MCC Canada. She visited Kenya, Ethiopia and Cambodia in fall 2016 as part of a Canadian Foodgrains Bank tour to learn about savings groups.

Makueni County, Kenya – One by one, women come to the front of the circle and call out the amount of money they will be saving. In unison the group calls back the amount— “500 shillings!” —as bills and coins are dropped into a communal pot. Each woman does the same until all members of the group have announced how much they are saving this week. The total is counted and stored in a cooking pot, while amounts are meticulously recorded by the secretary.

This is a typical scene for over 12 million members of savings groups around the world. Savings groups are community groups that meet together regularly to save money, provide small loans to one another, and support each other financially when an unexpected cost such as illness occurs. Members create the rules and regulations for how the group functions, and manage the accounting entirely on their own.

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The weekly meeting of an all-women savings group in Kenya. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach.

One of the most profound impacts of savings groups is that they provide an ability to save and obtain loans for communities who lack access to banking services. Membership is targeted to those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised—those who aren’t eligible for loans from Micro Finance Institutes and those to whom local moneylenders are reluctant to loan money. Instead of relying on these outside resources that charge high interest rates and cause deep debt, savings group members are able to use their own resources to save and access loans that can help them start small businesses, buy livestock or seeds, support their families with food during hungry seasons, and send their children to school.

Savings groups not only provide financial support; they can also contribute to changes in attitude and perspective. Group members are most often women, and many express how when they first joined the groups they did not think it was possible to earn their own money, and had no say within their homes regarding household spending and other important decisions. In fact, most of their husbands were not supportive of them joining the groups.

One woman in Ethiopia tells her experience of joining a savings group and explains how, when she first joined, her husband teased her and thought nothing could come of such a group. Despite this, she persisted and continued to save, eventually being able to take out a significant loan to buy livestock and earn an income. When there was a particularly difficult time of year, she took out a loan to buy food for her family. Her husband was shocked at the strength of his wife during such a difficult time, and speaks emotionally about how, as a result of his wife’s involvement in the group, he didn’t need to ask for a loan from a moneylender. “Going to a moneylender is like telling them your secrets,” he shares, “my wife saved me from this shame.”  He is now supportive of his wife’s involvement in the savings group and has even joined one himself. Unlike before, they now make important household decisions about spending together.

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A savings groups in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach

Last week was International Development Week, a time when there is a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities of working to support development in Canada and abroad. The theme of this year’s International Development Week—“leave no one behind”—expresses the global goals laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What does this call to “leave no one behind” really mean?

When I hear this phrase I am encouraged to think about how the most vulnerable and marginalised within communities can have opportunities to support themselves and their families. Sometimes new initiatives or technologies that are meant to help the poor aren’t actually accessible for the most vulnerable; they can’t necessarily afford to take the risks associated with something new and unknown.

The community-driven approach of savings groups, on the other hand, targets the most vulnerable and offers a low risk way to access capital. Those who face extreme poverty don’t need to be “left behind” in access to banking, and women don’t need to be “left behind” in earning an income and making decisions about household spending.

Art that heals, art that discomforts

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, new advocacy research intern for the Ottawa Office. Janessa is from Ottawa and is working on a Master’s degree in International Development Studies. 

This winter, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is hosting a retrospective on Alex Janvier.  Described as “one of Canada’s most acclaimed contemporary artists,” Janvier is from the Cold Lake First Nation in Alberta.

Janvier explores Indigenous experiences in his art, including his own personal experience at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School. Janvier is important to the construction of Canadian culture because he has been able to bring Indigenous experiences into the public eye, especially in light of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which concluded in 2015.

“My art is truly North American . . . it has its Indigenous roots. Some of my artwork is healing for myself and for anyone who wants to accept it that way.” –Alex Janvier

Normally when I go to the art gallery I take my sketch book, possibly my copy of 1001 Paintings You Must See before You Die, and consider colours, shapes, techniques while I relax with the beautiful pictures. When I see art that I don’t like, I challenge myself to consider why I don’t like it. Is it because of the way the content has been captured? Is it from an era that, try as I might, I can’t connect with?

This exhibition was different: I loved Janvier’s art and style. But it also made me uncomfortable because of my “colonial-settler guilt.” I hope that writing about the art exhibit will help me to understand why I was uncomfortable, and see what I can do with that discomfort.

The retrospective highlights the courage and resistance of Indigenous peoples in Canada and, as such, it offers a very powerful challenge to colonial-settler discourse. I find that I often feel strong guilt around the Doctrine of Discovery.  But in my opinion, this was the point of the retrospective: to make viewers feel uncomfortable and show an alternate Canadian experience. For example, in 1967, Janvier was commissioned by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to produce 80 paintings for Montreal’s Expo. Janvier signed his paintings with his Treaty number, 287, to protest Canadian Indigenous policies.

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Studying “Intertribal Indians Unlimited” (1990), acrylic on canvas, 175X698 cm (Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary).  Photo supplied by Janessa Mann.

One of the most interesting sets of paintings was “Intertribal Indians Unlimited” (1990) and “The Apple Factory” (1989) because of their beautiful colours and the style of abstraction, and because they were very poignant in their critique of Canada’s history. One of the plaques explained that Janvier was challenged by Indigenous communities, and called a “red apple” for his success, which meant he looked “Indian” on the outside, but acted White on the inside. Rather than be hurt by this critique of his artistic success, Janvier painted the concept that the Residential Schools were “apple factories,” because they assimilated Indigenous children.

Janvier’s pieces, while beautiful and skillful, manage to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery and make one feel uncomfortable for Canada’s role in enacting intergenerational trauma on Indigenous children.

What the retrospective lacked, in my mind, was a challenge  to viewers of Janvier’s art to respond. In James Schellenberg’s post on this blog some months ago, he says that “It is one thing to acknowledge an injustice, and another thing entirely to put things right. What was done in the past cannot be undone.” At the end of the gallery was a bulletin board where we could post our reactions, but there were no resources to learn more about Canada’s colonial legacy in general or the Residential Schools in particular.Moreover, there was no challenge for visitors to do something with their new knowledge. Without a “call to arms,” the exhibit cannot really succeed in creating change.

What can I suggest?

Organizations like KAIROS and MCC have provided opportunities for people to learn about Canada’s history from an Indigneous perspective through the Blanket Exercise, an experiential teaching tool to work through the “historic and contemporary relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.” Find out if Kairos is hosting a Blanket Exercise near you, and consult their resources. Look into other expressions of Indigenous culture. Contact  your MP about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And, if you are in Ottawa before April 17, 2017, I encourage you to explore Alex Janvier’s art! On Thursday evenings, all museums in Ottawa are free, and currently there is no extra cost for this special exhibition.

Further Reading:

Constructing a reconciliation response: understanding the UNDRIP by Claire Maier

A settler encounters the Doctrine of Discovery by James Schellenberg

Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery by Rick Cober Bauman

Another effort to hold mining companies to account

Rumour has it that the federal budget may come down sooner rather than later. Civil society organizations are hoping to see some positive policy signals when it’s tabled—from more money committed to international development, to the establishment of a federal ombudsperson for the extractives sector (the mining, oil and gas industry).

Establishing an ombudsperson with the power to investigate Canadian mining companies implicated in wrongdoing abroad is something experts have advised the government on since 2007.

Liberals supported the idea of an ombudsperson while they were in Opposition (in fact, four of the five political parties have supported it), and there has been chatter around Ottawa for the last few months that they’ve been “seriously reviewing” the creation of such a position.

This is welcome news.

Home to the majority of the world’s mining companies, Canada is a superpower in the global extractives industry, with thousands of active projects in more than 100 countries.

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The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Canadian mining giant Goldcorp. MCC photo by Anna Vogt

Unfortunately, Canadian mining companies have a mixed record. While mining has the potential to bring socioeconomic benefits to a host country, jobs are often short-lived, financial benefits to the economy meager (particularly in mining-rich areas), and communities not consulted. As our partners have told us, mining often displaces communities, destroys agricultural land, contaminates water, exacerbates social tensions, and leaves long-term ecological damage in its wake. What’s more, people who defend their rights often lack protection and are even targeted by threats of violence.

To promote the industry, the Canadian government provides strong diplomatic and financial support to mining companies in a variety of ways. And although the government has now implemented mandatory revenue disclosure requirements for mining, oil, and gas companies—something MCC actively supported—most of the accountability mechanisms in Canada are entirely voluntary in nature.

For this reason, Canada’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy has been widely critiqued by civil society actors (and the UN) as falling short of what is needed to hold mining companies accountable to human rights, labour, and environmental standards.

How do people harmed by the overseas operations of Canadian extractive companies seek redress?

Currently, Canada has two mechanisms that can receive complaints by local communities—the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (2009), and the OECD National Contact Point (2000).

From the outset, these mechanisms have been widely criticized as being toothless—lacking in independence, investigatory powers, and the ability to recommend sanctions for non-compliance. And, given that neither mechanism can obligate companies to participate (a rather significant problem!), they have not proven effective in resolving cases or curbing corruption.

Enter the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), KAIROS, Development aopen-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDnd Peace, and others. This campaign calls for the establishment of an independent extractives-sector ombudsperson, as well as legislated access to Canadian courts for people seriously harmed by overseas mining operations (which is really gaining steam, thanks to recent high-profile court decisions).

Last spring, over 50 Canadian civil society organizations, including MCC, became signatories to a public statement that echoed these calls.

An effective ombudsperson—operating at arms length from the government—would have the power to investigate complaints, recommend the suspension of government support to companies found in non-compliance, and be mandated to perform these functions regardless of a company’s willingness to participate.

In the fall, the CNCA even launched model legislation—the Global Leadership in Business and Human Rights Actto provide the blueprint for creating such a non-judicial grievance mechanism.

Not only would this provide access-to-remedy for affected communities, but it could benefit companies in the long-run (we’ve even seen some pro-ombudsperson commentary from industry!). When extractive projects generate conflict, unless community grievances are effectively resolved, companies risk operating delays and negative publicity.

Through this, and other effective mechanisms that put human rights at the centre of the government’s approach, Canada can help facilitate an operating environment where responsible business practices are recognized and rewarded.

Of course, a more comprehensive review of the government’s CSR strategy would be welcomed. Given Canada’s status as a global mining power, it ought to be part of a rigorous foreign policy debate.

In the meantime, please let your MP know that you support the establishment of an independent and effective ombudsperson office to oversee Canadian mining, oil and gas projects abroad

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director