Bill C-262 and living into a new covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebekah and Jane Sears during march

TRC event in Ottawa 2015 MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

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

 

 

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

 

The power of apology

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that his government would make a formal apology for Canada’s failure in 1939 to provide asylum to the 907 Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany on board the MS St. Louis; 254 of those Jews later died in the Holocaust.

ms st. louis

Refugees aboard the St. Louis as they arrive in Belgium, 1939 COURTESY AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE

When the formal apology is issued later this year, it will be the 5th one Trudeau has made to a group of people since his government was elected in 2015.  The other collective apologies include:

  • May 18, 2016 to descendants of passengers of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel carrying 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu passengers who were denied entry into Canada in 1914;
  • November 24, 2017 to former residential school students in Newfoundland and Labrador (they were not included in the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement);
  • November 28, 2017 to LGBTQ Canadians, especially civil servants, and members of the military and security services, for “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection.”
  • March 26, 2018 to current leaders of the Tsilhqot’in nation for the 1864 hanging of five Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were acting to defend their land.

According to Trudeau, he has made these apologies to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and to provide the possibility of healing for survivors, descendants and their communities.

Not surprisingly, Trudeau’s apologies have evoked much debate. Among the many questions and challenges posed are:  How can one generation apologize for the mistakes and failures made by a previous generation? Do these apologies (and the compensation associated with them) open the floodgate of demands for more apologies? Does too much apologizing cheapen the apology?  Aren’t apologies simply “shallow, empty, meaningless” acts?

It is important to grapple with these challenges and to avoid the pitfalls of bad apologies. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the power of apology.  If offered with integrity and sincerity — and based on profound listening, solid research, careful wording, and a commitment to make amends for the harmful behavior — an apology can be an important turning point in a longer journey of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

For people of Christian faith, apologies should be a no-brainer. After all, at the centre of Christian faith is a commitment to the One who calls us to repentance and new life; who forgives our sin and urges us to forgive the sins of others.  An apology can be a vital symbol of acknowledgement, confession and repentance. It can contribute to forgiveness and even reconciliation.

Churches and church institutions should always be ready to offer apologies for acts of moral failure, even if those actions happened many years ago. Yet as Jeremy Bergen points out in his book, Ecclesial Repentance, in 2000 years of church history, it is only in the last century—in particular, the past 25 years—that churches have issued apologies for their own actions.

Indeed, churches still often resist acknowledging and making apologies for past failures. Just recently, the Pope declined to issue an apology for the Catholic Church’s involvement in Indian residential schools here in Canada. His refusal prompted the House of Commons to ask him to reconsider. And as the Hon. Hunter Tootoo, MP for Nunavut, stated during debate: “An apology is not only the right thing to do but is the Christian thing to do.”

Mennonite Central Committee Canada –  the relief, development and peace agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches – has offered three formal apologies in its 55-year history.

500_anniversary_columbus

The first, in 1984, was offered to Japanese-Canadians for the ways in which Mennonites in British Columbia had benefited from the confiscation of land belonging to Japanese-Canadian citizens interned during the Second World War. The second was offered to Indigenous people in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. It acknowledged that Mennonites had denied the full humanity of Indigenous people, remained silent about the cruel treatment inflicted on them, and sanctioned the conquest of their land.

The third apology dates from 2014, when MCC Canada, together with several Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominational leaders, offered an expression of regret at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Edmonton. The leaders uttered remorse for the participation of their communities in attitudes and acts of assimilation, paternalism and racism.

With the first two apologies, MCC established a special scholarship fund, and an education and social enterprise fund, respectively, to demonstrate its commitment to help make things right.  With the third apology, the signatories simply emphasized a pledge to deepen relationships and to work for reconciliation.

Time and history will bear witness as to whether MCC’s apologies were authentic, meaningful and contributed to healing and reconciliation, or whether they were just empty words. They will do the same for the Prime Minister’s apologies. Perhaps a regular reminder of these apologies is a way of ensuring they do not simply disappear into the “dustbin of history.”

Ultimately, there is power in apology. Those who say “we are sorry” with heartfelt sincerity and appropriate actions validate those who have suffered deeply. They contribute to renewed relationships and to healing, peace and reconciliation. They demonstrate, not weakness, but strength.

May there be more such apologies.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Our voices, our rights

By Miriam Sainnawap, Co-Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Indigenous Neighbours Program. She is Oji-Cree from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, Ontario.

Every spring, I travel to New York to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). I join hundreds of other Indigenous people from around the world as we gather to raise our voices about our collective rights as Indigenous peoples.

UNPFII is an advisory body to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to address Indigenous issues, particularly economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. This year’s 17th session theme focused on “Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, territories and resources.”

UNPFII #2

Miriam (2nd from left) with friends at UNPFII: Matt Leblanc (Mi’kmaq-Acadian), Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne) and Sam Leigh (Anishinabe).

As a young indigenous woman observing at the UNPFII, I am only beginning to recognize the long and ongoing struggle for respect for Indigenous rights at the UN.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), passed in 2007, has been instrumental of bringing Indigenous solidarity worldwide and has demonstrated a significant shift in thinking with respect to the international recognition of Indigenous peoples, rights and claims.

But the UNDRIP remains a  non-binding document,  and governments are not legally obligated to ensure the protection of Indigenous rights.

Canada is one example of a country dragging its feet on respecting Indigenous rights. Canada’s colonial history of policies and laws, in its relationship with Indigenous peoples, has been repeatedly criticized both nationally and internationally. The UN Human Rights Council regularly calls on Canada to stop violating Indigenous rights. But there remains within Canada a significant tension about what it means to honour Indigenous rights.

At one level, there is  concern about the compatibility of certain elements of UNDRIP and how they challenge Canada’s constitution.

At another level, there is simply an underlying and unspoken racism in Canadian society. Indigenous rights are seen to pose a threat to the status quo and to threaten people who benefit from the status quo. What is good for Indigenous peoples is understood to be bad for non-Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples are therefore seen as undeserving. We need to get past seeing my rights as a threat.

It is an important call for all Canadians to urge the government to uphold their obligation to the UN Declaration and influence it to respect Indigenous rights.

UNPFII #1

UNPFII in session.

The remaining challenge of Indigenous peoples is achieving political participation and inclusion within the UN structures. Indigenous peoples have been able to participate in different political arenas today, especially through the UNPFII, but the question remains: what it is we want to achieve and how can we have broader influence.

Hearing from various leaders, I was struck by the theme of how  all Indigenous peoples identify our relationship to the land and water. Around the world, water is threatened by mineral, oil and gas exploitation. How do we protect and ensure the well-being of safe drinking water. Without access to our lands and water, how can we conduct ceremonies to heal ourselves, our families, and our communities?

We all need to recognize our collective responsibility to protect the earth and remind others to help restore the balance and harmony of all humanity and its creation. The earth does not exist to serve us, but it sustains and gives meaning to life, and it supports the continuity and vitality of securing our livelihoods and our future generations. We need to care for it.

The UN Declaration is a tool to help address the ongoing refusal to respect  rights that matter to us. It is a mechanism through which we can be  recognized as human beings with rights.

UNPFII #3And the UNPFII is a place where Indigenous people can support one another and hold space for our relatives in the ongoing struggles for recognition of our rights.

As I left New York, after the conclusion of the UNPFII, I was grateful:

For the incredible strength in our people;

For the support extended to all the people present and for holding space for our relatives;

For the rights which matter to us, recognizing our inherent responsibility to promote peace and justice for mother earth;

For the strength that comes from the land and wisdom of our ancestors;

For our ability to laugh at ourselves and others and how that draws us closer together;

For UNPFII as a space to network and exchange ideas to support and stand in solidarity.

I’m reminded we are still here.

The legal weeds of Bill C-262

On April 17, 2018, I was sitting in on the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee when law professor and expert witness, Dwight Newman, launched into a scathing critique of the bill before him.

The bill in question was an Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), also known as Bill C-262. (If you’re not familiar with UNDRIP, take a minute to get acquainted here.)

This private member’s bill, put forward by Cree MP and one of the drafters of UNDRIP, Romeo Saganash, now has the backing of the Liberal government and will likely become law.

Many individuals, organizations, and faith communities, including MCC, have supported this bill and campaigned for its passage. If implemented, the bill will fulfill two of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and will be an important step towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in the land now called Canada.

UNDRIP

What then does Professor Newman have against it?

Newman has two general groups of criticisms: criticisms about the specific wording used in the bill, and criticisms about the unpredictable consequences that will result from recognizing these Indigenous rights. For those who like details, I’d recommend reading his brief here. Otherwise, read on for my overly simplistic summary.

In the first group of criticisms, about the specific wording of the bill, Newman points out that the phrase “application in Canadian law”, found in Section 3, isn’t found in any other statutes. Because these words have never been used before, it’s unclear whether UNDRIP will supersede other laws or whether it’s just something judges can look at occasionally to influence their interpretation of other laws. That’s a big difference.

“One’s essentially gambling on how the courts might interpret those terms,” said Newman. “That might render the whole bill merely symbolic at one end, or it might lead to it having very significant effects, or anything in between.”

On top of this, Newman claims the bill isn’t totally clear whether UNDRIP comes into effect immediately or over the course of several years, and there are inconsistencies between the English and French versions.

In the second group of criticisms, about the unpredictable consequences of recognizing these Indigenous rights, Newman mentions that some of the provisions of UNDRIP are interpreted differently throughout the world, so we don’t know the precise content of the rights each provision will confer. For example, there are three differing interpretations of the meaning of UNDRIP’s articles relating to “free prior and informed consent,” and it is unclear which interpretation would find its way into Canadian law.

In the same vein, he argues that UNDRIP touches on many areas of policy including religion, health, natural resources, defense, employment, and education, and potential effects should be studied thoroughly in their respective committees before passing the law.

romeosaganash_0 (2)

Romeo Saganash, MP for Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou

After Newman’s presentation, Romeo Saganash had a chance to respond. He reminded the committee that when Canada enacted its new Constitution in 1982, it included Section 35(1), which states, “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” This is an extraordinarily short and vague provision for such an important matter. Over the years, Canadian courts have developed a complex legal framework to elaborate on the content of those rights and the processes for protecting them.

Bill C-262, Saganash claims, does not create new uncertainty. Rather, it helps clarify the meaning of Section 35(1), removing some of the uncertainty that is currently present. Even if Bill C-262 remains somewhat ambiguous, it is inarguably more specific than the mere seventeen words of Section 35(1).

Who’s right? In my view, both Newman and Saganash bring important and valid perspectives.

Newman is right to raise concerns about the specific wording of the bill. As he put it, “Canada’s Indigenous peoples deserve our best work in every respect, including legislative drafting, and it is unacceptable to have a lesser standard of legislative drafting in this context.” These concerns do not mean the bill should not be passed. Instead, it gives the Committee the opportunity to amend the bill to strengthen the protection of Indigenous rights.

However, on Newman’s second group of criticisms, I’d side with Saganash. We don’t need to know the full effects of the bill before committing to it. Reconciliation is an enormous project to be worked on through nation-to-nation collaboration and negotiation between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

Miles Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation, who also testified at the meeting, said it well: “Getting down into the legal weeds before we establish the relationship and our intentions in those relationships is a recipe for trouble. It’s a recipe for chasing our tail forever.”

Ultimately, it’s not my view nor Newman’s view that matters. To have any chance at reconciliation, we non-Indigenous Canadians must recognize the autonomy of Indigenous peoples and rid ourselves of colonial, paternalistic attitudes.

Delving into the “legal weeds” of legislation may be an interesting and useful practice, but it must never become a roadblock to listening to, following the advice, and honouring the wisdom of the affected Indigenous peoples.

By Nicholas Pope, MCC Ottawa Office advocacy research intern. Nicholas has a law degree from the University of Calgary. 

“How long, oh Lord…” The war in Syria enters its eighth year

Once again, we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Lent. Holy Week is upon us. It is a week that evokes deep emotions: grief and desolation followed by profound joy and hope. Amidst the darkness all around, hope persists and breaks through.

Every year we know this is coming. We know for certain that after 40 days, Lent ultimately culminates with Easter and resurrection. There is an empty tomb – He is Risen! – for which we say a resounding Thanks be to God!

But what about the seasons of Lent in our own lives here and now? The times of darkness and confusion? Times of injustice, violence and grief? Times when it seems like there will be no end to human suffering around the world? How can the light even begin to break through in the moments when all hope appears to be gone?

“How long, oh Lord?” cry the Psalmists and the prophets – speaking out of places of deep suffering and isolation, as those who would cry for an end to violence and injustice.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lebanon with two colleagues from MCC’s other advocacy offices, meeting with several of MCC’s partners in the region, including some of MCC’s Syrian partners. We were so privileged to meet with Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus and Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs, both from the Syrian Orthodox Church – a longstanding partner of MCC – who drove in from Syria just to meet with us at their monastery in the mountains.

Syria and Lebanon, bishops and Garry

Archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church came to Lebanon to meet with representatives from MCC’s Advocacy Offices and speak to the current political and humanitarian context within Syria. (left to right, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs for the Syrian Orthodox Church; ; Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus for the Syrian Orthodox Church; and Garry Mayhew, MCC Co-Representative for Lebanon and Syria: MCC photo, Doug Hostetter)

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing over 13 million people – often multiple times – in a protracted and seemingly unending conflict that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis beyond measure. Bishops Matta and Selwanos and their surrounding communities have lived this crisis from the beginning: offering food and comfort, shelter and little bits of hope where they can.

Eight years. I can’t even begin to imagine. A conflict shifting and moving throughout the country; sectarian violence and regional powers fighting a proxy war on Syrian territory on over a dozen fronts; countless bombings and the physical markings of destruction; trauma and re-traumatization, as no one is untouched; a generation of children knowing no context other than war, destruction and displacement. In this past month alone, devastating attacks overwhelm the people in rebel-controlled East Ghouta, while deadly shells and rockets wreak havoc in government-controlled Damascus.

Homs old city

Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

As the Bishops outlined the crisis and some of the main challenges one phrase really hit home: “There is hope, but it’s very small among Syrian people. How long, oh Lord…?”

Yet the Bishops insisted that the sheer fact that people outside of Syria are noticing, are speaking up, are wanting to stand in solidarity, provides them just a little more hope. Our visit with them inspired us and stirred within us new energy to speak and to act.

As we as MCC advocacy workers come home and share these stories and messages with our friends, churches and communities, we want to lament and pray and stand in solidarity with our partners. In this Lenten time and period of waiting and uncertainty let us all cry out for justice and peace to come.

As advocates we invite our supporters to speak truth to power and raise these voices up in the halls of power. Our group asked the Bishops what message they wanted us to bring to our respective governments. They replied, simply “peace comes first.” Priority must be given to negotiating diplomatic peace as soon as possible, without the continuing support to military efforts, beginning the long process of sustainable peacebuilding, justice, healing and reconciliation.

In such a protracted conflict, the Bishops outlined, every party carries its own economic and political interests and objectives, but above all they must be urged to seek the welfare and human dignity of the people. Sectarian, political, religious and national divides have brought about acts of horror on all sides, and are often manipulated and have been exacerbated by armed actors and by intervening countries, such as Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. The act of supporting a military solution, both in words and in actions – which Canada and the U.S. are intent on – will only fuel these divisions and carry them into the future.

Long-lasting peace, instead, comes with addressing the root causes of violence; promoting genuine immediate and long-lasting dialogue between religions, national, political and sectarian groups; supporting the urgent humanitarian and development needs. Inclusive and immediate diplomacy is paramount.

There is by no means an easy or quick-fix solution. MCC’s partners in Syria and the region have long been responding to humanitarian and development urgent needs. MCC’s response to the crisis Syria and the region is our biggest humanitarian response since World War II. Partners are also highly engaged in peacebuilding, bringing together people from different communities, sects and religions, seeking to build peace from the ground up.

oldhomsstreetscenes

Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns, 2017

As this year’s Lenten season draws to a close, I pray we all can be renewed again with the hope of Easter. And may that hope somehow spread out into what often seems like never-ending darkness, and may this hope of resurrection give us all strength to continue to cry out for justice and peace. “How long, oh Lord…”

Bekah Sears is the policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

We are still here

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

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

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

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

Miriam's blog 4

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

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

I could be Tina.

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

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

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

Miriam's blog 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam's blog 2

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

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

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

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

BVOR and the surprising joy of refugee sponsorship

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

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

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

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

refugee-blog-11.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

refugee blog 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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