Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.

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“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.

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Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares 

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

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Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office

How does Canada “walk the talk” on women, peace, and security?

I’m sure you’ve heard by now. Canada has a self-professed feminist prime minister.

Right out of the post-election gate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced Cabinet (“Because it’s 2015,” he explained. End of story.). Then there is his snapchat video on how men can be better feminists, his statements on gender parity at the World Economic Forum, his comments pushing for gender equality while in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women, and the list goes on…

“I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug,” he said recently in New York (to enthusiastic applause, I might add).

The prime minister is promoting himself globally as a defender and promoter of women’s rights. And, the (decidedly un-feminist) Saudi arms deal aside, there is hope that this perspective will shape Canada’s foreign policy in positive directions.

Indeed, there is already an energetic wind blowing through the women, peace, and security (WPS for short!) agenda.

On International Women’s Day, several ministers announceddownload Canada’s “commitment to gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls” (a rhetorical shift, as “gender equality” previously had been scrubbed clean from programs and policies, replaced by a focus on “mothers and children”). This commitment included the renewal of Canada’s National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325a historic resolution calling for women’s meaningful and active participation in peacebuilding.

It’s an important agenda for any feminist prime minister.

Why?

As even a cursory glance at media headlines tells us, armed conflicts continue around the world. And while women and children are the minority of combatants, they are disproportionately impacted by war—targeted by armed actors, facing sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, and having fewer resources than men to protect themselves.

And yet they are regularly excluded from peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

UNSCR 1325—unanimously adopted in 2000, and followed over the years by interconnected resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242—recognized the important role women play in every stage of peacebuilding.

These resolutions highlight the need for the prevention of violence and the protection of women in peace operations, and the participation of women in peace negotiations, political decision-making, and institution-building in post-conflict societies.

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Doreen Ruto, director of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development of Kenya, leads a retreat for first responders on trauma healing. She died in January 2016.  (MCC Photo/Katie Mansfield)

They embody a monumental shift in how the international community grapples with the rights and security of women leading up to, during, and after conflict.

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General called on member states to give legs to these resolutions by developing national action plans that implement concrete initiatives, monitor progress, and strengthen policy coherence across government departments.

In 2010, Canada responded with its own five-year National Action Plan. And, since Ottawa loves its acronyms, we call it C-NAP for short.

Led by foreign affairs (and collaborating with defence, development, public safety, justice, and other departments), C-NAP made broad and ambitious commitments to the WPS agenda through 28 different actions and 24 indicators.

Women Peace and Security Network-Canada has done thorough analysis on C-NAP’s successes and shortcomings (check out their 2015 and 2014 reports), and there was an external review that offered 6 recommendations (the need for high-level champions, better monitoring/evaluation, stronger consultation with civil society, etc).

While C-NAP expired at the end of March, efforts to renew it are now underway. And the great news is, interest in the WPS agenda can be heard in other quarters as well.

On March 9th, the Liberal Senate Forum Open Caucus—a space for non-partisan exploration on issues of interest to parliamentarians, media, and the public—held an expert discussion on women, peace and security.

In the Lower Chamber, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development—at the urging of its sole female member (!), Hélène Laverdière—conducted a study on WPS. Alongside other civil society witnesses, MCC’s partner KAIROS testified before the committee, drawing on its grassroots partnerships in DR Congo to highlight the need for ambitious funding for women peacebuilders around the world. The Chief of Defence Staff also testified about a policy directive for integrating UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions into Canadian military planning and operations.

So, the wheels of government are turning. Global Affairs representatives, present a few weeks ago at a conference put on by Women Peace and Security Network-Canada, are also in active listening mode, looking for ways to make progress on a renewed agenda.

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Chea Muoy Kry (front), executive director of Women Peacemakers in Cambodia, trains young people on domestic and sexual violence and gender issues. (MCC photo/Amanda Talstra)

And there are ways to improve. As some conference participants aptly noted, we shouldn’t reduce the WPS agenda to sexual violence. We should also be actively considering the ways in which trade regimes, property laws, natural resource extraction, and so on, also impact women’s rights and lives in post-conflict situations.

And we need to find ways to bring the agenda from the margins to the center of policy conversations. As a (rather hefty) 2015 UN-commissioned Global Study illustrated, while there has been a normative shift on the global importance of the WPS agenda, implementation remains weak, and funding levels have been shameful.

In other words, while a rhetorical shift is welcome, we need to walk the talk.

As Canada makes its bid for a Security Council seat (Trudeau was busy recently doing as much), the prime minister could be a real champion for feminist foreign policy by putting women peacebuilders at the heart of the international security agenda. 

It’s an obvious win. And an obvious extension of his values. As Prime Minister Trudeau said himself (rather cheekily) to the UN crowd, “It’s just really, really obvious. We should be standing up for women’s rights and trying to create more equal societies? Like duh.”

My thoughts exactly.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Director

What’s the 411 on the Arms Trade Treaty?

During the marathon (by Canadian standards!) election campaign, the Liberal Party claimed its vision for “a more compassionate Canada”—a “sunnier” Canada that would re-engage multilateral institutions, re-invest in public diplomacy, and reverse the decline in foreign aid.

Three months after their win, the Liberals have moved into Langevin Block. Political staffers are slowly (but surely) taking their positions. And everyone in Ottawa has hit the ground running, trying to give legs to the many promises made on the campaign trail.

The slogan around town is, “Canada’s back.” 

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All photos courtesy Ploughshares.ca

As the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion has a role to play in rebooting Canada’s image (with his renamed department). His mandate letter, while containing a dash of politics-as-usual, also signals some decisive foreign policy shifts—even a re-commitment to peace operations, mediation, and conflict prevention.

To what extent any security paradigm-shift will be implemented remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one encouraging step is the promise to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Given the widespread accessibility of cheap weapons has been a key factor in exacerbating conflict and fueling displacement around the world, MCC welcomes this promise. The illicit flow of small arms and light weapons (even a steady trickle across porous borders) can wreak havoc, destabilizing communities, negatively impacting development, supporting the emergence of extremist movements, and even sustaining the power of autocratic regimes. Weapons diversion is, according to the UN Secretary-General, a “colossal problem around the world.”

Massive injections of arms from the outside can have a destabilizing effect across entire regions. After the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that were poured into Libya by the international community—which was arming various actors within the conflict—began feeding terrorist movements in Mali, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. It’s also no secret that so-called Islamic State militants are well-armed because they’ve laid claim to Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons seized from over-run (U.S.-backed) Iraqi military bases.

In other words, the international community—with its $1.76 trillion annual arms trade—has a role to play in ensuring volatile contexts don’t get flooded with weapons that provide corrupt governments or armed groups with the primary means of perpetuating violence and intimidation.

Bullet Proof treatyEnter the Arms Trade Treaty. Coming into force just in time for Christmas of 2014, the ATT is the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional (non-nuclear) arms, ranging from light weapons to fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, and warships, as well as their related ammunition, parts, and components. The treaty imposes strict conditions on arms transfers (export, import, transit, transshipment, and brokering), requiring states to assess the potential for weapons to be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

All said, it’s a crucially important convention. But, of course, it ain’t perfect.

Critics will note (quite rightly) a central weakness of the ATT—that the assessment and authorization of whether an arms transfer risks undermining peace and security is undertaken solely by the exporting state. In other words, the treaty doesn’t really challenge the political interests of arms exporters (not a huge shocker; after all, what did we expect?). And while there are transparency measures, there is no enforcement regime.

Yet the creation of the ATT acknowledges the enormous costs of not regulating the arms trade. Besides, what other instrument puts states on the hot seat, forcing them to justify their arms sales to gross human rights violators?

So, whither Canada?

Well, to date, Canada is the only member of the G7 and the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark treaty.

The rationale of the previous government? That Canada already has a strong export-control system for weapons.

Canada’s track record, however, tells a different story. Recent deals to countries such as Colombia, Nigeria, Libya, and, most notably, Saudi Arabia, raise troubling questions about how the government determines who it sells weapons to.

Federal export controls require that when selling arms to countries with persistent records of serious human rights abuses, Canada must first obtain assurances that there is no reasonable risk the weapons could be used against civilian populations.

Stop the violenceGiven that Saudi Arabia annually tops the charts as being among the worst human rights violators in the world, how could Canada’s (largest-ever) $15 billion contract to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudi National Guard pass muster? Far from being merely “jeeps” (as Trudeau called them on the campaign trail), these vehicles—some of which will be weaponized with turrets and cannons supplied by a European subcontractor—are surely capable of mass destruction.

Still, the foreign affairs minister is standing by this contract for its economic value (though taking some flak for this position). Yet acceding to the ATT is in his mandate. It’s right there in his letter.

Yes, I recognize that foreign policy is, as one columnist recently put it, “more about dark arts than sunny ways.” State interests rule. But I’m still holding out hope. Effective arms control is possible when there is political will (and public support).

Sure, the ATT is flawed, and it isn’t a panacea. Conflicts won’t simply end tomorrow because of it (though they will be harder to carry out and sustain!). Yet it is a tool that outlines how governments can, and should, exercise greater restraint in the weapons trade—a tool that can help shift norms and behaviour over the long-term.

That is a critical achievement indeed.

Jenn Wiebe is MCC Ottawa Office Director

  • Listen to Project Ploughshares Executive Director, Cesar Jaramillo, interviewed on CBC Radio’s Day 6: “Is Canada failing to live up to its human rights commitments with its arms deals?”
  • Read Ernie Regehr’s Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot be Won on the Battlefield (2015): Chapter 7, A Treaty to Control the Arms Trade.
  • Check out a joint letter (by partners such as Project Ploughshares) to Minister Dion, calling for Canada’s rapid accession to the Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Take a look at the Ploughshares Monitor from summer of 2015, featuring an article on the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

 

Seeds of peace in the desert

This week’s blog is written by Mark Tymm, currently serving with MCC as Peace and Justice Assistant for the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice in Chad. Mark is a former MCC Ottawa Office intern.

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With Dogos Victor, my supervisor and the Coordinator of EPJ (April 2015)

I recently boarded a plane in N’Djamena, Chad, and returned to North America after completing my second term with MCC. During the past year I have been serving with the SALT program, working as Peace & Justice Assistant to MCC’s long-term Chadian partner, the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice (EPJ).

It’s been an interesting year to serve overseas and to monitor issues of peace and justice both in N’Djamena and around the world. My year has been filled with learning about the Chadian context, building connections between MCC and its partners, learning Arabic, and improving my French. Additionally, I had the amazing opportunities to manage a water project in a displaced-persons camp, and work closely with some remarkable people.

In the mid-1990s MCC encouraged its local partner, the Coalition of Evangelical Churches and Missions in Chad (EEMET), to address issues of injustice and conflict. As a result, the Department of Ethics, Peace & Justice (EPJ) was created.

Since then, EPJ has become a recognized leader among Chadian organizations in the field of interfaith conflict transformation.

EPJ’s peacebuilding work brings together religious leaders from Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim backgrounds. In our week-long seminars, we sit together, eat together, schedule time for both Muslim and Christian participants to engage in prayer and worship services, and, of course, provide Arabic and French translation of all our speakers. We discuss the importance of peace in the central African country. We invite guest lecturers to speak on Islamic peace traditions. We plan sessions on mediation and nonviolent conflict management, and always leave lots of time to address questions, discuss in small-groups and review practical case studies.

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Women in central Chad gather in Mongo to discuss peacebuilding (April 2015)

Our programs are well-known and respected among Chadians, and we have been welcomed and endorsed by the local government in each province we have worked in.

The act of the religious leaders actively engaging together in peace dialogue is recognized by the public as an important step in the right direction, especially given the challenging experiences Chad is undergoing.

As a pacifist I am often challenged to know where to stand on various issues. Not least of these are the security threats that face Chad: to the north, a civil war rages in Libya; on the eastern border, conflict shrouds Sudan; the southern region of the country has suddenly become home to over 100,000 who have fled violence in Central African Republic; now, Nigeria’s challenges with Islamic extremist group Boko Haram are spilling in from the west. In the past several weeks, the group has been responsible for four bombs in N’Djamena that have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Thankfully, I have been told that these events have not been particular sources of division or discontentment between Christians and Muslims in the capital.

What is a peace-loving boy from Chilliwack, BC to say? That the Chadian military should disband when the general population trusts them for their protection? That local law enforcement should not be apprehending insurgent cell groups in the Chadian capital?

How do we find a balance between witnessing to the powers who seem to be trying desperately to protect their own people, and rejecting the use of force to contain violence?

What can be said is that although the Chadian military is regarded as a force to be reckoned with in conventional warfare, like many other militaries around the world, it seems ill-prepared to deal with the unique challenges it is now facing.

Dealing with complex security issues—like extremist violence—certainly isn’t a simple task. Programs that promote anti-radicalization, initiatives that help narrow economic disparity between peoples, and projects that build community across religious or social divisions take years of work, stable civil society organizations, and a very engaged and involved public. Without the time to establish these civic structures, I am at a reluctant and unfortunate loss of words for how to contain violence in the present.

And yet the AK-47s posted on street corners don’t seem to be doing much better to promote peace either…

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Local pastors in N’Djamena meet to discuss conflict transformation (March 2015)

I used to think most of these challenges had easy answers: “Violence, even defensive in nature, is never acceptable.” “People should look past their differences and accept others.” That has changed. Certainly, I haven’t abandoned any of my nuanced Anabaptist perspectives on the importance of peacebuilding, reconciliation, or justice-seeking. If anything, my convictions and passion to contribute to these efforts alongside respected local partners have only deepened and grown. But I recognize the complexity of dealing effectively with the challenges violence brings.

And so our work continues. Progress is made one small step at a time. Muslim and Christian leaders come away from our workshops as friends, and begin new relationships built on mutual understanding and respect. They call each other in times of conflict to make sure that the others family is safe. Slowly, walls of division are broken down and bridges of relationships are built.

To be sure, there are days of uncertainty, but we see small glimmers of hope in our pursuit of peace and justice.

Acknowledging treaty and territory

This week’s guest writer is Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

“I just think it’s annoying.”  That’s how my conversation with someone from church ended one Sunday after worship. The person had just pointed out that on the cover of our new church directory we had included “Treaty 1 Territory” as part of the address of our church building.

Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

Hundreds of people participate in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill. The blanket exercise teaches Canadian history from the perspective of indigenous peoples. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

“That’s a political statement” he went on, clearly irate. I tried to make some statements to defuse the tension, but clearly the high dudgeon he was experiencing was more important to him at the moment than having a conversation about issues relating to colonial history and indigenous-settler relationships.But it got me thinking. I thought about it during lunch (hotdogs), clean-up, and even while I was golfing that evening. I thought about two questions: First, is church a place where people are supposed to get annoyed? And second, so soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing, what are appropriate ways of acknowledging this troubled/troubling era of Canadian history?

Although I didn’t initiate the “address change” on the directory, I actually think that’s a pretty good symbolic way of identifying with Indigenous people.  The history of Mennonites with Indigenous people here in Manitoba slants pretty heavily in favour of the Mennonites. When you look at measures like education, economic class, cultural stability, representation in society, we Mennos stack up very high on the positive side of the ledger.  As with all settler peoples here in Canada some of this, at the very least, comes at the expense of Indigenous people.  So, if we acknowledge that the land was generously shared with us and sometimes confiscated on our behalf, putting “Treaty 1 Territory” on our bulletins and directory doesn’t feel inappropriate to me at all.

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Walk for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

Our congregation also hosts community people on Sunday mornings before the worship service. People come for coffee, breakfast and conversation. Many of them are Indigenous. This has been going on for years now and some good relationships have been established.  Quite a few of those folks now consider our congregation “their church” – whatever that means to them. I think that’s pretty cool. In an era of “truth and reconciliation” relationship-building and hospitality, perhaps this is what is called for.  It’s not everything, but it’s something.  Maybe having “their” address as part of “our” address can help us see each other as part of one body. That would be good.

But is church supposed to be a place to go to get annoyed?  Probably. At least some of the time. Because if we’re not annoyed with each other occasionally, we’re probably not being honest with each other. There’s always the question as to whose annoyance takes priority, mind you. Is it more important that one person feel annoyed over an experiment with identifying with Indigenous people or do we prioritize the annoyance of never saying anything about this topic?

Maybe you wonder about my use of the word “annoyance.”  It’s particularly appropriate, I think, because I am in the privileged position of being able to choose my annoyances.  Settler privilege and priority have a rich history in the church. Mennonite settler types, such as myself, are in the places of power. That means we get to pick how words get used.  Perhaps we use some of that privilege to add a line to the church directory in the hopes of seeing one of the troubled pages of Canadian history getting written with a more inclusive story.

The adage says that the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  In my view, this is a fairly minor “affliction” – if an annoyance for some – that can hopefully contribute to  more respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous people in Canada.

Are you a CO? Am I?

This blog post is inspired by “Let them Stay Week” (a campaign on behalf of U.S. war resisters in Canada) and by the publication of a recent issue of Intersections on conscientious objection. 

In the midst of many stories of violence, 2014 also brought us stories of courageous young people around the world taking a stand against participation in war and armed conflict as conscientious objectors (COs).

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Jhonatan Vargas of Colombia was eventually granted conscientious objector status after a major advocacy campaign. Photo credit Justapaz.

In South Korea, Anabaptist Sang-Min Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to perform compulsory military service. In Colombia, Jhonatan Vargas was detained by National Police when his request for conscientious objection was refused by his battalion. In Israel, where military service is compulsory for Jews and Arab Druze men, a group of 140 high school students signed a public letter stating their refusal to serve in the army. Closer to home, U.S. soldiers, who fled to Canada to escape the War in Iraq, now face deportation back to the U.S. with possible imprisonment and a criminal record.

These brave young men and women are deliberately refusing to participate in state-sanctioned violence — sometimes at significant risk to themselves. Many of them have made their courageous choices without a lot of support from their communities.

In my pacifist Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, conscientious objection to war has been an important and central faith conviction. But in Canada, seventy years have passed since conscription has put those convictions to the test. Without the reality of a military draft (which ended in 1945), few of us have had to grapple with the choice we would make if called up for military service.

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During the Second World War, Canadian COs performed “alternative service” in forestry, fire-fighting, road construction, mental hospitals, etc. This photo depicts COs at an alternative service camp at Jasper, Alberta. Photo credit mbhistory.org.

Our friends in the U.S. have not had the luxury of more than a half century without conscription. An official draft existed throughout the Vietnam War. An “unofficial” draft continues for individuals from poor and marginalized communities who join the military because that is the only possibility of getting an education and escaping poverty.

A good friend and former U.S. citizen who chose to be a CO during the Vietnam War, has often said that Canadians need a military draft now and then in order to force Mennonites (and other pacifists) to grapple with their convictions about participation in war. I sometimes wonder if he is right.

I also wonder if we need to reconsider the meaning of conscientious objection, in light of the changing nature of war and how it is fought. For example, Mary Groh, president of Conscience Canada, reminds us that governments need our money more than our bodies to fight their wars nowadays. People like her promote withholding the military portion of one’s income tax, as a way of resisting the conscription of money for war fighting and war preparation. Is this what it means to be a CO today?

Phil-Fontaine

Former National Chief Phil Fontaine has called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people “genocide.”

And what about the other “wars” we participate in. Some First Nations now use the term “genocide” to define the way white settler society nearly annihilated Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. We 21st century settler-folk may not have been directly responsible for those genocidal actions, but we have certainly benefited from them and have a responsibility to make things right. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of ongoing relationships of injustice between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?

Additionally, the environmental movement has demonstrated how Western addiction to fossil fuels and excessive consumption is threatening the very earth as we know it. People like American environmentalist and author Bill McKibbon are urging divestment from the oil and gas industry as a way of bringing about drastic reductions in carbon emissions. What does it mean to be a CO in the context of a “war” against planet earth?

What does it mean to be a CO when we are not actually “called up” for military service but when, in countless insidious ways, we are implicated in the violence – both overt and structural – of our world?

Surely, being a CO today must have a positive meaning – that is, it should be demonstrated by people actively working for justice, healing, and reconciliation with their neighbours and with the earth. But perhaps it also still means saying – like the brave COs mentioned above – a clear and emphatic No to participation in practices that harm and destroy and kill.

Are you a CO today? Am I?

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.