We’ve got to be bold: Lessons from globally-renowned peacebuilders

What is Canada’s legacy?

Across the country in 2017, especially in Ottawa, this question seems unavoidable – everyone is talking about legacy. As we near the celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday, people are asking, what is our current legacy? What will future generations of Canadians say in 50, 100, or 150 years? We can’t escape it – on the barriers around construction sites, in city parks and at government events we see the signs: “Canada 150.”

By the time it’s over, 2017 will no doubt be a year of unending festivals, cheesy punch lines, and romanticized political speeches, glossing over complex and often disturbing elements of our history.

But beyond the fluff of “Canada 150” celebrations there is a real opportunity to build a legacy of leadership and peace in Canada and around the world. A legacy built on actions, not just words.

This was the challenge for Canada a few weeks ago from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. She was joined by fellow global renowned peacebuilder and human rights activist Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and President of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

On April 12 I had the privilege of attending an event where Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Matt DeCourcey and NDP Critic for Foreign Affairs Héne Laverdière joined Leymah and Yanar to discuss innovation in Canada’s development programming. The two global peacebuilders challenged Canada to be a leader when it comes to international assistance – funding and partnering with innovative grassroots organizations and individuals to promote peace and justice from the ground up.

Earlier that same day Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai had addressed Canadian Parliament upon receiving honourary Canadian citizenship. She praised some of Canada’s humanitarian commitments of recent years, all while challenging Canada to be a leader in supporting education for girls and young women as a means to promote development, peace, and a better world for all: “If Canada leads, the world will follow,” Malala said.

Leymah grabbed onto Malala’s message, challenging the Canadian government to put its money and resources where its mouth is. For Leymah and Yanar, this means funding grassroots women’s and human rights organizations. “There are 10,000 Malalas out there…we just need to find them!” Leymah said. The point that both women emphasized is that these grassroots peace, community development, and human rights organizations are showcasing innovation and action, getting things done.

It’s a common misconception that local organizations are sitting around, waiting for funding from Western governments and civil society organizations. But this is definitely not the case. People are always looking for ways to better their local communities and are doing so every day, in difficult circumstances and with few resources. What outside funding of these local initiatives does enable is for local champions and actors to expand their impact. At MCC we seek to partner with local organizations for the same reasons, and together support great work being done within communities around the world.

But where does the Government of Canada stand on funding local partners? That’s a good question!

Last spring and summer, MCC, along with dozens of other organizations and individuals, participated in the International Assistance Review, spearheaded by Global Affairs Canada and the Hon Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development. While the government has published some of the major feedback from the review, after almost a year there has yet to be any official policy tabled.

And what does Budget 2017 say about Canada’s commitment to international assistance? Not much! No new spending money has been allocated for Canada’s international assistance. The programming priorities can still shift, but by not increasing the overall spending Canada is taking zero steps in 2017 to move toward the internationally-recognized goal of 0.7% spending on Official Development Assistance. Yet in pre-budget consultations, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development identified this as a goal to be reached by 2030. Instead, Canada is staying at about 0.26% spending for international assistance, which is not much higher than our all-time low.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill Morneau hopes that organizations and groups will “do more with less,” as the government is focusing on increasing Foreign Direct Investment private sector initiatives, rather than investing more in grassroots peace and development organizations.

So, what does that mean? What should the direction of Canadian assistance funding be?

In the spirit of Canada 150, Leymah directed her comments to Parliamentary Secretary DeCourcey, sighting a joint Match International/Nobel Women’s Initiative campaign that challenges Canada to mark this historic year by making 150 new contributions to 150 small grassroots peace, development or human rights women’s organization around the world.

While genuine consultation and working with the grassroots communities takes time and flexibility, and it can be messy, the results speak for themselves: change and action from the ground up!

They urged the government to make Canada 150 count for something tangible.

Leymah and Yanar both see this year as the moment to speak out and act for the future. “A new legacy is waiting…It can be grabbed now, or by a future government!” Yanar challenged.

Now is the time: turn words into something tangible. Let’s make a new legacy of action!

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa. 

Swords into ploughshares

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

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

How did it all begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will the next 40 years lead?

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

Advocacy is not all it seems

This week’s writer is Janessa Mann, Advocacy Research Intern in the Ottawa Office. 

In the global north, advocacy is often held up as a way to fight for justice in the global south, and a way for students to be active in the political sphere. As I found out reading Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed Books. 2015), advocacy is not all it seems.

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Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism. Edited by Alex de Waal. Zed Books, 2015.

The book, edited by Alex de Waal, is a compilation of essays on specific advocacy campaigns and their unintended consequences—consequences that we do not often question or even notice. The book focuses primarily on Western advocates and how they have impacted communities in the global south with their efforts. The essays challenge the dominant discourse by creating dialogue about the “misrepresentations and inadequacies of advocacies” (p. viii).

I found this book very interesting, because it exposed new truths that I had not previously known about specific advocacy movements. I recommend it for MCC programmers, students, and activists — to renew your desire to fight for justice.

The central argument of the book is that advocacy should be responsible, with the people most affected by the conflict leading the advocacy movements. For advocacy campaigns to be effective and promote sustainable development, they must be “more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (p. 1). As one example, the writers of the book explored the negative impacts of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, which highlighted the violent actions of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.  The organization encouraged students to get activist kits to pressure the US Congress to stop Kony, but did not encourage students to think about agency for Africans or any negative impacts that might result from their efforts.

Within the introduction, the writers ask some very interesting questions about advocacy campaigns. Do advocates in the global north have the right to propose solutions to global south problems, based on their perspectives? How can advocacy groups be involved in development work? How can we reconcile academic knowledge with practical activism? Is it ethical to use celebrities as “bridge characters” for activist issues (p. 5)? These questions are all then answered in the following chapters with varied examples.

This book gives an in-depth analysis of specific transnational campaigns, their achievements, and ethical challenges. It incorporates global south perspectives on the dominant discourse of advocacy, illustrating that programming often does not address local knowledge effectively. One of the chapters discusses Global Witness’ shaming of companies using products made from conflict minerals in DR Congo.

The international campaign focused on policy-based evidence, making use of a specific narrative that did nothing to reduce violence in the DRC. Advocates didn’t know that their boycotting and protests would cause many Congolese to lose their jobs, as well as increase smuggling. The Congolese population, as well as academics, were able to predict this outcome, which shows that transnational advocates were not effectively investigating the consequences of their actions.

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Students at Kiroba Primary  School, near Kamuli, Uganda.  MCC supports students affected by HIV/AIDS.  MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker

Advocacy in Conflict provides a fresh perspective on transnational advocacy, urging activists to educate themselves on situations before becoming involved. I feel encouraged in MCC’s work that there are so many people involved (especially the Ottawa Office) in ensuring we know as much of the story as we can, to provide constructive, sustainable, and ethical advocacy work in our programming. The work is rooted in program work, our relationship with partners, and their experience.

The biggest takeaway from the book was that advocacy is not effective if it does not integrate diverse perspectives, consider stakeholders’ priorities, and make appropriate “asks” of policy-makers.

 

No secure future

This week’s guest writer is Myriam Ullah, Community Engagement Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.  She participated in an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel in February 2017.

We pulled up to a modest, concrete house in a rural-feeling suburb just outside of the city. Honey bees, the smell of rosemary, and hot tea greeted us as we were welcomed by the home owners. At first glance, the property looked beautiful and lush, with ten or so beehives scattered among the fruit trees.

The family who lives in this home is one of 500 living near Jerusalem that MCC has supported by helping to install water treatment systems and connect them to community agriculture projects. Through a translator and through MCC’s partner Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem (ARIJ), the family told  how they had been helped by such subsidies in a time of real need and were grateful for the access to a secure water source.

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ARIJ agricultural support project. Photo/Myriam Ullah

Our group, a collection of MCC constituents and staff from Canada, was on a two-week learning tour to gain understanding of MCC’s long-term work in Palestine and Israel and to understand how we, as Canadians, could continue to support projects like this when we returned home.

We questioned the family about how the water treatment system worked, and we learned more about how they had cultivated a more resilient and diversified crop. It was an inspiring visit and  a success story for ARIJ, a well-established NGO that was started with MCC seed-funding 25 years ago.

As we thanked the family and shuffled back onto the mini-bus, I thought to myself, “This situation could be anywhere in the world.” It is, after all, a fairly common story from MCC’s partners—supporting sustainable livelihoods for those found in unstable conditions because of conflict, war, or natural disaster.

The difference here was that we were just outside of a major tourist city. There had been no recent natural disaster, and access to food and water was actually abundant! Lush fields and crops grew just a few kilometers away.

The unique edge to this story is that ARIJ provides water treatment systems to Palestinian families living near Jerusalem because they are living under occupation. This means that their access to water is controlled by the Israeli government, which favours Israeli settlers in the West Bank by providing them with more than 3x the amount of daily water than their Palestinian neighbours receive. To conserve water, Palestinian families regularly endure weeks without running water, having to rely on rain collection barrels and systems like the ones ARIJ provides.

Although the West Bank and Gaza are considered Palestinian land by the international community, ARIJ spent the morning outlining for us the systematic increase in Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank on Palestinian-owned land.

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Water treatment system.  Photo/Myriam Ullah

There are over 760,000 settlers living within approximately 200 illegal settlements and just over 260 outposts (which are planned-for settlements). These settlements, and the people living in them, are most often enjoying a high standard of living with maintained roadways, 24/7 security, strong education systems, and abundant food/water sources. Palestinians, on the other hand, are crowded into smaller strips of land with separated roadways, frequent military detentions, limited access to water, risk of home demolitions, and the inability to travel within their land without permits.

After 50 years of living under the longest occupation in history, organizations like ARIJ offer Palestinian families much-needed, immediate support. However, they can’t instill long-term hope for a people who have little assurance they will not be issued a home demolition order at some point in the near future.

When we first arrived at the airport in Tel-Aviv, our learning tour guide welcomed us with a challenge: to fully listen as we hear the stories of loss and pain, and to do so without trying to offer simple solutions or explanations of a situation we don’t fully understand.

Throughout our two weeks, we saw time and again evidence of Palestinian homes and villages destroyed. We even heard stories of some families choosing to demolish their own homes, as this was less expensive than being made to pay the bill for having their homes demolished by military order — and for the cost of the security personnel needed to force them out.

We heard stories of children as young as 12 being imprisoned and elementary school students being tear gassed. We felt the presence of the security wall, as it shadowed over a single, remaining home we visited—a home surrounded by settlements and fences where a Palestinian family (with their own checkpoint) was restricted from leaving their own driveway.

I don’t believe anyone from our group came home with a full understanding of the situation in Israel and Palestine. And we definitely didn’t return home with a sense of a solution. However, for me, I did leave with a sense of the incredible disparities between those who are afforded a livelihood and hope for a secure future, and those who calculate their days by permits, checkpoints, and rubble.

I returned home haunted by the notion that power does not want to hear truth and that the conflict over these lands has a lifetime yet to live.

Learning and unlearning — for reconciliation

This week’s guest writer is Pam Peters-Pries, associate program director for MCC Canada.

March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  March 21 was chosen because on that day in 1960, police killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the day in 1966, calling on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

We should celebrate the many steps, big and small, that have been taken to eliminate racial discrimination since then. The apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. The American civil rights movement resulted in many policy changes prohibiting racial discrimination and segregation and protecting the rights of minorities.  In our own country, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged and urged action to address the long and tragic history of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in what we now call Canada.

An International Day of Anything proclaimed by the United Nations can be an occasion for grand thoughts and actions – to look across the sweep of history and acknowledge change, or to address the highest ranks of power in our societies and demand change we yet wish to see.

But it should also be an occasion for us to look at small things, at the practical actions we can take in our everyday lives to contribute to a grand and global vision. This is a great day to think about what we can do to contribute to the ongoing work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, reconciliation that has the potential to eliminate the discrimination faced daily by Indigenous peoples.

Senninger's Learning ModelAt an intercultural competence and anti-racism training I attended last year, I learned about Senninger’s Learning Zone Model. The model assumes that in order to learn, we have to venture out into the unknown. We need to move from our comfort zone, where things are familiar and where we don’t have to take risks, to our learning zone.

The learning zone is a place where we are stretched, pursue our curiosity, and make new discoveries. As we learn, we should aim to get close to – but not into – our panic zone.  In the panic zone, our learning is shut down by a sense of fear.

The TRC’s Calls to Action place tremendous emphasis on education – on learning. What many of us learned about Indigenous history and current realities in school or through the media is inaccurate and inadequate. And so this learning zone model is instructive for us.  Certainly, we need to get out of our comfort zones. We may find comfort in the stories of settlers coming to an “empty” land that was peacefully “surrendered” by Indigenous people to settlers through treaty-making. We may find comfort in the belief that settlers prospered through hard work and perseverance alone, not through privileges – such as access to land – granted to them at the expense of others.

As we work towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—a task each citizen in this country carries every day and not just on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination— we need to move out of these familiar comfort zones and into our learning zones.

In our learning zones, we may discover that the history we learned hides from us the history of systemic displacement of and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in this country. We may discover that discrimination against Indigenous peoples is not a thing of the past, but continues today in the lack of access to clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities, under-funding of Indigenous education, and disproportionate representation of Indigenous children in foster care and of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

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More than 7000 people joined the Walk for Reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

For some of us, venturing into our learning zones may mean heading very close to panic zones for a brief time, as a radical shake-up of long-held beliefs and perspectives may be needed for us to begin to see these things that have been hidden from us. But panic is not the goal, and is not a sustainable place. Learning is the goal.

So let’s be gentle but ready to dis-comfort each other.

The learning zone may be uncomfortable, but it may also be surprising and emboldening. It is a place we must explore if we are to unlearn the “comforting-to-some” myths and misperceptions that reinforce discrimination of Indigenous peoples. It is a place where we can learn the truth about Indigenous history, suffering, resilience and genius, and discover the grace and generosity inside ourselves that can feed the long work of reconciliation ahead .

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.

 

 

Trauma knows no gender

Today’s guest writer is Karen Thind, a student at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. She participated in the recent student seminar of the Ottawa Office on Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

As we gathered together for the second day of our seminar, Thomas Coldwell, an MCC staff member from Alberta, began a discussion of masculinity, and the stereotypes attached to it. As we began calling out things like, “aggressive,” “man-spreading,” “protector…,” we started to narrow down the burden that society has placed upon the male gender. There was a specific lens, and specific qualities that made up a man, much like there are for women.

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Thomas Coldwell of MCC Alberta talking about masculinity. Photo Janessa Mann.

As our discussion progressed, it became apparent that our presentation would be about men and their experiences with violent conflict and PTSD.  I recoiled. Given that governments and NGOs are finally acknowledging the importance of women in addressing peace and security issues, do we really need to be addressing the needs of men? Surely we could make it three days without bringing the opposite sex into the conversation!

However, as I analyzed this train of thought, I became aware of how flippant and short-sighted I was being. Trauma and violence don’t just happen to women; they happen to communities, and those communities include men and boys.

Fighting violence against women should naturally include fighting the forces that feed that violence, and that means not only including a discussion about men and boys, but also recognizing the trauma and violence that they have experienced as well.

While Thomas queued up a video to watch, I had a moment to think, and my thoughts ran towards my nephews who have each, at ages 7 and 10, already heard the expression “man up.” I softened.  And I acknowledged that at one point male perpetrators of violence had been children, but the poison of social construct, and the cycle of violence had forced the abdication of their childhoods and demanded they forsake their humanity in exchange for a life filled with the void of masculinity.

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The sign says, “Women are human.” Photo Janessa Mann

The film we watched underscored that ideal masculinity is hard to achieve and to maintain. Moreover, when that same masculinity is ripped away, the effects are just as explosive and dangerous, as those in the “making of the man.”

I had gone into the seminar with specific learning goals regarding the intersection of politics, policy, and advocacy in making gains against gender-based violence and sexual abuse. What I came away with was that and more! I came away with a clear understanding that not only do we need to “complexify” the narrative around gender, peace, and conflict, we also need to broaden our scope when it comes to the nuance of the victim/perpetrator dynamic in situations of mass violence.

The hunger for peace is  universal. The desire to live and thrive in an environment that is safe, whole, and accepting is felt by almost every person on the planet. Ideologies of masculinity have not diminished the urge for peace; rather, they have buried it under layers of expectation and —in the cases of some—forced them to become weapons of war. In the end, the hunger for peace remains.