Learning with the next generation: Human rights and global migration

By Garth Lester

From February 14 to 16, 2019, I had the privilege of joining about thirty other university and college students from across Canada for MCC’s annual student seminar in Ottawa. The focus of this seminar was ‘People on the Move: Human Rights and Global Migration,’ and this was reflected by the diverse body of attendees. A major element of this conference was recognizing that besides Indigenous Canadians, each of us can trace our lineage to immigrant ancestors; students arrived from across our large country, but we each also brought heritages from even further away, including Eastern Europe, South East Asia, West Africa, and the Middle East.


MCC Ottawa Office student seminar 2019 participants on Parliament Hill (MCC photo by Sara Peppinck)

Even before arriving in Ottawa, I was challenged to reflect on the incredible adversity faced by the millions of global refugees and migrants as they seek out peace for themselves and their families. Due to winter storms, I experienced several flight cancellations, re-bookings, and delays until I arrived at an unpleasantly early time in Ottawa. In the midst of my travelling difficulties, I knew that I had a network of resources to assist me if necessary; for many refugees and migrants, there is no safety net or alternative plan, but instead barriers and often unpredictable challenges.

Another major element of this conference was to develop a deep empathy for refugees and migrants, and to recognize that they are individual people with personal stories, dreams, fears and needs. It is important to listen to stories because that allows us to move beyond viewing people groups as statistics, and instead allows us to see others’ humanity and respond accordingly.

The seminar featured a number of incredible speakers who spoke about their personal involvement with global migration, as well as reflected on the needs that can be addressed by the average individual, like those of us attending. Nadia Williamson, from the UNHCR, explained the role and limitations of multilateral organizations like the United Nations, expressing that the private sector and civil society are needed to fully meet the needs of refugees and migrants. A panel of Canadian civil society actors further explained the importance of non-governmental organizations, especially to influence government. In addition, André Belzile, from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, presented the significant value in multi-state organizations and the state of Canada.

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Civil society panel with left to right: Deborah Mebude and Serisha Iyar from Citizens for Public Justice, Amy Bartlett from Refugee Hub, Doreen Katto from Matthew House (MCC photo by Sara Peppinck)

In collective, the speakers expressed the complex interconnectedness of the United Nations, the Canadian government, civil society, and the private sector—there is not one sector of society that will be able to independently generate positive change. In response to this reality, I see an obligation for me to be involved as an educated voting Canadian citizen, an advocate through civil society, and a compassionate and hospitable neighbour within my increasingly diverse neighbourhood.

As a democratic nation, Canadian citizens have the right and opportunity to have their voices heard and advocate for others. During this seminar, we heard several stories that stimulate hope, in which MCC and others successfully convinced the Canadian government and UN representatives to improve policies in response to the global refugee/forced migration crisis. When individuals come together, through petitions, letters to MPs, and meetings, we are able to actively influence our government.

A statement that stands out from the seminar is that as advocates, “we are not a voice for the voiceless, but we are lending our privilege as a megaphone” (Samantha Baker Evens). My Canadian citizenship and English heritage give me power and privilege, which I can use to empower others.

The role of being an advocate is dynamic as it involves listening to the individuals who are most affected by the crisis, educating myself on the issue, actively and tangibly caring for my newcomer neighbour, and pressuring those in power to change. This sounds like a tall order, and certainly not a task that can be handled alone. This seminar shed light on the importance of recognizing change, the obligation to respond, as well as showed me how groups and organizations, like MCC, can use their power to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants around the world.

– Garth Lester is a student at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC.


Abel Machaca: To be in the truth

This blog was originally published by MCC Latin America and the Caribbean (MCC LACA) on November 28, 2018.  

By Riley Mulhern

Photo by Anna Vogt

“They’re afraid of us now,” he told me, although looking at Abel Machaca’s kind, lined face doesn’t impose fear; his eyes and smile are more of an open invitation to friendship. His story though, one of tenacity in the face of ongoing struggle, belies his soft-spoken nature. He is a Bolivian David staring down Goliath, a threat to power from the most unlikely of places.

Abel is a herdsman. He and his brother care for about 200 sheep and 60 head of cattle on the family land, the same where they were born and raised. Their land lies at the heart of one of Bolivia’s most environmentally contentious and vulnerable areas where the interests of mining and politics, combined with climate change and drought all unhappily converge. Known as Yuracari, his community is nestled among a string of low hills near the small mining town of Poopó, almost equidistant between the Uru Uru and Poopó lakes, both recognized for their international ecological importance. Abel has watched from this front row seat his entire life as a drama of environmental deterioration and political apathy has unfolded before him.

Photo by Anna Vogt

He remembers the time during his childhood when the river ran freely and his family’s wells were sweet. When they didn’t have to worry about pasture for their livestock and the rains were more than enough. Today, the Desaguadero River that carries water down from the famous Lake Titicaca falters and fades into the earth before it ever reaches Lake Poopó. Lake Poopó has all but disappeared, converted to a thousand square kilometer expanse of blinding, white salt. His land too, which used to be a healthy, rich russet color, now shows signs of sickness: ugly stains of white, lead, and yellow from the salt and sulfur carried down from the mines. The wells they used to drink from have turned “spicy” and “undrinkable” and they have to rent out other pastures for their livestock part of the year.

Abel says he began to notice these changes as a boy, and they worried him. He studied hard and put himself through high school in the city of Oruro, about two hours away from his small community of Yuracari. Abel always had, in his words, “a dream of being able to help my entire region.” This vision even propelled him to pursue agronomy in the Universidad Mayor San Simon in Cochabamba, another six hours away from his home.

But despite this distance, his connection to his land and family never wavered. For years, he made the journey back to Poopó every ten or fifteen days to help his parents in the campo. His vision for “an improvement in the quality of life” of his community was never assimilated into an ambition for his own success or career; it was never a means of escape from his life as a farmer and herdsman. Indeed, when his father got sick and passed away, he left his studies and returned full-time to his community to help his mother. He never finished his degree. Instead, his decisions embody the Andean values of commitment to place, reciprocity in community, and responsibility to family.

Although the youngest of his siblings, Abel began to assume more and more responsibilities for the care of his family’s land and his community. As evidence of environmental contamination advanced year after year, specifically with regard to community concerns regarding the presence of toxic heavy metals in their water and soil, he began to take formal steps to advocate for his community among the local political authorities and mining operations themselves. But the obstacles were great.

“We always protested to the mining companies,” he tells me, “but they never paid attention to us. They always took us as if we don’t know anything … With the naked eye, physically, it’s obvious that there’s contamination, but they always said, ‘Show me. What contamination?’ They were the ‘experts’ who could always turn us in circles.”

Abel needed a way to make them pay attention. He needed a way to “actually show that we are actually right.” But how to overcome the evasive tactics of the powerful to ignore the claims of the community—this is the question the Israelites asked about Goliath in despair. Abel is a man far from despair, however, and not having a university degree did not stop him from the “search to be able to show them that we were really contaminated with certain metals.” He became one of the local leaders of his community, organizing and participating in political marches and campaigns for the protection of the environment and more responsible mining practices. At one march in particular, in 2013, Abel met someone who could help. Representatives from the Cochabamba organization Center for Communication and Andean Development (CENDA) were also there and interviewed Abel about his community and concerns.

As an authority in the community, Abel invited CENDA to Yuracari and asked for help in providing trainings and workshops to understand the environmental and mining laws to support their local advocacy. Eventually he developed an agreement with CENDA to continue working together. This was a concrete step—but it wasn’t enough. “What more could we do?” Abel asked himself. The question remained, “How can we demonstrate which metals or what chemical elements we are contaminated by?”

The idea emerged to develop a community-led environmental monitoring program of local waters so the community could collect the information they needed themselves. This was Abel’s slingshot. Experts in community water quality monitoring agreed to come from Peru to train Abel and other volunteers from Yuracari in using basic equipment to test water quality and interpret the results. CENDA provided Abel with a water quality testing kit of his own and he and others from his community began testing their community’s water every month.

Photo by Anna Vogt

“It’s been difficult,” Abel remembers. “The municipality makes it difficult for us to be monitors.” Instead of support, Abel and the others were at first met with resistance and confusion. When they went to the municipality saying they were going to monitor water quality, they were challenged: “Who authorized you?” they were asked.

“The technicians themselves thought they knew everything, that they were always right, not us,” Abel says. But despite the asymmetries of power, Abel pushed forward. “Over time we’ve kept practicing a lot, with workshops and trainings we’ve been getting stronger.”

Now, nine community members, five adults and four youth, are trained and actively participate in monitoring a network of locations throughout the watershed, above and below local mining operations. He was pleased when high school students from the nearby town of Totoral from the municipality of Antequera also joined the effort. Abel and the others compile results and report them to their municipalities, slowly earning recognition and respect. Abel was invited to present regarding his experience at a recent health conference in Oruro and is increasingly seen as a resource for other communities as someone who can answer questions about water quality.

Abel also works closely with MCC Bolivia’s partner, the Center for Ecology and Andean Peoples (CEPA), located in Oruro. CEPA supports Abel and other local leaders in their defense of the environment through political advocacy, technical community trainings, mining inspections, and coordinating grassroots efforts among impacted communities. Long-term, with the support of organizations like CENDA, CEPA, and MCC, Abel believes he can effect real change.

“The mining companies have they’re ways around all the demands we made. But not anymore … Now they listen to us,” he says. “In meetings that we have with the different government offices, we can easily explain our monitoring work and can say that these waters have poor quality … We’ve done it and we were right.”

When I asked how old he is, he smiled and shook his head. “Oh, plenty of years, but that doesn’t matter.” Despite his age, he is full of energy and wants to see grassroots monitoring groups grow and expand throughout the region. All that matters, he says, is that he is able to continue supporting communities to attain their right to information about their water and the environment. This is his new vision.

“Being a water quality monitor is satisfying,” he says. “So much can be achieved with information.”

Photo by Anna Vogt

– Riley Mulhern, from Louisville, Colorado and the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, Colorado, served in Oruro, Bolivia with the Center of Ecology and Andean Peoples (CEPA) as part of the Seed II program with MCC Bolivia.

Together with coalition partners KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, MCC is urging ongoing advocacy to ensure Canadian companies operating overseas are held accountable for allegations of harm.

Please join us in expressing your support for an effective and fully independent Ombudsperson with strong investigative powers. Send a message to the Minister of International Trade.

For more information, visit Open for Justice.

Remembering the saints

All Saints Day is a Christian celebration in honour of the saints that have gone before, known or unknown. In many cultures and traditions across the world, families and friends gather to remember the “great cloud of witnesses who surround us”. Here in the Ottawa Office, we are sharing some of the saints and inspirations in our own lives, people who have encouraged us to continue in our work of advocacy and seeking justice.  As you read our examples, we invite you to also take a moment to reflect and honour those in your own life who have also inspired you.

The Saints that connect faith with justice

I grew up in the church, while also growing up in a family passionate about politics and advocacy. But I’d never connected these two spheres – faith and politics – until watching a movie (a Disney TV movie, of all things!) on the real-life story of Ruby Bridges.

The message in Ruby’s story was clear: Christ calls us to work for justice, and it’s a vocation inseparable from the call to love others.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

In 1960 at age 6, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ruby became the first African American in New Orleans to participate in efforts to desegregate public schools. The reaction was swift and terrible. Every day for a year Ruby walked through a hate-filled mob of parents, children and community members, yelling degrading slurs, and even death threats.

Yet amidst the horror, Ruby’s reaction moved me beyond words. Instead of lashing out, she prayed for the mob, even as they degraded her dignity. Ruby and her family were committed to their fight for justice, as evidenced by their persistence and boldness, but this was combined with such humility and a choice to love when faced with hate.

Ruby’s example has left a permanent mark on my life in helping to frame my own vocation. The Christian vocation of justice is about confronting injustice clearly and without hesitation. Yet, in these confrontations, we must also reflect Christ’s humility and love, even in the face of hate.

Ruby’s brave actions led to the desegregation of all public schools in New Orleans, starting the following year.

-Rebekah Sear, Policy Analyst

“She didn’t die, she multiplied”

Berta Caceres was a Lenca Indigenous woman from Honduras who dedicated her life to stopping large scale invasive development in the Lenca territories of Honduras. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Berta won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, for “a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam” at the Río Gualcarque in Honduras.

Berta Caceres

“In defense of life, we resist.”

On March 2, 2016, hired assassins with connections to private security companies connected with protecting the dam project killed Berta Caceres. Those responsible have not yet faced justice.

Berta’s assassination is one of many, as Latin America is currently the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender, yet because of her international recognition, Berta’s death has helped push this issue into the spotlight.  Many people refer to Berta as someone who did not die, but rather multiplied, like a seed being planted.

I remember Berta and I also remember all of the brave, ordinary people around the world who daily put their lives in harm’s way to protect the world we live in. I also remember that Berta’s work was not simply about protecting one river, but challenging the way society functions, through the lens of environmental protections.  As Berta said, “We should then build a society that is capable of co-existing in a just manner, in a dignified manner, and in a way that protects life.”

-Anna Vogt, Director

Quiet saints

There is a picture on the shelf behind my desk of two people whom I often think of on All Saints Day, though neither one would have wanted to be called a saint.

I met Margaret and Siegfried Janzen while doing an MCC service assignment in Petitcodiac, NB. Siegfried was pastor of the local Mennonite Church and Margaret was the pastor’s wife and so much more.

During the second world war Siegfried served as a conscientious objector, but afterwards both Margaret and Siegried served with MCC in Europe. Initially, they distributed food and clothing to refugees, but later directed the processing of over 10,000 refugees fleeing from repatriation to the Soviet Union. They even set up a hospital to help people pass the medical requirements to enter Canada.

Siegfried and Margaret Janzen, Petitcodiac NB

Siegfried and Margaret Janzen

After returning to Canada and raising a family, they retired to New Brunswick and Siegfried began pastoring and prison chaplaincy at the age of 65. For almost 20 years Siegfried visited inmates at Dorchester Penitentiary at least once a week to lead Bible studies and offer mediation and conflict resolution classes. Margaret baked cookies for ‘the boys’, visited inmates, provided a safe refuge for parolees and a permanent home for the wife of an inmate.

Siegfried was also instrumental in the development of a Peace Centre for the Greater Moncton Area.

I remember Margaret and Siegfried as quiet peacemakers and advocates, and while they have both passed away I try to keep their example before me each day.

-Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant

The Global Compact – Part 2: Canada’s role and MCC’s advocacy asks

Over the last year, MCC UN Office staff, Kati Garrison (Program and Advocacy Associate) and Abby Hershberger (Program Assistant), have been following the process of drafting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) document (see Part 1 in this blog series). Both attended GCM negotiations to ensure to establish a connection between the high-level processes in New York with national governments, including the Canadian Mission, and MCC’s on the ground programs.

Throughout the GCM drafting process, Canada positioned itself at the forefront of the effort to create a framework that is beneficial to all. The MCC UN Office was pleased that many of Canada’s interventions addressed the importance of intersecting gender sensitive language in the GCM document. This contributed to a final draft that recognizes the additional challenges that women face when migrating. Many women and their children face obstacles when trying to confirm their nationality in a country of destination, which can leave them stateless and unable to access essential services. The finished text incorporates suggestions to remedying these challenges including, “ensuring that women and men can equally confer their nationality to children born in another state’s territory, especially in situations where a child would otherwise be stateless” (Objective 4e).

However, as we anticipate the installment of the GCM at the upcoming summit in Morocco in December, it is critical to keep momentum going behind member states like Canada and making the move from high level negotiations to practical steps. December’s summit will be more than just formalizing the GCM, as member states have been asked to submit proposals for specific actions to help put the principles of the compact in motion.

Leona and Bekah on Hill with Kati Garrison and Abby Hershberger from UN Office (2)

Abby Hershberger, Kati Garrison, Bekah Sears, Leona Lortie on Parliament Hill, August 2018

For that reason, at the end of August, Kati and Abby, along with MCC’s Ottawa Office staff, Bekah Sears (Policy Analyst) and Leona Lortie (Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator) reached out to Canadian Members of Parliament from various parties, to ensure the GCM and its principles were high on the Canadian government’s radar, and that Canada continues being a leader on global migration.

These are our three primary advocacy asks:

  1. Grant migrants access to basic services free from the risk of having their personal information shared with immigration enforcement officials.

Objective 15
The GCM acknowledges a shared responsibility among member states “to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise rights through safe access to basic services.”        

  1. Uphold the human right of non-refoulement.

Objective 21
Non-refoulement is a tenet of international human rights law that prohibits states from returning migrants to situations when there are “substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon returning, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.” The principle remains contentious among some member states who want more control over how they conduct returns.

  1. Include civil society and migrant voices as integral components in implementing the GCM.

The text of the GCM is lengthy and detailed, but the way member states implement the commitments will be the true test of the weight of its words. MCC, both the UN and Ottawa offices believe that effective action plans must include multiple actors, including civil society and migrant voices.

Our MCC team had productive and encouraging conversations with each MP office and is optimistic that Canada would indeed vote in favour of the GCM. We look forward to engaging in similar conversation in the month leading up to the GCM adoption in December with other member states and actors on the ground.

– By Abby Hershberger, Program Assistant, MCC United Nations Office

And then there were three: Advocacy within MCC

In 1968 Mennonite Central Committee took the bold step of opening its first advocacy office in Washington DC. In 1975, a second advocacy office was opened in Ottawa to be followed by a third advocacy office in 1991 in New York to relate to the United Nations. The offices initially opened as listening posts, but now monitor and analyze policies, facilitate meetings for MCC staff and encourage constituents to be advocates themselves.

advocacy brochure coverWhile each office is situated in a different context with unique challenges requiring unique strategies, they all share the same primary purpose of advocacy which is about  influencing people, structures, and systems to bring about change that will benefit those living with poverty, violence, injustice and oppression.

So how do three offices in two countries dealing with three different political bodies (the American government, the Canadian government and the United Nations) work together? Common ground can be difficult to find, but not impossible.

Quite often there will be a main theme in common with slightly different approaches for the different audiences or institutions. For example, all three offices work on migration including addressing the root causes; the Washington and Ottawa Offices also work on these issues in relation to refugees and migrants and U.S. and Canadian policy respectively. The UN Office works on migration in the context of global processes and agreements. The Canadian and American governments have different policies around refugees and migrants, so again there is a common theme, but different advocacy approaches and messaging.

Advocacy for Palestine and Israel is another shared area of focus for all three offices with two of the three offices (Ottawa and Washington) hosting campaigns to encourage public engagement and advocacy on issues in the region.

All three offices stay in touch regularly about each other’s work. Staff from the three offices meet in person once a year to better learn about the different contexts and challenges faced by each office and to share common learnings or messaging. A few weeks ago, in late August, MCC Ottawa Office staff hosted colleagues from the other advocacy offices.

group photo at LLC

Staff from MCC advocacy offices gathered for meetings in Ottawa Aug. 2018

A recurring topic of conversation around these tables is how to help integrate advocacy into MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. For example, when churches are asked to sponsor refugees, can they also be encouraged to advocate not only for greater openness and better treatment for refugees, but also for more government support of peacebuilding or food security programs in the countries people are fleeing? We also aim to identify steps MCC can ask the Canadian and American governments and the UN to take to work toward sustainable solutions to the root causes forcing people to flee.

When individuals are invited to prepare school kits, can they also be encouraged to advocate for increased development assistance, so more schools can be built and supported in countries receiving these kits?

MCC’s advocacy voice is strengthened by our program experience, so how can staff in the advocacy offices better connect with program staff and partners around the world to be more effective advocates for MCC’s work in the field?

Small though they may be, with only 4-5 staff each, these three MCC offices with advocacy mandates are important to MCC. Engaging civil society and addressing root causes with our governments supports MCC’s work of relief, development, and peacebuilding.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office