BVOR and the surprising joy of refugee sponsorship

By Nicholas Pope, Advocacy Research Intern in MCC’s Ottawa Office. Nicholas has a law degree from the University of Calgary. He has served with MCC in Palestine and also Alberta, where he has been the MCC Alberta Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator.  He continues in that role part-time, while serving in the Ottawa Office.

In December 2016, a woman named Lucille, from the small town of Stettler, Alberta, contacted me at MCC’s refugee sponsorship office in Calgary. She was inquiring about sponsoring a Syrian refugee family her church was in contact with. She had followed how the war in Syria was causing many people to flee their country. She was passionate to help.

Before we could act on Lucille’s request, however, the government announced it was revoking an exemption introduced in 2015 to simplify the private sponsorship and resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Canada. This revocation meant that people like Lucille, who wished to sponsor Syrian refugees, had only one option: going through a Sponsorship Agreement Holder like MCC, rather than being able to use another route like Group of Five or Community Sponsor.

On top of that, since 2012 the government has limited the number of refugees a Sponsorship Agreement Holder can sponsor, in order to work through the massive (sometimes 5 year) backlogs in Canadian visa offices. In 2017, for example, MCC Alberta was given permission to sponsor only 59 individuals. As the Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator for MCC Alberta, I had hundreds of people approach me, requesting to sponsor well over 600 individuals.

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Lucille (2nd from right) and community members, along with the newly arrived Kwizera-Mukazine family. 

There was, however, another option for Lucille. That option is the Blended Visa Office Referred Program (BVOR); it is not subject to any caps. In this type of sponsorship, the in-Canada sponsors do not choose the specific refugees they will sponsor; rather, MCC matches them with a family that has been specifically referred by UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) because that family is especially in need of resettlement.

I shared information about the BVOR program with Lucille, and she took this information back to her group in Stettler. By May they had decided to do a BVOR instead. After some initial paperwork and orientation, we were ready to make a match.

The group initially hoped to sponsor a Syrian family, but all the UNHCR-referred Syrian families had recommended destinations for other Canadian towns because of family connections. This didn’t stop Lucille and her group. After further discussion, they decided they were willing to sponsor a family from anywhere there was need.

At the end of June, we matched them with a family from central Africa. There were a few delays, as often occurs in refugee resettlement, but the family arrived safely in November.

I recently received an email from Lucille that was empty except for this link to a story from the Stettler local newspaper. It outlines the harrowing tale of the newcomer family — a story  that involves government corruption, assassination, political persecution, fleeing through five different countries, election to leadership of a refugee camp, being reconnected with a daughter thought dead for nine years, and finally arriving in Canada.

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Daniel Kwizera, Diane Mukasine and their three children, Junny, Daniella and Darissa. 

Lucille and her Stettler group did not get to do the refugee sponsorship they envisioned back in December of 2016, but I do not think they mind. Many other groups have had a similar experience.

More than once, I have witnessed how people, who were touched by the crisis in Syria and initially focused on helping specific Syrians, open their hearts to sponsor others in need—often families and individuals from overlooked crises, as in Lucille’s case.  It is another example of the surprising joy of refugee sponsorship.

In 2017, MCC sponsored 427 individuals through the BVOR program. That is one third of all BVORs in Canada.

Exacerbated by the United States’ recent decision to reduce their refugee intake from 110,000 to 45,000 per year, the UNHCR is struggling to find places to resettle families that are most vulnerable. The UNHCR estimates that only about 10 percent of refugees who require resettlement in 2017 and 2018 will have that opportunity.

Through the BVOR program, MCC and communities across Canada are doing their part to help.

If you would be interested sponsoring refugees through the BVOR program, visit mcccanada.ca/supporting-refugees

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

A prayer of response to Mary’s Magnificat

The Magnificat is often understood to be a song of praise. Recorded in Luke 1:47-55, it is Mary’s response to the prophecy that, through her, God’s fulfillment will come.

I sometimes struggle to believe Mary’s strong and powerful affirmation of the coming of God’s “upside down kingdom.” Mary’s words are meant to comfort and give hope to those seeking justice, but injustice continues and at times even flourishes.

Where is the mercy for those who fear the Lord? Did I miss the proud being scattered? When I look at the leaders of the world, I still see dictators and tyrants, who remain on their “thrones” of power. I don’t see the lowly being lifted up or the hungry being filled with good things or the rich being sent away empty.

How do I respond to the intense hope and joy recorded in the Magnificat when, for so many, the world seems so bleak?

As I wrestle with these questions, I find myself praying as Mary sings.

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My soul seeks to magnify the Lord as my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for the Almighty has done good things and
though change feels slow and is sometimes hard to find,
I know that it comes. I know that it happens.

With Mary I wait for what has been promised.
I wait for tables to be turned and power to shift.
For a scattering of the proud and a tumbling of the mighty.
I wait for new life and a new world.

For those treated as social outcasts just for being who they are
or because of events outside their control,
I pray for God’s loving presence to be as real to them
as it was to Mary when she proclaimed
the Lord has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

To the Mighty One who has done great things
I pray for an open heart and unblocked ears
that I may hear the voices of the poor and oppressed
and act to share their struggle for justice.

For those who have experienced violence,
or been forced to flee their homes,
I pray for God’s mercy which Mary promised
is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.

For those who experience racial hatred
and suffer the bigotry of the narrow minded,
I pray that they might know the Lord has shown the strength of his arm
and the proud will be scattered in the conceit of their heart.

For those suffering under the oppression of tyrants and dictators,
I pray they may take comfort in knowing justice is coming
for the Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.

For the poor and hungry,
I pray they may experience what it means
to be filled with good things
while the rich are sent away empty.

To the one who helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
I pray with longing that all may have the joy of the Magnificat
as its promise is fulfilled with God among us.

By Monica Scheifele, Ottawa Office Program Assistant

A transformative agenda on migration

This week’s guest writer is Kathrine Garrison, Program and Advocacy Associate at MCC’s UN Office in New York. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame where she majored in psychology and minored in international peace studies, and then went on to earn a Masters of Philosophy in International Peace Studies, with a focus on humanitarian aid and development, from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Her work at the MCC UN Office centers on migration, food security, and the region of Latin America and the Caribbean.

In recent years, the emerging crises of unprecedented migrant flows into Europe brought migration to the forefront of international policy discourse. These discussions culminated in a United Nations (UN) summit that assembled its 193 member states at its New York headquarters in September 2016. At this time, leaders from around the globe came together to agree upon a powerful outcome document, known as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

This document expressed the political will and commitment of the international community to protect the lives and human rights of all refugees and migrants, as well as to address the imperative for a shared responsibility in facing future migration challenges. In addition, this declaration demonstrated that migration now holds a place as a significant issue of focus within the international agenda.

One of the specific plans of action outlined in the New York Declaration was the start of intergovernmental consultations and negotiations aimed at establishing a comprehensive framework promoting safe, orderly, and regular migration.  The process began in early 2017 and will culminate in a United Nations conference on international migration in late 2018, during which the General Assembly will adopt what has been termed the Global Compact for Migration.

This time of consultation and negotiation, leading up to the General Assembly adoption of a Global Compact for Migration, presents a powerful opportunity to improve the global governance on migration, to address the challenges of migration, and to enhance the ways in which migration can actually contribute to the UN agenda of sustainable development.

Acknowledging that Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) works with a great number and diverse spectrum of migrant populations around the world, the MCC UN Office decided to actively engage in the consultation, stocktaking, and negotiation processes, with the intent to ensure that migrant voices effectively reach the ears of those who will ultimately draft and adopt the formalized framework.

We delivered official statements at high-level meetings such as those deciding upon the methods and procedures for the negotiation process itself, and stressed the necessity of including civil society voices throughout the entirety of the proceedings. We attended countless meetings to monitor the consultations and remain attuned to the topics of focus along with taking note of those being overlooked. We met with Louise Arbour of Canada, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on International Migration, and with Swiss Ambassador Jürg Lauber, one of the official co-facilitators for the Global Compact for Migration process.

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Former MVS intern Emma Cabana delivering a statement on behalf of the MCC UN Office at the Informal Briefing by Civil Society on the Modalities for the Global Compact for Migration

Yet, it remains crucial to note that these advocacy endeavors are conducted not alone but in collaboration and partnership with a multitude of other civil society representatives, primarily through a coalition called the NGO Committee on Migration.

This coalition worked together to draft a vision for what it termed the UN Global Compact on Human Mobility and Migration, a set of ten acts that civil society believes are essential to a meaningful Global Compact. Read the entirety of “Now and How: Ten Acts for the Global Compact” here. This document represents civil society’s attempt to reframe the conversation on migration to emphasize human dignity, full participation in discussion and solutions (especially honoring the multiplicity of migrant voices), development for all, and a commitment to implementing both existing international human rights law and labor conventions and protocols and the actions outlined in the Global Compact for Human Mobility and Migration.

As the UN body works to compose a draft of the Global Compact for migration in the upcoming months, the MCC UN Office plans on participating, with the NGO Committee on Migration, in meetings with representatives from UN member states to present the “Now and How” document and advocate for the inclusion of its contents in the official Global Compact.

You can also help advance these advocacy efforts! The NGO Committee on Migration aspires to secure at least 1,000 organizational endorsements on the “Now and How” document by the end of November 2017. Therefore, we encourage you to share this opportunity for endorsement with other NGOs and ask them to sign on here to show support for its vision. In addition, at an individual level, we encourage you to utilize the attached template to send a letter to your parliamentarians or other government representatives, asking them to enter into a discussion about practical solutions to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration.

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As stated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General William Lacy Swing, “The Global Compact is a historic opportunity to achieve a world in which migrants move as a matter of genuine choice. It’s time for the international community to come together to more responsibly and humanely manage the movement of people.” Just as we are called on a personal level to welcome the stranger in Matthew 25:35 and to “love the alien” as ourselves in Leviticus 19:33-34, so too are we called on a collective level to strive to create more just structures and international policy to address the matters of migration.

Now is the time for a transformative agenda for human mobility, migration, and development. Let’s make it happen.

Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

This is the first of a two-part series called the Voices of the Peacebuilders, on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working at the grassroots, within communities. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part series will outline points from each lecture and provide a video link. The first, held on October 16 and hosted by the Faculty of Education, was entitled: “From the Grassroots to the Negotiating Tables: The Case for Women as Peacebuilders.”

Women are so often excluded from the high-level peace negotiating tables and their efforts for peace are largely ignored in the mainstream news, despite making up half of the population, and often bearing the brunt of conflict. Yet this has not stopped women from being innovators and champions for peace within their communities, including within MCC’s partners.

We must bring these voices to the table and make the case for women as innovators and leaders, working for peace, from the grassroots to the negotiating table.

Join me on a brief world tour to see snapshots of some of this work, and let me introduce you to some of these women peacebuilders, from Colombia to Nigeria and from South Sudan to Palestine and Israel.

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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A quilt depicting the forced displacement of 2000. MCC Colombia’s office in Bogota.

On Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, meet the Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavors, a group of women from the small Afro-Colombian community of Mampujan. In 2000 this entire community was forcibly displaced, as part of Colombia’s 50+ years armed conflict, leaving the community traumatized.  In response, MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz, together with the community, developed a healing project in which women, working together, sewed quilts, depicting the story of their displacement. As the women stitched, they shared their hurts, and, in doing so, they not only found healing, but a passion to work for justice.

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Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavours of Peace of Mampuján win a national peace prize in Colombia, 2015. Photo, Anna Vogt, thellamadiaries.com

The women then decided to create a series of quilts, depicting the entire history of their community, including ancestors arriving on slave ships, independence, forced displacement, and dreams for the future. They have shared these quilts with other Colombian communities who have also undergone trauma in the armed conflict, and the women of Mampujan have received national and international recognition for these efforts. Much work remains, but the women of Mampujan have led the way in a movement for healing, peace and justice. Read more about Mampujan’s story here.

Jos, Nigeria: Inter-faith bridgebuilding for a common goal of peace

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Amina Ahmed (second from the right) with MCC staff (left to right) Charles Kwuelum (MCC Washington, D.C.), Kati Garrison (MCC UN) and Bekah Sears (MCC Ottawa) on a 2016 visit to Jos, Nigeria. Photo, Ben Weisbrod.

In Jos, Nigeria we meet Amina Ahmed, a local leader in interfaith peacebuilding, and an avid supporter of MCC partner Emergency Preparedness Response Team (EPRT), a joint Christian and Muslim organization responding to crises by addressing conflict at its roots. Because Jos is on the dividing line, of sorts, between the Christian South and Muslim North in Nigeria, it has often been at the epicenter of multiple acute outbursts of violence between Christians and Muslims, creating deep animosity. Yet Amina, along with others, are seeking to change these dynamics and bring people together in peace.

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Amina Ahmed, director of a women’s peace organization, leads a nonviolence training supported by MCC in Jos, Nigeria, 2015. MCC photo, Dave Klassen.

But Amina was not always a leader in these efforts. As a Muslim, Amina was traumatized by violence carried out by Christians against Muslims, including her brother’s murder in 2001. For months she felt deep rage and fear, wanting revenge, seeking out groups planning violent attacks against Christians. But, at her father’s urging, Amina attended an interfaith peace workshop. Seeing both Muslims and Christians working together for peace, Amina’s heart was transformed. Since then she has become a champion for peace across religious or ethnic divides in Nigeria. Read more about Amina’s story here.

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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Loreto Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman.

On to Rumbek, South Sudan, where leadership in peacebuilding comes from a group perceived as the “weakest” in society, i.e. girls and young women. South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since 2013, displacing millions and civilians are often the deliberate targets of violence. But there are also deep cycles of violence and oppression within communities, particularly targeting girls. This includes early forced marriage, deeply tied to the importance of cattle ownership. Male relatives force girls into marriage to reclaim the cattle debt the girls’ fathers would have accumulated for their own marriage dowries.

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Loreto Peace Club members, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, MCC supports peace clubs aimed at fostering inter-personal conflict resolution skills, in the recognition that lasting peace begins at the community level. Peace club members then initiated community-based trauma healing and reconciliation groups, within the wider community called Listening Circles: safe spaces to share trauma and grievances, while fostering reconciliation. An MCC worker describes these young women as “a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.” Read more about Loreto peace clubs here.

Nazareth, Palestine and Israel: Stitching reconciliation and standing up for human rights

The final stop takes us to a church basement in Nazareth with Violette Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of MCC partner Sabeel’s Nazareth office. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population of the country. Although Palestinians are citizens, Violette describes state laws which discriminate against them with respect to land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights and more. But most of all, Violette laments both deteriorating relations in between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Nazareth, as well as a dominant narrative that denies the history and roots of the Palestinian people in the region.

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

In response, Violette started a project for local women, both Christians and Muslims and even Jewish Israelis, to learn ancient stitching techniques that were once commonplace in Nazareth. In this project Violette hopes to bring unity and reconciliation, all while reclaiming the history of the Palestinian people in the region. She says, “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage. But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” In addition, by inviting Jewish Israelis she hopes to extend reconciliation efforts and cross barriers that seem insurmountable. Read more of the context in which Violette works here.

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

On November 1, 2017, after many consultations and civil society and parliamentary input, the Canadian government launched its second Canadian National Action Plan (C-NAP) on implementing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is hopeful news.

The first objective of the CNAP – one which our Ottawa Office staff will be watching closely– calls for the “increase of meaningful participation of women, women’s organizations and networks in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.”

In the meantime, in addition to monitoring governmental action on women and peacebuilding, our task is clear. We continue learning, telling the stories, spreading the word, and standing in solidarity with these and other peacebuilders around the world, making the case for women peacebuilders, from the grassroots all the way to the negotiating tables.

Watch the full lecture here 

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Dr. Ottilia Chareka (Photo St FX University) This lecture, the 6th Annual Dr. Ottilia Chareka Memorial Lecture in Education and Social Justice was given in her honour. Tragically, Ottilia was killed in 2011. Ottilia was a long-time friend of mine (Rebekah) and I was both humbled and honoured to help carry on her legacy.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

The Legacy of Balfour: 100 years since the Declaration

This piece was originally published by MCC Palestine, November 2, 2017.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”[1]

Today, November 2, 2017, marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. For many observers of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, this declaration by the British government is ground zero. Issued towards the end of the First World War, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised to support the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine. The Zionists, who sought such a homeland for the Jews, hailed this as a major victory. On the other hand, the declaration would spell catastrophe for the native inhabitants of Palestine.

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, “more than 600,000 Arabs and a good 55,000 Jews were living in Palestine, so more than 90% were Arabs.”[2] Increased Jewish immigration, facilitated by the British, led these demographics to shift towards the time of the infamous United Nations partition plan in 1947, which gave over 50% of the land to Jews who comprised only a third of the population of Historic Palestine.[3] Following the adoption of the resolution, armed conflict in Palestine erupted. As the State of Israel was established in 1948, Jewish militias carried out expulsion campaigns that displaced between 700,000 and 900,000 native Palestinians from their homes and lands. Palestinians call this time in their history “the Nakba,” which translates into English as “the Catastrophe.”

Violette Khoury, a Palestinian Christian woman who helps run the Nazareth chapter of Sabeel, an MCC partner organization, talks about what it is like to be a dispossessed people. She explains that the common Zionist expression of Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land,” is simply not true. “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage,” she exclaims, “But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” The Balfour Declaration was a denial of the Palestinians and their existence on the land. The declaration was “one nation solemnly promising to a second nation the country of the third.”[4]

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

We must never forget that Zionism is a response to rampant European-Christian anti-Semitism, the greatest expression of which was the Holocaust where about 6 million European Jews perished. To deny the ugly history of anti-Jewish sentiment is a moral wrong deserving of profound repentance. However, to deny the suffering and dispossession of the Palestinian people, starting with the Balfour Declaration a hundred years ago, is also morally reprehensible. We must acknowledge both, holding them together at the same time. At this very moment, Palestinians are being forced off of their lands, their houses are being demolished, and their children are being sent to prisons. The displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people continues a hundred years on from the Balfour Declaration. What will we do about it?

As Violette so powerful puts it: “When you discover the truth you cannot remain indifferent.”

So what will we do with the truth?

[1] Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Salman H. Abu Sitta, Atlas of Palestine 1948, Palestine Land Society, London, 2004, p. 1 (quoting Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1949) as seen in Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

Persons Day

October 18 is Persons Day in Canada. It is a time to remember and celebrate the historic 1929 decision of what was then Canada’s highest court of appeal – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain – to include women in the legal definition of “persons”.

The idea that women would not be considered persons seems absurd today and even more ridiculous to think that this was the case less than 100 years ago. Aren’t all human beings persons? Apparently not in Canadian law before 1929 when the definition was still based on a section of the British North America Act of 1867 which stated only “qualified persons” could be given rights such as owning property, voting, and sitting in the House of Commons and the Senate.  Of course, the Canadian government chose to interpret this phrase as meaning men only.

The notion was only challenged when five (now famous) women sought change and on October 18, 1929, the Privy Council of Great Britain announced “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

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Why not indeed. Women have proven themselves very capable in public office.

Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a police magistrate in 1916. However, a lawyer repeatedly challenged her rulings, claiming that she was not legally a “person.” In 1927 she led the legal challenge now known as the Persons Case.

She was joined by four other courageous determined women: Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Together they implemented an obscure provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution or at that time the British North America Act.

When Louise McKinney was sworn in to the Alberta Legislature in 1917, she became the first woman to sit in any legislature in the British Empire.

Appointed as Minister without a Portfolio in Alberta in 1921 Irene Parlby became only the second woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the British Empire and represented Canada at the League of Nations in 1930.

Nellie McClung was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s Board of Governors, and a delegate to the League of Nations in 1939.

Henrietta Muir Edwards was active in prison reform and published and financed the first Canadian magazine for working women.

Today each of these amazing “persons” has a statue on Parliament Hill.

with the famous five (May 2015)

MCC Ottawa Office staff Rebekah Sears, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Monica Scheifele, and Jennifer Wiebe with Famous Five statues on Parliament Hill. Photo by Alison Ralph, MCC

As four women who have benefitted from their trail blazing, MCC Ottawa Office staff often visit these statues to remember their commitment to change. If not for their efforts there couldn’t be 41 (out of 105) female Senators and 89 of the current Members of Parliament might not be women. There wouldn’t be a gender balanced cabinet or a Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Unfortunately, there are still times and places even in Canada when women aren’t truly seen as “persons”.  When their voices aren’t heard or their contributions and accomplishments properly recognized.

On this Person’s Day may we remember that we are all created in God’s image. Every human being is a person with rights. We all have a role to play in bringing about positive change for a more a just world. Let us learn from the impressive examples of the many women before us who refused to give up and kept advocating for change until they were heard.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office