Searching for a reason to celebrate

This piece is another in our series of reflections on Canada 150. This one is written by Zacharie Leclair, administrative assistant for MCC Québec. Zacharie holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history and also serves on the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Board.

Celebrating the birth of the 150 year-old Canadian Confederation always feels awkward for inhabitants of a society that celebrated its 4th centennial not even a decade ago.

Even more incongruous, the very same year as Canada 150, Montreal is celebrating its 375th anniversary as a permanent and continued French settlement. Minimally, Québec’s attention is distracted, caught between two parties!

Aside from this chronological peculiarity, Québec also fosters a troubled relationship with its adhesion—never constitutionally formalized—to the Canadian Confederation.  And only adding to this complex past, the name of Canada itself has caused much confusion over the years as to the Québécois identity.

From Lucia Ferretti, “Le Canada: Toxique pour le Québec,” in Le Mouton Noir (14 mai 2017)

In fact, “Canadian” has primarily and specifically referred to the first French settlers of the Saint-Lawrence valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the takeover of New France by the British in 1763 and subsequent English migration to Québec, “Canadian” gradually came to designate both French and English inhabitants of Canada—hence the need to add the qualifier of “French” to Canadian. Then, mainly through the initiative of the Anglophone merchant class of Montréal, the province of Québec was incorporated into the confederation project.

Reacting against the hegemony of the English-speaking minority in Québec, a distinctive nationalist sentiment grew throughout the first half of the 20th century and led to the extensive—and sometimes lyrical!—use of the word “Québécois” to describe those previously known as “French Canadians.” The implication was clear: only the Francophone should be considered as legitimate and moral “owners” of the province (after all, British rights over Québec were won—illegitimately by modern international law standards—through conquest).

Yet this new designation also led to the abandonment of the sense of Canadian belonging and, not without irony, the repudiation of a pan-Canadian Francophone unity and solidarity. However, the term “Québécois” came to symbolize both the modernization and the coming of age of the Québec society as of the 1960s, when an exceptionally sudden social and nationalist upheaval called “Révolution Tranquille” (Quiet Revolution) took place. Increasingly, being a Québécois thus also meant a clear disconnection with the idea of identifying as Canadian.

Photo by Alain Chagnon, Fête de la Saint-Jean, Mont-Royal, 1976

Many Anglophone observers and columnists resent the fact that most French-speaking Québécois, although they appreciate the July 1 holiday, disregard Canada Day to concentrate instead on Québec’s national “fête” on June 24. Called La Saint-Jean-Baptiste, this festival is an ancient Catholic carnival now practically devoid of any religious content and meaning.

This tendency to dismiss Canadian nationalism is also a symptom of the Québécois’ own brand of nationalism. Instead of focusing on celebrating diversity and the mixing of peoples into the Canadian “compact”, the Québécois focus on the fact that their society remains a haven of French language in North America, possessing a culture of its own that has survived intense Anglophone presence, influence, and even assimilation efforts. In short, Québécois do not celebrate the same “mystic chords of memory,” to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s words, as English Canadians.

However, millennial Québécois no longer feel as bitter and reactionary toward the Anglophone and federalism as their parents and grandparents did during the so-called “Quiet Revolution.” Obviously the conditions that had once created the rising against the Anglo-Protestant domination has but completely vanished.

Yet Québécois are still in search of a reason to celebrate the Confederation. Beyond the flags, the day off work, and the free music shows, what does it mean to highlight an event that, for people in this part of the country (not to mention the First Nations), may be remembered as painful?

Without an understanding of the historical roots of the Québécois’ mitigated reception of Canadian patriotism (including the old disregard of Canada Day), I fear no national anniversary will ever have any signification to anyone because there will be no truly united and sharing community to celebrate it.

From a Christian and a Québécois perspective, to “love your neighbor as yourself” should encompass knowing and loving the three founding nations of this country (the French, the English and the First Nations), and acknowledging the plight of those who at times were left behind.

 

Canada 150 – Two rivers

by Kerry Saner-Harvey, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba Program Coordinator – Indigenous Neighbours. This is the second in a series of reflections on Canada 150.

For many it’s a time for celebration. Others lean towards lament. Either way, perhaps “Canada 150” can be for us an invitation to “re-imagine” our nation going forward in the next 150 years.

Historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson has suggested that nations are “imagined political communities” in which we hold in our minds a mental image of ourselves in kinship with a large number of people whom we have mostly never met. This mental image frames our identity in relation to each other, and thus we also make certain assumptions about how others in “our nation” see that relationship as well. In the case of a nation state like Canada, this also includes assumptions about our political history and relationship to the Land on which we reside.

RCAP_Logo_rev2016At a conference marking the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Mark Dockstator from the First Nations University of Canada shared a provocative image of how European Settlers and Indigenous peoples have each imagined our histories.

Drawing upon the Two-Row Wampum from the Haudenosaunee legal tradition, he illustrated how each of us have imagined our history differently. In the almost universal Euro-Canadian paradigm up until 50 years ago, Indigenous peoples either didn’t exist at all or were imagined as “Indians” that needed to be assimilated into our historical stream or erased—essentially as “citizens minus.”

So, if I were to elaborate, while Indigenous peoples may have imagined themselves rowing their own canoe in their own river, if we Settlers perceived them at all it was to be brought aboard our steamship of civilization—or else tied on behind in some small broken-down canoe, pulled along in the wake of our river, if not already lost and forgotten somewhere downstream.

canoe on river

Unfortunately, we know that in many ways we are still taking away their paddles (or outboard motors) and dragging them along behind us.

Northern Stores and our welfare practices continue to create economic dependency. And northern mining and hydro development often care less about their consent than their compliance. I often hear that autonomy over Land remains one of the most important concerns for Indigenous communities today. Colonization is about taking away control and autonomy of a people, in whatever form that takes.

Around 1970, Dockstator suggests a significant number of Euro-Canadians began to perceive a diverging stream, as Canadian Settlers finally began to hear Indigenous claims to land and constitutional rights. Since then self-government and Nation-to-Nation negotiations not only emerged into our realm of possibilities, they began to slowly happen. We’ve begun to imagine a shift from “citizens minus” to “citizens plus” as we recognize much of the harms done and seek alternatives.

So, in our evolving Settler view of history, we look back on the last decades and see a new stream that has begun to diverge from our river. We now more broadly acknowledge that Indigenous peoples deserve to row in their own canoes. And this is significant.

But, as I think on this, I wonder if perhaps the Sepik Siawireal challenge for us Settler Canadians, looking back on the past 150 years, is to alter our perspective enough to re-imagine that Indigenous peoples have never really been traveling on our river in the first place.

Dockstator suggested that Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island have more or less always imagined themselves as sovereign. As far back as 1613, the original Two-Row Wampum (Tawagonshi) Treaty, the Haudenosaunee confederacy asserted that their Indigenous River should remain separate and parallel. Thomas King, in The Inconvenient Indian, reminds us that Aboriginal sovereignty is “a given”—and in fact has even been recognized in the U.S. and Canadian constitutions and Supreme Court decisions (194).

Perhaps we could look back across the field and see that the stream we thought has been branching from our river, has really been their own river all along. In other words, it never has been and still is not up to us to grant Indigenous peoples rights or sovereignty. To think this way is to recolonize history by assuming that we’ve been the ones to define the relationship since European contact. Rather, Indigenous Sovereignty is a continuous reality that we need to re-imagine for ourselves and to begin to act upon.

Perhaps we might even consider that our right to paddle in our river here actually emerged from the graciousness offered to us through the sacred Indigenous legal tradition of the treaties.

Of course, this is just about shifting our own Canadian Settler imaginations. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reminds us it is Indigenous peoples’ right to journey their own river in whatever canoe or speedboat or cruise-liner they wish to travel in.

In an ever shifting political landscape, we all need to navigate carefully, but if we are willing to be intentional and creative in recognizing the two rivers flowing independently, we will hopefully find a way to reconciliation and peace in the generations to come.

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.

Advocacy in Conflict

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.

Uganda school

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 .