By Anna Vogt
I slipped out of the office over lunch for a brief twenty minutes a few weeks ago: down the elevator, out the building, and around the corner, to join a small group standing in front of the building housing the Mexican Embassy. September 26, 2018 marks four years since the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. A few Canadian human rights groups held a small vigil in their honour and to demand action.
At the beginning, I stood on the outskirts. Someone was taking photos. I was not with a partner organization. I was present as myself, not by invitation or under the auspices of an office. What if I would be noticed? What if my photo would be circulated on the internet? Could I be deported? It took me a couple of moments, and a few deep breaths, to remember that I was a Canadian, in Canada.
For the past few years, I have worked in advocacy with MCC, based in Latin America. Every time a public activity and a chance to speak with decision makers arose, we would have long conversations. Beyond any security concerns that could arise during an activity, any active advocacy required careful consideration. Would this activity put our partners at risk? Who is inviting us to this space? What is our relationship? Would the activity or meeting put MCC’s presence in the country at risk? What could my participation, as a foreigner, represent? Would this action hinder or help our work and partnerships?
Despite the allure of public action, would engaging be productive in the long term, supporting not only the cause of the moment, but also long-term goals? While work and leisure time were different, at every event, no matter if it was work related or not, I represented much more than simply myself. Visa restrictions didn’t stop when I left the office.
Here in Canada, everything seems different. On behalf of MCC’s Ottawa Office, I’m a legally registered lobbyist with the Canadian government. Not only will I not be deported, my advocacy activity is built right into the state system. Meeting with government officials is a part of job my description. As a person and as a Canadian citizen, I have the freedom to participate in activities in my free time, the same as any other Canadian.
The more I reflect, however, on advocacy here in Canada, the more I wonder if the differences are as wide as they appear. While legality may facilitate the ease of advocacy, it is not the best determinant for engagement. Here in my new position in the Ottawa Office, I’m not worried about deportation any more, but I am still worried about causing harm.
Despite the distance, we are still connected globally. The messages that we spread and the conversations we have with elected officials produce an impact that spreads beyond borders. Unless our actions emerge out of relationships grounded in local knowledge and desires, and as part of a long-term plan, they will not be effective, and even worse, can be damaging to the very causes and people we are trying to support.
So how do we decide? And what does action look like?
Here in the Ottawa Office, our priority is advocacy that emerges from relationships with partners. It’s advocacy that tries to take the long view, seeking opportunities but trying not to jump on every possibility for change that comes our way. It’s advocacy that works to combine grassroots experience with research and best practices. It’s advocacy that recognizes the impact of people coming together, like faith groups and concerned citizens, to make a difference.
MCC generally understands advocacy as “A set of organized actions aimed at influencing and/or changing behaviours, policies, and resource allocation of individuals or institutions that hold power, for the betterment of people affected by an issue.” Nowhere in that definition are specific actions laid out, but rather an invitation to think about where power lies and what we can do. Advocacy is not only protesting but can range from voting to letter writing to boycotts. The key is organized actions aimed at creating change; within those actions there lies a world of creative possibilities, as long as they are grounded and strategic.
As I adapt to the Canadian advocacy landscape, I am eager to explore these new possibilities. I will continue to attend vigils and events. I will probably still look over my shoulder a few more times than needed. I hope that this extra action can serve as a reminder to pause and think about what I am doing and why.
Want to learn more? Check out some of our advocacy resources and information:
Anna Vogt is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office