Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

“Our new policy in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region reflects what Canada is all about: defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last.”

These words were spoken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2016. Flanked by the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, Trudeau sought to reshape Canada’s involvement in Syria and Iraq—or at least re-shape the messaging of Canadian foreign policy.

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Prime Minister Trudeau with Ministers of Defence, International Development and Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016. Photo credit/Government of Canada.

Canada’s current involvement in the Global Coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is set to expire on March 31, 2017. Speculation is abounding: Will Canada extend its mission? If so, what will the mission look like? What will the messaging be?

The current context of Iraq and Syria calls for urgent action. There are millions of internally displaced peoples, ongoing strikes including in Mosul; the continued targeting of Yezidis and other vulnerable minority groups; and destruction such as we have seen in Aleppo.

On February 8, 2016, when Trudeau launched Canada’s revised mission, he emphasized integrated government programming to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years. While the Canadian military would still have a significant role, the vast majority of funds was earmarked for humanitarian response and long term development, $840 million and $270 million respectively. The termination of direct participation in airstrikes was arguably the most significant shift.

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A woman and her granddaughter—internally displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014—receive food assistance through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

Military action, on the contrary, was the priority the previous government emphasized above all others. This included airstrikes, but also the arming and training of non-state actors like the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Of course, humanitarianism was also a significant part of the previous government’s mission; Iraq was named a partner country for long term development in 2014. But the need to protect Canadians and the world from “imminent” terrorist threats through military efforts took centre stage.

MCC Canada wrote twice to the Harper Government on Canada’s mission—at the beginning, in October of 2014, and during the first renewal in March of 2015.  Our most significant concern was Canada’s involvement in airstrikes. In 2015 we wrote:

“[N]ot only will air strikes in Iraq and Syria fail to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions underlying the present violence, but they will exacerbate existing—or create new—economic, social, and political grievances.”

But did things really change under Trudeau?

One glance at Operation Impact’s website, the official government website on the military part of Canada’s ongoing mission, shows the continuing flight missions, or sorties as they are called, of Canadian aircraft. Since February 2016 Canadian fighter jets have not conducted direct airstrikes, but they have continued to regularly participate in refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though not directly striking, Canadian aircraft are gathering intelligence and refueling other aircraft for the purpose of carrying out airstrikes.

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MCC supports this Kindergarten in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan for children displaced from their homes by the conflict with the Islamic State group. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

In other words, the impact of airstrikes has not lessened because Canada is not directly participating. In an MCC letter following the launch of the revised mission in February 2016, MCC again lamented the devastating impacts of airstrikes to destroy life, and vital health and education infrastructure, leaving cities “virtually uninhabitable and fueling massive displacement.”

A final point of contention is the arming of fighters in the region, particularly non-state actors, and the consequences and complexities of this. This question has come up time and time again—from Afghanistan to Libya and now Iraq, particularly with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Canada, under Trudeau, has continued to arm state and Kurdish forces.

What happens when the “official” fighting is over? What about the demands of these different groups—and what about the dynamics with other groups in the area? In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, how will arming these groups impact, for good or ill, a unified government in Iraq? A unified and functional government is essential for long term sustainable development. The question is, will providing arms to the Kurds help create this functionality? Or will it continue to destabilize the region? Will it lead to more bloodshed?

In addition, the arming of the Iraqi forces has also raised alarm bells, as both the government forces and minority armed groups have been implicated in violations of human rights.

MCC Canada raised this issue in the first letter to the Trudeau government on this mission and it was the main subject of the most recent letter, from February 2017:

“Training and weapons transfers from the international community are counterproductive to building a unified Iraq in that they are fueling sectarian divisions at the political level and amongst minority groups; contributing to human rights and laws-of-war violations; and further destabilizing the country.”

Where does this complicated situation leave us?

As the Canadian government considers possible renewal of its mission in Iraq and Syria, one lesson we can surely take is this: It is important to look far beyond the messaging of government.  We need to think critically about government actions and their impacts on the region. It may be cliché, but on this and any other government policy, despite what is said we need to adopt that all-critical perspective. Actions speak louder than words.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office.



“If we don’t have hope, there will be none.”

This week’s guest writer is Dan Wiens, Food Security and Livelihoods Coordinator for MCC. He is also a farmer.  

This week I am traveling to Southern Africa to visit farmers who have been impacted by two successive years of drought.

Despite the very dry weather, the farmers I will visit have harvested some food, even as many of their neighbors have harvested nothing. This is at least partially because they covered their soil with mulch to conserve moisture and protect the soil from the harsh sun. Mulching is just one of several adaptations to climate change that MCC’s local partners in the region are encouraging farmers to try.


Stezen Mudenda of Kulima Mbobumi Training Center in Zimbabwe, uses mulch to conserve moisture in the soil. (MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Next week (February 7-13) is International Development week. So, along with thinking about those mulching farmers, I’m also thinking about the big picture of international development. What difference is the work being done in the name of international development really making in the daily lives of people?

I admit this kind of taking stock sometimes leads me into dark places.

It’s true that the farmers I will visit have figured out how to grow food even during a drought year. But they are still just barely feeding their families with the limited resources they have. Questions about whether it makes sense to encourage farmers to adapt to a drying, marginal climate should not be ignored. Is our intervention just delaying the inevitable? Is it just a matter of time before these farmers will have to abandon their farms as the desert encroaches?

I ask similar questions about farmers MCC works with in the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh. With rising sea levels, these farms are at risk of losing their soil to excess salt from sea water.

The forces that mitigate against the success of our international development efforts are huge, diverse and unpredictable. Climate change and rising sea levels are just  two of many factors.  Others include: political instability, conflict, inadequate market structures, and the list goes on.

So where do I find hope in the work I do with farmers?


Essambié Kanko (R), Jacqueline Kando (C), and Sabine Badiel (L), farmers in Didyr, Burkina Faso, participate in a program to help women farmers adapt to climate change through conservation agriculture practices. (MCC Photo/James Souder)

Friends of mine from the Global South have said to me, “Hopelessness is a luxury only the rich can afford.”  They go on to say things like, “In this place we have to have hope, because if we didn’t there would be none.”

In light of these truths, while I’m still compelled to ask the hard questions, I’m also compelled to see actions like mulching as symbols of hope, rather than acts of desperation.

Of course there is no such thing as a panacea in this business. Mulching and other such adaptations to climate change have their limitations and challenges. What’s more, the true locus of hope is not really with things like mulch.  It’s with people.

When I finally visit farms in Southern Africa later this week, I’ll be looking for hope not so much in mulch, but in the words — and especially the eyes — of the farmers. This is not because of some romantic notion of the noble farmer sticking with her farm until the bitter end. Indeed, some of the farmers may someday decide to abandon their farms to look for other opportunities. Whether they  stay with their farms or not is not the metric by which we should be measuring success.  The metric should be their own sense of hope. The farmers have to find reasons to maintain hope for a better future for their families.

For if they don’t have hope, there will be none.

Hopes and concerns: Canada’s involvement in Haiti

By Rebekah Sears, MCC Ottawa Office policy analyst.

I love watching our Canadian political processes unfold: elections, tracking the promises, critiquing the results, the whole game of politics. In a time of transition – a change in Prime Minister and also a change in the governing party – there are endless things to watch and monitor: who is in charge of what file, what are the governing party’s plans and promises, when can we expect results?

For us at MCC’s Ottawa Office, some of the files in which we are especially interested include those relating to Canada’s role in the world.  All the work related to foreign affairs, international development and trade is now grouped in the newly-christened Global Affairs Canada (GAC), formally the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

The new Liberal government has promised to “refocus our development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable” (Liberal Party Platform). The platform goes on to accuse the outgoing government of focusing too much on economics and not enough on development. “The [previous] government has shifted its aid priorities to reflect political and commercial interests to the detriment of the needs of the poorest and most fragile countries.”

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In Mombin Crochu, Haiti, cashew nuts are cooked to be processed into a product that can be transported and sold in larger markets. (MCC photo/José Magloire-van der Vossen)

But the question remains: what will a shift like this really look like on the ground in countries and regions that have been identified as the “most vulnerable” – countries like Haiti?

Haiti has long been a priority for Canada. Successive governments have provided support for rapid onset crisis situations but also for long-term development. Haiti is the least developed country in the Americas, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, and on the global stage ranks 167 out of 187 countries. Haiti continues to be one of the biggest recipients of Canadian humanitarian and development assistance, and Canada is one of its biggest donors.

In the mid-2000s, Canada focused its development assistance on a list of 25 priority countries – selected because of poverty and the possibilities for effective development. Haiti was a prominent member of this list. Strong support for Haiti continued under the Conservative government, even as much of the focus, particularly in the Latin America Caribbean region, shifted to countries that could offer Canada significant opportunities for  free trade and other economic benefits, as opposed to focusing primarily on development.

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Students practice embroidery in the courtyard of House of Hope, a remedial education program run by MCC partner Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Justice (FOPJ) in Carrefour Feuilles, Haiti. MCC photo by Lowell Brown.

Some development specialists have referred to Haiti as a bit of an anomaly in terms of Canada’s involvement in the region over the last decade (as it has no free trade agreement with Canada). Nevertheless, given Haiti’s ongoing need, they regard this involvement positively.

Earlier in 2015 the Canadian government committed to at least five more years of in-depth engagement in Haiti. Given the ongoing poverty, under-development and corruption, and the new Liberal government’s development priorities, Haiti will no doubt remain a priority.

However, aside from sweeping general commitments to re-focus Canada’s development work on poverty, there are few specifics to the new government’s plan. What form will this development take? Who will be involved? And who will benefit — specifically in Haiti?

It should be noted that Canada’s involvement in Haiti from the early days to the present has not always been welcome. Accusations are still floating around about Canada’s alleged interference within the Haitian state for our own self-interest (especially in terms of rising wages in the textile industries which would cut into Canadian profits), its involvement in the 2004 coup, as well as its participation in the highly criticized UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH.

In the current context, another significant concern is the role of the mining industry in Haitian development. Both before and after the devastating earthquake of 2010, mining companies, including at least two major Canadian companies (Eurasian Minerals and Newmont Mining), have been seeking contracts for exploration and operations in Haiti.

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Ted and Katharine Oswald, MCC workers in Haiti, visited the Ottawa Office in July 2015.  They are shown here with Bernard Sejour (R), Ottawa Catalyst for Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. MCC photo.

Proponents of mining look to the possibilities for development and job creation. However, opponents, including many civil society organizations, fear the consequences on Haiti in general and the areas around the mines in particular. Their concerns include: an already corrupt state; degradation of water, land and other resources; increased violence and persecution of dissidents and human rights defenders; growing inequality and more.

Mining operations in Haiti have been suspended since early 2013 as a new mining law is being drafted. However, as an election process in Haiti slowly unfolds, the Haitian parliament has been suspended for months, causing opponents of mining to worry that a new mining law could be brought in without public debate.

At the same time, the future for Canadian mining operations remains unclear with our new government. Some people speculate the new government will come down harder on Canadian mining companies, enforcing more regulations to ensure as little damage as possible to the local contexts in which they operate. However, trade and economic interests abroad continue to be a major priority for the new government – and mineral imports and trade from Canadian mining operations fall under this overall trade spectrum. Although Canada and Haiti do not share a free trade agreement, general trade priorities are to increase economic opportunities for Canadians. Obviously trade and a focus on economics are important in our globalized world, but context matters in terms of the potential impacts, both positive and negative. As Prime Minister Trudeau noted during the Canadian election campaign,

The Liberal Party of Canada strongly supports free trade, as this is how we open markets to Canadian goods and services, grow Canadian businesses, create good-paying jobs, and provide choice and lower prices to Canadian consumers.

For now, we at MCC’s Ottawa Office — together with our partners in Haiti — are closely watching and waiting to see what Canadian development assistance and economic priorities and actions will look like for countries like Haiti, and beyond.

Faith: the Missing Piece of the International Development Puzzle

by Casey van Wensem, Advocacy Research Intern

If the current international development discourse has a blind spot, it would be on the issue of faith.

On September 21-22, Canadian civil society and academic leaders gathered to discuss the state of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at a conference hosted by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC). The purpose of this gathering was to look at the successes and failures of the MDGs and to determine how we, as Canadian civil society, can deliver and advocate for better aid in the post-MDG world. A number of important issues were discussed, including:

  • making aid more sustainable,
  • getting beyond aid dependence,
  • listening to the voices of the poor,
  • encouraging people’s livelihoods.

All of these are extremely important issues.

However, one big issue was missing: faith.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of people in the world are people of faith. This was pointed out at the conference by panelist Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). However, with the exception of her brief statements, the faith issue remained largely absent from civil society discussions at the conference.

So what’s so bad about applying a non-religious worldview to international development? Isn’t that the best way to promote equality between different cultures? The problem is, when we leave faith out of the picture, we are leaving out the very thing that shapes most people’s view of the world.

Canadians may note that faith is simply not an important Canadian value, and that Canada is committed to respecting Canadian values in the delivery of foreign aid by bill C-293 (otherwise known as the “better aid bill”). Evidence, however, shows otherwise.

Research by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby shows that “no less than 2 in 3 people across the country say that their religious or spiritual beliefs are important to the way they live their lives.” A recent Maclean’s Magazine poll also tells us that a majority of Canadians identify themselves as Christians. These are no small numbers. A recent article by Bruce J. Clemenger, President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, also makes a convincing argument for including faith in policy discussions, regardless of public opinion about matters of faith.

Seen through the lens of faith, the MDGs also take on a deeper meaning. I find it hard to even think about helping the world’s poor without looking to the perfect example set by Jesus.

With this in mind, it would make sense for the Canadian Government to consider the role of faith – both in our country and in others – when dealing with international development issues.

All of this, however, should not be taken as a major criticism of Canadian civil society. After all, most Canadian NGOs have no religious affiliation, so why would we expect them to uphold religious beliefs?

Rather, this is a call to faith-based organizations like MCC to take a leadership role in international development by demonstrating the important role that faith communities play. In this way we can exemplify the faith that God accepts as pure and faultless as expressed in James 1:27 – to reach out to those in our world who need help the most.

by Casey van Wensem, Advocacy Research Intern at the MCC Ottawa Office

 Graphics from End Poverty by 2015

What is missing from the budget debate

It seems like a long time has passed since the federal budget was tabled at the end of March. Indeed, already the morning after, pundits called it modest and many breathed a sigh of relief as the cuts weren’t near as drastic as widely expected. Okay, so let’s move on. Next issue?

However, coalitions that Mennonite Central Committee belongs to have a quite different perspective. They understand the budget cuts as having both substantial and politically symbolic meaning.

Here’s the punch line: This budget and its cuts will further reduce the presence of the federal government in the lives of Canadians and in the work of many international development organisations working with our world’s poorest in reducing hunger.

And missing in action is a dialogue about what kind of Canada we want and what role we want our country to play in the world.

Concluding that the budget cuts were much less drastic than expected is to miss the point. Our coalition partners point to the erosion of federal government involvement in creating a caring society here at home.

Let’s start with Canada’s indigenous peoples. Tragically, Canada’s First Nations are accustomed to not receiving adequate and appropriate involvement and assistance from the government. KAIROS Canada, of whom MCC is a member, said that the budget announcement of additional funds for First Nations education “is only half what is needed to bring reserve schools up to Canadian standards.”

KAIROS also noted that the government has ignored the housing crisis in First Nations communities across the country, a crisis most recently seen in Attawapiskat. This disregarding continues in the 2012 budget which has nothing set aside for First Nations housing. In addition, while KAIROS affirms the budget’s attention to huge water problems on First Nations reserves, it is “only about 5% of what is needed.”

And then there are the huge cuts to International Development Assistance through which Canada seeks to reduce suffering in the developing world.

“What impact will the budget have on global hunger?” asked Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB; MCC is a founding member). Their answer: “Less money for the world’s neediest citizens.”

Over the next five years, CFGB says, Canada’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) will be cut by $790 million, from $5.6 billion to $4.8 billion, making Canada among the least generous of traditional aid donor countries as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI). It will fall by almost $600 million in this fiscal year alone.

But it’s actually much worse when the cumulative impact is considered! The Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC, another coalition MCC is a member of) documents that by 2016, Canada will have reduced Canadian official development assistance (ODA) by close to $1.2 billion. This is on top of the 2010 cut of $4.4 billion to future aid that the Conservative government implemented in Budget 2010.

A total cut of about $5.6 billion!

Never mind that the two organisations’ numbers aren’t exactly the same. The point is, as CFGB concludes, these cuts mean Canada will be giving much less for “reducing global hunger through support for agriculture, food aid and nutrition in developing countries” and represent a Canadian government reversal as such support has been “a priority focus of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) since the global food crisis in 2008.”

In short, this budget means that fewer people will be successful in their struggle to become food secure, that fewer women and babies will be healthier, and that Canada’s indigenous peoples will continue to have woefully inadequate water and housing.

Is this the Canada you want? Is this the role we want our country to play in addressing suffering and hunger in the world, both at home and abroad?

Tim Schmucker, MCC Canada Public Engagement Coordinator