Eyes, ears – and a voice – in Washington

by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

MCC’s Washington Office is turning 50 this month. This week Ottawa Notebook shares reflections on those 50 years. This story was originally published on June 26, 2018 by Mennonite World Review

In the Feb. 27, 1968, Gospel Herald, Mennonite leader Guy F. Hershberger reflected on why there should be a “Mennonite office” in Washington. He noted the “emergency” in May 1967, when Congress nearly passed legislation that would have placed conscientious objectors under the purview of the military.

“We discovered that many congressmen did not know us as well as we — and they — thought they did,” he wrote.

This incident, along with the work of Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam during the war, helped to persuade Mennonites that they should have “eyes and ears” in Washington. And so, 50 years ago this July, MCC’s Peace Section opened its Washington Office, led by Delton Franz.

Some Anabaptists were not sure MCC should have an office in Washington, preferring to remain “quiet in the land.” But in reality, Mennonite leaders had been meeting regularly with U.S. government officials on the issue of conscientious objection. From 1940 to 1967, Mennonite leaders testified 13 times before congressional committees on the issue.

“Our traditional willingness to testify when our own interests were involved,” observed the executive committee of MCC’s Peace Section in 1966, “has led to suggestions that we should also be willing to testify when the rights of others are involved. Constituent groups have expressed a growing concern that witness to the state should be a dimension of our service of Christian compassion.”

In its early years, the MCC office focused on the draft, military spending vs. human needs, global economic justice, domestic poverty, racial justice and religious liberty. While we still work on some of these topics, there have been shifts. The office’s current priorities reflect MCC’s domestic and international work, including immigration, mass incarceration, North Korea, Nigeria and the Syria crisis. In each of these areas, there is still a great need for “Christian compassion” in the political sphere.

When the office opened, many saw it as representing “the” Mennonite voice in Washington. Of course, Mennonites have never been of one mind on political issues. Mennonite agencies and individuals have increasingly advocated directly with the U.S. government on issues ranging from health care to education to peace and security.

Our office is no longer just a listening post but monitors and analyzes policies, facilitates meetings for MCC staff and constituents and encourages church members to be advocates themselves. As we carry out these activities, we listen to and learn from churches and partners in the U.S. and around the world.

In its earlier years, the office saw one of its main activities as sponsoring seminars for Mennonites in Washington. Some seminars drew more than 100 participants. Today, we have found there is not as much demand for MCC seminars, as many more conferences vie for people’s attention. So we partner with other Christian organizations to sponsor “Ecumenical Advocacy Days” each spring and meet with school and church groups who come to Washington.

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Hyun Hur of ReconciliAsian, Samuel Resendez of Iglesia La Roca and Rhonda Dueck of North Fresno (Calif.) Mennonite Brethren Church speak with California Rep. Judy Chu’s aides, Krystal Ka’ai and Rricha Mathur, as part of an immigration delegation in February. — Danielle Gonzales/MCC

Have we changed?

One concern expressed when the office was opened was that Washington would change Mennonites more than Mennonites would change Washington. It is a valid concern. Our staff take regular retreat days to remind ourselves of our rootedness in Christ and the reason we do this work.

But there is also some hubris in assuming our voice is unique and should not change. In his Gospel Herald article, Hershberger argued Mennonites have a “more sound theological base” than other peace groups.

Anabaptists do have important contributions to make to the discussions in Washington. But these days, it is frequently our ecumenical and interfaith colleagues who push us to think about what peace looks like.

We also have much that we can continue to learn about advocacy by and with — not just on behalf of — people who are on the margins. These voices are within our churches and outside them. This past February, many of the church leaders who came to Washington to advocate for better immigration policies spoke from firsthand experience.

MCC’s connections to communities directly impacted by U.S. policies provide integrity to our advocacy. On a recent trip to Lebanon, one of MCC’s partners said, “We partner with you not only for your [financial] support, but for your advocacy.” In recent months, MCC staff who traveled to Syria and North Korea were able to share their experiences with congressional offices.

U.S. policymakers may not always follow our recommendations, but they know us better than they once did.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director for the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

Bill C-262 and living into a new covenant

By Diane Meredith,  Co-Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours Program.

It’s Wednesday night in early May at St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto.  I sit with reams of people in a nearby park, seeking solace from the busy streets and basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring. This day has been long in coming as ice storms are barely behind us. A talk on the Anishinaabek understanding of the sacredness of protecting the waters is about to begin inside the cathedral. I pull myself away and dash inside, surprised to find myself seated among a crowd of some 60 or so of us on this path of “reconciliation.”

Nancy Rowe, Giidaakunadaad, a traditional knowledge keeper and Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman) of the Credit River, begins to share her wisdom about the traditional territory around Lake Ontario/Niigaani-gichigami. Before she begins, Rev. Evan Smith of Toronto Urban Native Ministries (TUNM), extends her hand and offers her a red pouch of tobacco, as is the tradition when greeting an elder or someone offering wisdom. Nancy reaches out and accepts the pouch of tobacco—and a covenant is sealed.

I can’t begin to capture the fullness of Nancy Rowe’s teachings rooted in decades of oral history spoken by elders across Turtle Island. But when she shares this knowledge, I feel a loosening of the grip of a deep skepticism on my heart about the “reconciliation road” the churches profess to travel with Indigenous Peoples.

tobaccoHer explanation of this seemingly simple custom of offering tobacco breaks open a window into a winding long road of the history of the Anishinaabek worldview, including creation stories, forms of spirituality, and governance. Even in its enormity, we begin to grasp that her story is but a glimpse into an expansive worldview so many of us know nothing about. It is however apparent that the meaning of this act—of extending one’s hand to another to offer sacred tobacco—is “covenant.” It is a commitment made between the partners to honour ways of governance and the protocols of living in right relations between and within nations.

The act of sharing tobacco to seal a covenant, often through pipe ceremonies or through the exchange of pouches of tobacco, is a long held ancient Indigenous tradition. It was an act that was extended by Indigenous peoples to the settlers in their first meetings. It seems as if these agreements were made with sincerity. Yet tragically history tells us they were as readily broken with a ferocious greed that explains where we are today.

When this tobacco (in Ojibway called “Semah,” one of the four sacred medicines) is extended and accepted, a spiritual covenant rooted in reciprocity (mutually agreeing to give up something to create something else) is activated, says Nancy. “I am here,” she says, “away from my grandchildren, because I believe this teaching with you is also very important…We are the only ones…humans, who don’t follow the original instructions from Creator as to why we are here… Everything in creation before us agreed to help us being here to fill our purpose… But are you willing to give back? Is there reciprocity?” she challenges.

Bill C262 posterOn May 29th MP Romeo Saganash’s Private Member’s Bill C-262 will be read for the third time in the House of Commons.  Soon after, it will be voted on. The Liberal Government states it will support the bill. This bill calls for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This declaration was drafted by Indigenous Peoples worldwide over a 30-year span.  Consisting of 46 articles, covering all aspects of life, UNDRIP is a universal international human rights instrument that outlines the minimum standards governments should provide to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples. Bill C-262 will ensure that the Government of Canada, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, takes all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the rights as outlined in the UNDRIP.

Tabled in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action called on the Government of Canada, civil society, and the churches to implement UNDRIP in at least twelve of its articles. In 2017 Anabaptist Leaders in response to the TRC Call to Action #48 said: “In our ongoing efforts to seek right relations with our Indigenous neighbours, MCC also commits itself to using the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a guide for right relations and reconciliation. We affirm the principles of self-determination, equality and respect embedded in this Declaration…”

Nancy Rowe’s teachings remind us of the sanctity of covenants based on reciprocity, and the importance of respecting the spirit that dwells within and between these agreements. The treaties, she explains, were a simple example of ancient systems of Indigenous governance and natural laws that were shared with newcomers. “What are you doing to support Indigenous-led healing initiatives of Creation and our society? Everything is about reciprocity and relationship. The enemy of life is greed,” says Nancy.

Like the warmth of summer after long winter storms, justice for Indigenous Peoples is too long in coming. As Ovide Mercredi, Cree leader and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has stated, “The days of the status quo or business, as usual, will not lead to reconciliation.”[1]

Indigenous hands are being extended once again to settlers – here and now. The passing of Bill C-262 into law will ensure the rights of Indigenous People are respected. Bill C-262 is an opportunity to live into a new covenant that will break the inertia and the broken promises of the past. When enacted into law, it will become a dwelling place for the spirit of right relations to thrive between the Creator, God’s creation, and one another.

Rebekah and Jane Sears during march

TRC event in Ottawa 2015 MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

With the passing of Bill C-262 many changes will come; and society, government and church will most surely have to accommodate them. The road to reconciliation demands such change. But I am fully confident that, in this act of reciprocity, all partners in this covenant relationship will benefit for generations to come.

 

 

[1] Kathleen Martens, APTN News “Ovide Mercredi report rips Ontario Law Society on handling of Keshen file,” March 24, 2018.

 

We are still here

Miriam Sainnawap, author of this reflection, is Co-coordinator of MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program.  She is Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Miriam’s reflection is prompted by the story of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014. The white man charged with her death was acquitted in February 2018 because of insufficient evidence. Prior to her death, Tina was in the care of Children and Family Services. Tina’s death galvanized attention on the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls in Canada and led to the establishment in 2016 of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

When I heard the trial verdict “not guilty” in the death of Tina Fontaine, I burst out in tears of grief and anger. That anger inspired me to write.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I could imagine Tina and her aspirations, dreams and hopes.

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From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Not to undermine Tina’s tragic death, I also saw myself in her. Like Tina, I grew up in a  remote community (in northwestern Ontario). Like Tina, I was 15 years old when forced to leave home and live in an unwelcoming urban centre, so that I could fulfill my education opportunities. I quickly had to learn to adjust to white-dominated society and speak in English.

I could be Tina.

As a young Indigenous woman in Canadian society, I quickly learned my worth is devalued and my voice is suppressed.

Tina’s case raises major issues related to the treatment of Indigenous youth in this society.  The systems in place that are meant to serve and protect do not have my best interests and do not reflect my tradition and values.

No justice exists unless truth is told. Reconciliation does not exist now.

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From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Let’s get to the point. The current mess we find ourselves in is our reflection of our society. Canadian society has yet to begin and name the systematic injustice, racism and privilege. Let alone acknowledge whose land they reside and stand on.

Good intentions are not enough. Apologies cannot fix the long-standing broken promises. Paternalist attitudes cannot help save Indigenous youth. Imposed livelihood solutions cannot empower our communities. Colonial systems cannot serve us.

Indigenous people have known, for far too long, that injustice has been a way of life: violence, forced assimilation and abuse.  Those grievances felt over the many generations of the past, exist today and go on into the future.

The goal of colonization has been to get rid of my ancestors and wipe out my nation. Over the years, the attempted assimilative policies have threatened our very existence and survival as the people of the land. They have denied our humanity.

Colonization is costing the lives of Indigenous peoples, my community and my people. What price must we pay?  What price must young Indigenous women pay?

Tina’s life was cut short. She didn’t get the chance to live her dreams. She will continue to remind us we need to do better as a society. We need to stand up for justice and the time is Now.

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From a walk in honour of Tina Fontaine, February 23, 2018, Winnipeg. Photo by Miriam Sainnawap

Indigenous people matter. Indigenous young women matter. We deserve equitable and fair access to justice.

We have dreams and hopes for ourselves and our communities.  We love our families and friends.  We attend universities, drink our cappuccinos like you and go to ceremonies.   We work constantly to make our daily lives better.

We are resilient. We are the people our ancestors prayed for and hoped for the future. We are still here.

Africa through new lenses

This week’s guest writer is Patrick Handrigan. Patrick is a grade 12 student at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland where he is active in a wide range of social justice initiatives.

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to become a better global citizen.

I joined three other  Atlantic Canadian youth, plus five Alberta students, in a three-week youth learning tour to Uganda with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in cooperation with the Alberta and Atlantic Councils for International Cooperation. The tour was called ACT 4 Global Change. While in Uganda, we visited MCC partners who are working to bring about positive change through peaceful initiatives.

During one of our final group debrief activities, we were asked to relate something we saw, felt, or heard on the trip to a symbol on a die. The pair of glasses that I rolled became a symbol that represented my new vision of Africa.

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The group of Canadian students who visited Uganda. Photo credit Leah Attarh

Many Canadians believe that the African continent is the nucleus of poverty, famine, political unrest and conflict. My own closed-minded views of Uganda and its people concerned me and added an element of unease to my travels. The continuous media images of a violent region had me believing that I was going to land in a -plagued zone. But I was wrong. On landing in Uganda, I was greeted with smiles, open arms, and a genuine happiness for my visit. I didn’t expect such a warm reception 10,000 km away from my home in Newfoundland.

After arriving at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, we traveled five hours by bus to Kamuli, a small town in the eastern part of the country. AIDS Education Group for Youth (AEGY) is an organization working within the community to promote the education and the de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. They offer support groups, school courses, radio talk shows, and health services to people needing them, with support from MCC.

In our first day in Kamuli, we worked with AEGY to build eco-stoves from clay which allowed for proper kitchen ventilation to reduce the risk of lung-related illnesses of people living with HIV. This unique architectural consideration in a simple family dwelling not only made their homes safe, but gave the community a sense of ownership, pride and self-reliance. Our visit concluded with dancing, singing and lunch with the Namasambya 1 Village Savings and Loans Association, a visit to the Peer Support Clubs at Kasambira High School, and a community game of soccer and netball with teens.

AEGY Stoves (Leah Ettarh)

Students assist in building AEGY eco-stoves. Photo credit Leah Attarh.

The next day, we made a visit to Nakulyako Primary School to observe the RUMPS (Reusable Menstrual Products) club in action. Prior to this program, female students were unable to attend school while on their menstrual cycle, but with support from MCC, this new program evolved. Male classmates fully supported and actively participated in this venture, and understood its importance to a better future for Ugandan women. This is a huge step forward for women’s rights and educational equality in Uganda.

In Kampala, African Leadership and Reconciliation Missions (ALARM) works for  peace between boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers and the local police. At our visit to the police barracks, we learned about peace club initiatives that promote respectful dialogue.

At Mengo Hospital, we met Dr. Edith Namulema, who is responsible for the Counselling and Home Care Clinic and coordinates the peer support group. This group provides medical and counselling services for teens living with HIV. Our team joined the group for a session and connected through eating, dancing, and sharing stories. From the support of MCC, the hospital is expecting the completion of a new clinical wing.

Stella Matutina - Sister Sophia and I (Louise Hanavan)

Patrick Handrigan with Sister Sophia of the Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School. Photo credit Louise Hanavan.

We were welcomed with open arms at Stella Matutina All Girls Secondary School in Kiryandongo. This school was founded in 2001 during the reign of the Lord’s Resistance Army and provided a safe-haven and an education to girls affected by the war. Under Sister Sophia’s leadership, students performed a comedic spin-off of Cinderella and a somber, more informative play about malaria and its effects on the community. We enjoyed a meal together and spent the afternoon playing volleyball, soccer, racing Sister Sophia in a 100m dash, and teaching the Macarena to the girls–a truly wonderful way to spend my last few days in Uganda.

Our visit to Soroti gave us the opportunity to see a different geographical landscape and the challenges that persist with living within this region. Action for Peace and Development (APED) supports conservation agricultural community initiatives that create jobs and peace within Soroti District. They follow a method of “Farming God’s Way” which teaches them to respect the earth and not destroy its natural beauty. Church of Uganda in the Teso Region (COU-TEDDO) taught us the importance of agriculture in peacekeeping and the impact climate change is having on this region. We celebrated the first rain in many months together.

Youth, as global citizens, are the catalysts for change in today’s world. We have a responsibility to ignite a paradigm shift in how Africa is portrayed in our society. Learning not to judge an entire country or continent by a news headline is a critical way to increase global understanding. Building positive relationships with that country, in turn, will  assist in the country’s educational, economic, political and social development.

Because of my learning experience, I see Uganda – and Africa — through new lenses.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” — Kenyan proverb

 

Ahed Tamimi and all the other Palestinian children in detention

In just a few short weeks, Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has become a global celebrity of sorts. In mid-December, then 16-year-old Ahed confronted Israeli soldiers outside her home in the village of Nabi Saleh in Israeli-occupied West Bank. A video showing Ahed slapping and kicking the soldiers quickly went viral.

According to witnesses, Ahed was angered by the soldiers’ presence because they had just shot (with a rubber-coated bullet at close range) and seriously harmed her cousin. The larger context is that other Tamimi members have been killed and many others detained over the years, as the community of Nabi Saleh—through persistent and unarmed resistance—has said “No” to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and more specifically to the confiscation of the village spring by a nearby Israeli settlement.

Days after the confrontation, Ahed was arrested in a night-time raid. Her mother Nariman—who had also appeared in the video—was also detained when she went to a police station, inquiring where her daughter was being held.

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Ahed Tamimi enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli authorities at Ofer Prison, January 1, 2018.  Photo Ammar Awad, Reuters

Ahed now faces a total of 12 charges, including assault, incitement and throwing stones. She could potentially be imprisoned for ten years.  The first hearing of her trial took place on February 13; the next one is scheduled for March 11.

Since December, Ahed’s story has been picked up by news media around the world. Amnesty International and Avaaz have taken up her cause, demanding her release. Canada’s own CBC broadcasted a feature story about Ahed, describing her as the “new symbol of Palestinian resistance.” And parliamentarians like Hélène Laverdière, NDP critic for International Development, have spoken out on her behalf.

And yet Ahed’s story is not only about one young person’s resistance to a military occupation that has humiliated her people for decades. It is about the daily reality of Palestinian children who are arrested, interrogated, convicted and detained in a military court process that denies them basic rights. Most of them are accused of throwing stones.

Ahed’s detention provides a glimpse into what hundreds of Palestinian children experience each year.

Jarrah

Jarrah Mesalmeh was arrested at 15 and spent 9 months in military detention. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

As we have previously written about in our blog, each year hundreds of children aged 12 to 18 face military detention in a process that deprives them of basic rights. In three quarters of all cases, children experience some form of violence after arrest. In most cases, arrest happens at night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. And in most cases, children are interrogated without legal counsel and without access to a parent or guardian. After sentencing, more than half of detainees are transferred from the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel, in violation of international law.

Expert organizations like Defence for Children International, Military Court Watch and UNICEF demonstrate that the ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees by Israeli forces is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the Israeli military detention system.”

Moreover, they point out that the process is not primarily about seeking justice—in fact, a staggering 99 percent of Palestinians (adults and children) are convicted. The practices of the military detention system work to protect Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements in the West Bank and to intimidate and suppress a population that resists a 50-year occupation.

In a recent study, Military Court Watch determined that 98 percent of child detention cases occur near Israeli settlements. As Gerard Horton, the organization’s co-founder, puts it, “If the politicians in Israel decide to put 400,000 Israeli civilians into the West Bank and you give the job to the military guaranteeing their protection, then the tactics employed by the military generally include suppressing and intimidating the villagers living next to those settlements.”

The story of Ahed Tamimi provides a window into a much wider reality of oppression. As Brad Parker of Defence for Children International states, “Ahed’s detention and prosecution in Israel’s military court system is not exceptional, but provides a clear example of how Israeli military law and military courts are used to control an occupied Palestinian population.”

Please take action for the hundreds of children like Ahed who are paying the price of this sustained occupation. Join the growing movement of people and organizations who say that military detention is No Way to Treat a Child.

Learn more about Palestinian children in military detention through a story, video and factsheet MCC has produced.

Then sign the petition urging the Canadian federal government to address the situation of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.

Closing the accountability gap on business and human rights

On January 17th, the federal government unveiled a long-awaited policy reform.

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Courtesy of KAIROS Canada.

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne—Minister of International Trade—announced that Canada will be establishing an independent human rights Ombudsperson to address allegations of abuse by Canadian corporations operating overseas.

For well over a year, rumours have swirled around Ottawa that this announcement was “imminent.” But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that more than a decade of advocacy by civil society groups finally bore fruit.

As an organization that has witnessed the negative impacts of Canadian mining overseas and has heard repeated calls from partners for mechanisms for redress, we at MCC are grateful for this new policy direction.

Called the “Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” this position will put the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (set up in 2009) out of commission. The Ombudsperson will, at least initially, continue to focus on mining, oil, and gas companies, while also adding the garment industry to the mix.

I doubt that many will be sad to see the CSR Counsellor’s office go. With no political independence (the Trade Minister is, after all, its boss) and no mandate to investigate complaints, make binding recommendations, or require companies to participate in proceedings, this position has been hamstrung by inherent flaws and limitations from the get-go.

Indeed, the CSR Counsellor was, from day one, an inadequate response to long-awaited calls for action.

Dating back to the 2007 National CSR Roundtables, experts from multiple sectors (including industry) have been advising the government to establish an independent human rights Ombudsperson “with teeth” (something other than the voluntary, non-binding, market-based CSR incentives the government usually prefers). Ever since those roundtables, civil society groups have been working hard to keep this “ask” alive-and-kicking on the political agenda.

In recent years, the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability and MCC partners like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation—has rallied Canadians to push for the establishment of an Ombudsperson as well as for legislated access to Canadian courts (the latter of which also has gained steam thanks to several civil cases winding their way through court on our own soil).

Now, this decade of sustained advocacy finally has paid off.

Touted as the “first of its kind in the world” and part of the government’s “progressive trade agenda,” the newly-announced human rights Ombudsperson—and its promised multi-stakeholder Advisory Body—will provide a fresh start for Canada to take leadership for responsible business conduct abroad.

Last week, MCC joined the voices of Canadian civil society in welcoming the Ombudsperson announcement in a letter to the Trade Minister. “If properly implemented,” the letter says, “this position will help hold Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations overseas, provide remedy for victims of abuse, and prevent future harm for local communities.”

If properly implemented…

Herein lies the crux of the matter.

As the government now begins the work of building the office and hiring its very first Ombudsperson, key questions still need to be firmly answered.

Will the office…

…be fully independent from business and government at all stages of the process?

…be properly funded and staffed, so as to undertake complex investigations?

…be entirely transparent, making its progress, findings, and final recommendations for remedy publicly available?

…be able to monitor progress on recommendations and settlement agreements?

and, most importantly…

…have the authority to summon witnesses and compel disclosure of corporate documents?

The Government of Canada has the opportunity to take a real, global leadership role here. And civil society partners like KAIROS are “cautiously optimistic.”

But the credibility of the office hinges on its implementation.

Lend your voice (with our easy email tool!) in thanking the Canadian government and expressing your support for an effective and fully independent Ombudsperson with strong investigative powers!

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

***Check out CNCA’s great infographic on criteria for an effective Ombudsperson

On refugee resettlement, children and youth: A personal story

This piece by  Saulo Padilla, Immigration Education Coordinator for MCC U.S., was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections: MCC theory & practice quarterly.

As governments consider the current refugee crisis, one area of special concern must be the well-being of children and youth. Research in this area is scarce and data is limited. Nevertheless, organizations working at resettlement must continue to search for better practices and support systems for resettling children and youth.

In my work with MCC U.S., I encounter many children and youth in various stages of migration. My thoughts on the topic of resettling children and youth start with my own experience of the resettlement of our family in 1986 from Guatemala to Canada. On the evening of February 18, 1986, many people from our church community and neighbors in Guatemala City came to our home to say farewell. We were departing the next morning to reunite with my father who had fled Guatemala for Mexico in May 1980. He was ultimately accepted as a political refugee in Canada in January 1981. I was 15 years old when I left Guatemala. I remember being happy to jump on an airplane for the first time and travel to Calgary, Alberta, and reunite with my father. This reunification had been our family dream for years. In retrospect, I wish our family had been better informed regarding what was about to happen.

As I reflect on our migration and resettlement process, I have often described it as a new birth, with all the pain, pushes and pulls of labor. We knew a few things about Canada. My mother had cousins in Toronto who had fled there a few years earlier, so we had seen photos of Canada, including of the majestic Rocky Mountains where we would be living. However, no photos or stories could prepare us for what we were going to encounter. Upon our arrival, the government provided some support to help us settle. We received winter clothes at the airport, along with some money to help us start life in Canada. We were enrolled in the health care system and a social worker was appointed to us, although we rarely saw him and he did not speak Spanish.

Saulo Padilla (1986)

Reunited with dad, after almost 6 years of separation. From left, Mauricio, Saulo and Herman Padilla stand with their father Adolfo Padilla in Calgary, Alberta in May 1986. (Photo provided by Saulo Padilla)

The first challenges that many newcomers to Canada speak of is the weather. It was -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) when we landed in Calgary. We had never experienced that kind of weather in Guatemala. Like newborns out of the comfort of the mother land, we were cold all the time and had to be clothed differently. While the first few months of snow were part of our honeymoon, the extended winter, followed by a blizzard in early May, which left us stuck without electricity for three days, challenged us. We started to miss home. Within a few months of arriving, we started asking our father over and over if we could go back to Guatemala. Nevertheless, the weather was not an insurmountable challenge.

The system makes you believe that the one major hurdle is learning the language. However, I believe that too much emphasis is put on language learning.  Language will come with time and does not deserve the amount of importance that it is given. A bigger challenge for us was to become family again. My parents had their own communication issues, even though they spoke a common language. They had lived apart for a long time and developed their own survival modes of functioning. We children would side with our mother in their arguments and this would upset our father. Even when our family was reunited, we were more fragmented and fractured than when we were separated from our father. Supporting families with counseling and emotional support as they reunite and resettle must be a priority in the resettlement process.

Saulo Padilla

Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator, visits his mother, Amparo Marroquín de Padilla, in Guatemala City, Guatemala in December 2011. (MCC Photo/Melissa Engle)

In conversations with resettled refugees, I notice that a common tendency is to measure the success of the migration by what the family has accomplished in the new homeland. As I reflect on where we as a family are now, I am not so sure that is the best measure of successful integration. In many ways I am a success, because I learned English, got a series of good jobs and an education. However, thirty years after my family resettled from Guatemala to Canada, I am still trying to unpack the effects of our migration by different measures. It took only a couple of years to adapt to a Calgary winter and within four years of arrival my brothers and I were speaking English well. However, our family separated again. My mother has suffered from depression which lingers into the present. While my two brothers still live in Calgary, my mother and my sister returned to Guatemala. My father has a new family and lives in British Columbia. I live in Goshen, Indiana.

Looking back on our resettlement experience, I believe that supporting family reunification was an important piece of the resettlement process that was not adequately addressed. Because of this experience, I continue to seek ways to better understand how resettlement affects families and children. My hope is that resettlement agencies can adjust policies and practices to lessen the adverse impacts of resettlement on refugee families and to empower refugee families with children to make informed decisions about movement.