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.

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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.

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Confronting the fear of our history

By Charity Nonkes

“Yet we Christians have also been called to take a good hard look at ourselves. To reflect on our Christian beliefs, to scrutinize our missional practices. And to decolonize. It’s not that Christianity is inherently colonial, but for generations the Church and its faith have been used – wittingly, unwittingly, and far too often – as instruments of dispossession in the settler colonial arsenal. Indigenous peoples are asking the Church to our own work, to beat our colonial swords into peaceable ploughshares.” – pg. xvi Unsettling the word

This is a quote taken from Unsettling the Word: Biblical experiments in decolonization. The book is a collection of Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors re-examining Biblical stories in order to reclaim the Bible as a tool for peacemaking from an instrument of dispossession. It was created by the Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler Relations program.

In the process of truth and reconciliation there is a great need for us all to critically analyze the forces that favoured Christian Europeans and their descendants over others. This work brings up hard questions concerning our identity and our justification for being on the land. When I look to my upbringing, Christianity was not perceived as an instrument of dispossession. Christianity brought community and belonging, but I was coming from a place of privilege and European ancestry.

In the early settlement of Canada, the government claimed it had the authority over the land to sell or grant it to settlers. The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius are concepts that the European powers used to justify the claim that land was theirs. These concepts provided a framework that said that North America was open to be ‘discovered’ because the indigenous population wasn’t Christian and therefore did not rightly own the land. Theology was used to create a narrative that the land was empty and therefore open for foreign powers to come and claim possession, leading to genocide and exploitation.

For the healing of others and ourselves, it is absolutely paramount for us all to understand the entire story of how Canada was established and the role of Christianity in it. In my experience destruction caused by Christianity is often ignored or hidden because of fear. This fear may be rooted in what these truths mean for who we are as a people – for our identity. This becomes especially difficult when our own histories are mingled with stories of fleeing persecution, hunger, and violence to find freedom in Canada. How do we reconcile it within ourselves that we have freedom in Canada but at the expense of Indigenous peoples? How can we do reconciliation work if we don’t address the truth of our history?

KAIROS banket exercise photo (002)

MCC Photo/Leona Lortie. University of Saskatchewan students participating in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise in 2015.

A part of this journey is to thoroughly examine the residential school system and the role of Mennonites. Mennonite Residential Schools in Northwestern Ontario were part of the larger residential school system that sought to eliminate Indigenous ways of life and ensure assimilation to Christian European practices. I have often heard the point that the Mennonites running these schools had good intentions but were misguided.

Good intentions are often clouded by privilege and ignorance of how oppression is engrained into society for the benefit of some over others. Anthony Siegrist, pastor at Ottawa Mennonite Church, has researched and written about Mennonite involvement in the residential school system.

Siegrist writes, “They (Mennonites) seemed sincere in their attempts to “improve” the lives of their Indigenous students. Many staff sacrificed comfort and pay to serve as they did. And yet they were complicit. Probably naïve, but still complicit. If you know anything about Mennonite Christians, you may know that historically ours is a minority tradition, a tradition rooted in martyrdom. We do not always realize the power of our own cultural connections or the power of skin color.”

The call for decolonization and a critical analysis of the role of Christianity in colonial history is a door that is often bolted shut because we fear what it will reveal about ourselves. However, this self-reflection is a healing process for us and everyone living on this land. Christianity has been used for destruction. Faith can also invite us towards reconciliation, as we learn new ways of reading the Bible.

The Church played an instrumental role in colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples – no matter what the intentions were– we all must work to decolonize. The Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action challenges us to do this. Action 49 – We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

It is time for us to recognize the colonial swords that we all carry and beat them into peaceable ploughshares to till fields of truth and reconciliation.

Creator of this beautiful land,
What is truth and reconciliation
When truth is clouded by ideology and religion
Where there is seldom peace to reconcile back to

God of my ancestors,
You nurtured them when they fled persecution, hunger, and violence
They found peace and wealth in this land while others were removed from it
How do we reconcile with this?

God of truth,
What is truth when the Bible was used to justify the murder of Indigenous peoples
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever placed”1
“Kill the Indian and save the man”2 – “take the Indian out of the child”3

God of reconciliation
Where do we go from here?
When divisions are like chasms
When hate and fear fuels public debates

God of the oppressed,
How can we be rooted to land that was stolen
How do we reach across the divides that were built to make exploitation easier
How do we decolonize ourselves, communities, and nations?

The TRC also calls us to adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation (Action 48). Please join us in urging the Canadian government to fulfill its commitment to reconciliation and adopting UNDRIP by supporting the passage of Bill C-262 through the Senate. Send a message to all senators here.

If you would like to find out more about Bill C-262 watch this new short video produced by MCC and our collaboration partners.


1 Papal Bull Dum Diveras (Doctrine of Discovery) – https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/dum-diversas/.
For more information about Doctrine of Discovery –  https://vimeo.com/118735770

2 Colonel Richard Henry Pratt on the education of Native Americans in the United States – http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/sites/all/files/docs-resources/CIS-Resources_PrattSpeechExcerptShort.pdf

3 Sir John A. MacDonald – https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/chief-justice-says-canada-attempted-cultural-genocide-on-aboriginals/article24688854/

To find out more about the KAIROS Blanket Exercise visit: https://www.kairosblanketexercise.org/

Charity Nonkes is the MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

 

Refugee Resettlement: Where do we go from here?

by Brian Dyck

Brian Dyck

Brian Dyck, National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada

None of us who work in refugee resettlement in Canada will forget 2015. The year started with an increase in the level of interest in refugee resettlement from the general public in Canada. In this changing environment, I took on national leadership for MCC’s refugee resettlement program. In an attempt to direct MCC resettlement efforts, a working group had been struck in late 2014 with communications and refugee resettlement staff to stimulate refugee resettlement of Syrians and Iraqis. There was a hope that we would resettle 2,020 Syrians and Iraqis by 2020—MCC’s centennial year.  Looking back now at a report recommending this, I noted in the margins, “…the number is too high… We will need to ‘change the channel’ to get somewhere on this.” By change the channel, I meant we would need to really work hard to get people’s attention.

Then in September 2015 just as we were about to launch our public awareness campaign with a scaled back goal of a few hundred refugees resettled, the image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach in Turkey hit the internet and resonated with people in Canada and around the world. Many wanted to do something, and the refugee resettlement program moved beyond our control.

Our plans, which focused on raising public awareness of resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees seemed superfluous; public awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees and the possibility of sponsorship was well known. Our task shifted to responding to inquiries and engagement at a level we had not seen since 1979 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

MCC refugee sponsorshipThe scale of the shift can be told partly in numbers. If we use 2014 as a benchmark, 2016 saw an increase of 1,190% of the number of people sponsored through MCC in Canada. This was a seismic shift for MCC in Canada.

There wasn’t just an increase in numbers in 2015. Before the surge, we worked mostly with long-term partners and family members of the people sponsored. In 2014 we were working with around 20 Constituent Groups (CGs). By the end of 2016, we had more than 450 groups who were listed as active in our database, many being relatively new to sponsorship.

The level of activity has subsided somewhat since 2016. In 2018, MCC along with our wonderful constituent groups welcomed a bit more than 600 refugees to Canada—well below the 2016 peak of 1,824, but also well above most years in the previous few decades.

Sponsored refugee landing in Canada

estimate **government target

The government of Canada has made an increased commitment to refugee resettlement as well, through the various sponsorship models. In the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, about 3,725 privately sponsored refugees were settled per year. Since 2015 to the present, an average of about 17,600 privately sponsored refugees were settled per year. In other words, since 2015 there have been as many refugees privately sponsored as have been settled the previous 20 years.

What has that meant for MCC?

The last few years have brought both challenges and opportunities for MCC.

The huge increase in interest in refugee sponsorship among our constituents has allowed us to provide many more refugees with a durable solution in Canada. In addition, it has raised awareness of not just the human cost of war and violence for refugees in the Middle East, but other refugees that are in protracted displacement from places like Eretria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar.  Ultimately this has led to a better understanding and support for the role that we as private citizens and Christians in particular can play in “Welcoming the Stranger.” This rise in awareness of refugee situations is perhaps the lasting legacy of this surge in refugee sponsorship in Canada. This direct connection with refugees by many people in Canada can help us see another side of the issue when people start talking about turning back refugees. It is hard to do that when former refugees have become our friends.

Other states have either started a refugee sponsorship program or are seriously consider it. Often, they look to Canada as a model for sponsorship and refugee resettlement and MCC staff have been consultants to states and NGOs in South America and Europe.

While it has been exciting and energizing to help people get involved in this very meaningful work, it has also been challenging to meet the demand. On the plus side, it has spurred us to become more efficient and develop better practices for tracking and supporting sponsoring groups. However, this has stretched MCC resources of time, money and talent. We have a very talented and dedicated team working at MCC on refugee resettlement but finding the financial support for this team is challenging.

Looking ahead, we are beginning to ask ourselves where we go next. One of the things we have talked about is to make sure that the people who come to us who are interested in refugee resettlement are also thinking about the other responses to displacement. While the number of refugees we have helped in Canada has gone up significantly, it is still less than one percent of the refugees in the world. Because it is such a small solution to the problem of forced displacement, we need to consider how the less than one percent who are resettled have the most impact.  That means following the advice of agencies like the UNHCR who support refugees in their host countries as much as we can when we choose who to help resettle in Canada. That is a constant challenge. The pressure to resettle family members of those already in Canada is understandably relentless, even though there may be refugees who are in more dire situations.

It also means looking at ways we can address the root causes of displacement. We need to ask: why did these people have to leave their homes in the first place? It has been said that what we do to help refugees is something like pain-relief therapy for a sick person. If a person is in pain it is important to make sure that the pain is addressed in an effective way. However, we should not assume that pain relief is the cure. The cure for the global refugee crisis is peacebuilding. MCC works at that in a number of places around the world where there is conflict. Making sure that we are involved in dealing with the reasons people have for fleeing their homes is part of the cure. This is an important complimentary step for the crucial and very meaningful work of welcoming refugees into our communities.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Ottawa Office Roundup: Spotlight on Gaza

By Rebekah Sears

The MCC Ottawa Office blog is trying something new, with a semi-regular News Roundup! We want to take the opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

Globe and Mail photo

A Palestinian child plays in an impoverished area of the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 29, 2018. MAHMUD HAMS/GETTY IMAGES

For this first Roundup we want to highlight the deteriorating situation in Gaza, primarily because our partners have reached out, speaking to the growing urgency and desperation of the situation and the people of Gaza. More than one million people in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs. The blockade that Israel imposed in 2007 has devastated the economy and brought unspeakable hardship for Palestinians. Now, as recent funding cuts from UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestine, take hold—life for many is going from bad to worse.

A broad look at the everyday realities

Israel-Palestinian conflict: Life in the Gaza Strip, BBC, May 2018

In May 2018 the world was watching as numbers of causalities and deaths in Gaza peaked – this BBC article took the opportunity to outline the significant daily challenges within Gaza, most directly connected to the blockade, including: freedom of movement, the economy, schools on the verge of closure, insufficient access to essential medicines, food and water, and extremely limited electricity.

Israel tightens Gaza blockade, civilians bear the brunt, Oxfam, July 2018

In mid-2018, Israel tightened the blockade on Gaza even further, exacerbating the above-mentioned concerns, and it is the civilians of Gaza that are bearing the biggest brunt. In this report, Oxfam and others outline the realities and impacts for the people of Gaza, it provides a list of recommended actions for the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority, as well as the international community, of which most seek to address root causes of the situation, with a long-term view.

Long-Lasting impacts and the youth of Gaza

Gaza economy in crisis: World Bank report warns that it’s in ‘free fall’, Middle East Eye, via World Bank, September 2018

The recent report from the World Bank talks about a crippling and unsustainable economy in ‘free fall’, stifled by a more than 10-year blockade, as well as the impacts for Gaza’s youth, where the unemployment rate has risen to 70% despite high levels of post-secondary education.

Generation of children in Gaza on the brink of a mental health crisis, new research shows, Save the Children, June 2018

In Gaza, a generation of children is growing up knowing little else but conflict: a blockade, regular drone attacks and air strikes, the loss of home, or worse, the loss of family and friends. As the humanitarian situation worsens, reports like this one continue to draw attention to the long-lasting impacts of trauma and violence on children.

How to move forward: Addressing structural issues, and not just humanitarian issues

Cash-Strapped Gaza and an Economy in Collapse Put Palestinian Basic Needs at Risk, World Bank, September 2018

Although humanitarian and development support for Gaza is helping to meet urgent immediate needs, there is a need to address some of the root causes and structural factors. This report from the World Bank outlines the limits of humanitarian aid to bring real and sustainable change and growth to Gaza and outlines the push to move beyond merely sustaining life and the conditions as they exist today, to see long-lasting impacts and movement for the better.

Canada’s role and responsibilities, and moving forward

Canada pledges $50-million for vulnerable Palestinians, Globe and Mail, July 2018

In July, the Canadian government pledged $50-million to support vulnerable Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. This announcement followed the Minister of International Development visiting the region, earlier in the month.

Canada gives $50-million to UN Palestinian refugee agency that U.S. calls flawed, Globe and Mail, October 2018

In order to help fill the urgent funding gap as a result of cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which represents Palestinian refugees, Canada and other countries have pledged significant additional support for the situation. Of the $50-million pledged, $38-million will support programs in Gaza.

Why Canadian aid won’t really help Palestinian entrepreneurs, The Conversation, August 2018

As the previous section highlighted, aid is not enough. Humanitarian and development support will help sustain life, while continuing to uphold the current structures, which are stifling growth and long-term improvements in the lives and living conditions of the people of Gaza. While the increases in Canadian humanitarian aid are a positive step, they fall short of addressing the structures that sustain the humanitarian crisis.

MCC invites you to take action: Contact your Member of Parliament!

End the suffering of Gaza, MCC Ottawa Campaign, updated, Oct 2018

We, alongside our partners are calling for continued humanitarian support. But beyond this support, in order to build a peaceful and sustainable future for Gaza, we are calling for the end to the Israeli over a decade-long blockade, which is at the root of so much of the situation in Gaza. In 2018, as the blockade tightens, the humanitarian situation deteriorates.

ACT Today: Urge your MP to show compassion for Gaza! Ask him or her to:

  • Insist to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister on continued humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, but, more critically, that Canada support an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
  • Support policies in keeping with Canada’s official commitment to promote the human rights of all people, including Palestinians and Israelis.

For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work on MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office’s Policy Analyst

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

Canada and the Cuban missile crisis

By Monica Scheifele

Fifty-six years ago, the world faced the very real possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. On Oct. 14 that year an American spy plane flying over Cuba photographed the installation of a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile. For almost two weeks following that discovery, US President Kennedy and Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev with their respective teams of advisors and diplomats wrestled with a crisis that could have resulted in nuclear war.

Cuban missile crisis

Up until recently, I’d never considered Canada’s role in these historic events. I’d only ever thought about the actions of the main players Cuba, the US and the Soviet Union. In my limited understanding Canada didn’t really have a part to play in this drama. Granted we were geographically close to the action but with limited clout on the political stage in comparison to the superpowers of the US and Russia.

In October 1962 John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of a Conservative minority government with Lester Pearson and the Liberals as the Official Opposition. The Social Credits and the New Democrats filled the rest of the House of Commons.

The Canadian government was only informed of the situation a few hours before President Kennedy shared the details of the crisis on television with the American people on October 22.  The Canadian government quickly acted to ensure that Canadian airspace and Canadian air transport facilities were not being used to transport Soviet weapons to Cuba. However, when the US asked the government to put Canadian troops on alert and raise the military threat level to DEFCON 3 to match that of the US military, Diefenbaker delayed acting resulting in divisions within his own cabinet. The delay may have stemmed from Diefenbaker’s dislike of Kennedy or as an effort to avoid actions that could escalate tensions.

Pearson and the Liberals fully supported the US from the beginning and commended Kennedy for bringing the matter before the UN Security Council, but Diefenbaker still called for independent UN inspectors to go to Cuba to survey the nuclear sites and verify the facts. Generally, Diefenbaker was supportive of American action during the crisis, but he did not offer the unequivocal support that Kennedy might have expected.

Eventually the Prime Minister did put Canadian troops on alert (only after the Canadian military had already put itself on alert), supported the US proposed NATO blockade or “quarantine” as it was called, and agreed to aid the United States if an attack occurred.

The biggest source of contention, though, was likely Diefenbaker’s refusal to allow nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. This was also a position strongly supported by the New Democratic Party of the day.

On Oct. 24 there were questions in the House of Commons about whether Canada had defaulted on an obligation in respect to the NORAD treaty by refusing the request of the United States to arm Canadian Bomarc squadrons with atomic warheads. The Minister of Defence claimed there was no default of the treaty. It wasn’t until Pearson became Prime Minister in 1963 that Canadian missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.

DiefenbakerAgain, it may have been his dislike of Kennedy or a sense of nationalism and a need to stand up to the Americans that led to the decision. However, Diefenbaker’s words in an update to Parliament on Oct. 25 suggest it may have been an effort to keep the crisis from escalating.

“It has been necessary and will always remain necessary to weigh the risks both of action and inaction in such circumstances. I need not refer to the record of Canada in two world wars, in the NATO alliance and in Korea and demonstrating the fact that Canadians stand by their allies and their undertakings, and we intend in the present crisis to do the same. On the other hand, we shall not fail to do everything possible to seek solutions to these problems without war. We shall seek to avoid provocative action. Our purpose will be to do everything to reduce tension.” – Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, House of Commons, October 25, 1962.

In the end nuclear war was averted and the underground bunker (now known as the Diefenbunker) built 30 km outside of Ottawa from 1959 to 1961 and designed to withstand the force of a nuclear blast was never put to the test of protecting Canada’s leaders.

Canada’s actions or in the case of the warheads, lack of action, may not have changed the outcome of the crisis. I like to think, though, that the Canadian government’s responses did help maintain some form of equilibrium and calm. Perhaps in light of new nuclear threats from North Korea and the US pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, Canada will again find a way to act as a stabilizing force.

Want to learn more about Canada’s current policy around nuclear weapons? Check out some of these resources:

Project Ploughshares Factsheet on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

MCC Ottawa Office Notebook – Out of step with nuclear disarmament

Ploughshares Monitor Vol. 39 Issue 2 –  Statement to the 2018 Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – Positions on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

– Monica Scheifele is the Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office