Non-violence for social change: here, too

by Grace Giesbrecht

Every year, MCC Ottawa hosts a student seminar for 30-40 students from across Canada. In February 2020, students travelled to Ottawa to meet with parliamentarians, civil servants, civil society actors, and MCC staff to learn about active citizenship. This week on our blog, we want to share a reflection written by one of the students following the seminar.

One of my earliest memories is a protest. A biting autumn wind blew across the pasture and hit the group that had gathered in front of the elementary school, wrapped in red plaid blankets. The long brown grass in the ditch where we stood reached my shoulders, and the air smelled like snow. The wind tore protest signs from the hands that painted them and sent them flipping across the schoolyard.

Both my parents were teachers at my school, and the teachers were on strike. I, a cold four-year-old, did not understand the concept. All I knew was that I was not allowed to play on the playground, because I could not cross the picket line.

In 2015, more than 7,000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation from Gatineau, Quebec to Marion Dewar Plaza in front of City Hall in Ottawa., Ontario. (MCC photo: Alison Ralph)

In February 2020, I had the privilege of attending the MCC Ottawa Office Student Seminar. The theme of the seminar was “Non-violence for Social Change: Active Peacebuilding” and in the weeks leading up to the seminar, I gathered my own collections of expectations for what I would hear. I imagined international activism, development, and disaster relief in places I had never visited, across continents and oceans. I imagined stories from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East: all worlds far removed from the snowed-in, cold winters I knew in Northern British Columbia, growing up.

And we heard many of those stories. I loved and appreciated the perspective and novel forms of action taken by MCC in its international projects. I learned about a quilting project in Colombia that helped a community understand trauma, tell their stories, and eventually start a social movement. I heard from an advocacy group about a visit to Palestine and Israel learning about the conflict and human rights abuses that Palestinians face on a daily basis. There were many other incredible stories told during the seminar.

But we also discussed current events far closer to home for me, taking place in the snow and cold of a northwestern British Columbian winter.

On February 21, 2020, student’s at the Ottawa Office Student Seminar participated in a sharing circle. (MCC Photo/Anna Vogt)

Two weeks before the conference began, the RCMP enforced an injunction on behalf of Coastal Gaslink to enter and remove a group of Wet’sowet’en land defenders from their snow-entrenched camps along the proposed path of a natural gas pipeline between Dawson Creek and Kitimat. Dawson Creek is one hour’s drive from my hometown.

Protests in solidarity with the Wet’sowet’en first nation began quickly after their camps were raided. The most noticeable and controversial of these nationwide acts were railroad blockades. Blocking trains from their destination threatened Canada’s economy and created potential shortages of propane and groceries in some communities.

One of the MPs we had the chance to engage with during the seminar, Leah Gazan (NDP, Winnipeg Centre) discussed this topic with power and passion. She focused on the need for free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous people for what happens on their sovereign lands. She discussed Canada’s colonial past, and the government’s refusal to recognize the need for real and lasting social change—which is what these non-violent protests are demanding. Though she said many powerful, intentional things it was an offhand comment she made to her co-presenter, Steve Heinrichs from Mennonite Church Canada, that stuck in my mind: “I’m sorry” she said. “I’ve been busy. We’re in the middle of a revolution.”

Living in Canada, I didn’t expect the use of active non-violence for social change to be so necessary so close to home. This realization—that this is happening in the immediate moment, here at home—is a large part of what I took away from the seminar.

Solidarity actions or protests are controversial to some because they threaten the way of life enjoyed by many Canadians, shopping for groceries, and using propane shipped by train to heat their homes. When we attended Question Period in the House of Commons during the seminar, this was an argument often raised by members of the Opposition. It struck me, however, that this is the way in which change happens: positions must be made, and held, and power recognized. Democracy in Canada, then, does not only exist in the green velvet chairs of elected representatives—the power of the people is evident in their action and voice through non-violent-protest. A fellow student from Alberta sitting next to me during the session noted that “it takes very few people to start the shutdown of a nation’s economy.” That is non-violent action for social change, in action.

Protesters at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg during the Climate Strike on September 27, 2019. (MCC Photo/Leona Lortie,)

But these railroad blockades are not the only actions for social change taking place in the current political climate, I realized. They are solely the most noticeable at the moment. There are related non-violent protests at the British Columbia legislature. Recently, there has been the Ontario Teacher’s Union strike, shutting down schools in order to earn better benefits for its employees. Furthermore, there is the worldwide climate strike movement, “Fridays For Futures” where students walk out of their schools to protest the lack of climate action.

As I sat in the seminar, listening not only to powerful stories about international development work and peacebuilding overseas, but the use of non-violence for social change in Canada, I thought back to the ditch outside my elementary school. The grass tickled my armpits, and my stomach rumbled. I did not realize, at that point, the quiet power that existed in non-violent protest and the ways in which it can be used for real and lasting social change both at home, and abroad.

Grace Giesbrecht, Student at Trinity Western University

Since the student seminar in February 2020, arrests and police violence continue to be a concern faced by Indigenous advocates across Canada. The work for systematic and structural change can often be a slow and exhausting process, especially to those who are impacted the most.

Join us in a prayer for Indigenous justice, written by Dianne Climenhage, MCC Atlantic Canada Regional Representative:

Creator God,
We look at your world and praise you for the diversity all around us.
Thank you for the gift of relationships; our connection with people, animals and the land.

Help us, Lord, to see differences and diversity as strengths.
Help us to listen and understand; to meet one another with wonder and anticipation.
Help us to love as you love, without expectation.
Reveal to us your way of reconciliation and guide us into right relationships with all living things.

Lead us to understand how Indigenous peoples have been and continue to be profoundly harmed by settler people and institutions.
Lead us to repent when we as settlers deny Indigenous peoples respect, dignity and fullness of life.

Help us to listen compassionately, to speak humbly and to act justly.
Help us to seek the peace, justice and reconciliation you desire among all your children.
Thank you for your mercy and grace.


Disclaimer: The views and perspectives presented in this blog post do not necessarily reflect positions held by MCC Canada.

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