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 

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.

A senator’s plea for friendship

We had gathered in Ottawa—eight MCC staff, along with 30 students and young adults from across the country—for our annual MCC Canada student seminar. The topic of the seminar was Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

One of our guest speakers was Senator Mobina Jaffer.  Jaffer has been active in promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda for many years and she spoke about that work for several minutes. Then she asked permission to go “off topic.” She wanted to discuss what was really on her heart.

And what was on her heart was the reality of being a Muslim in Canada today.  Jaffer is herself Muslim—the first Muslim senator in Canada.  She spoke about the growing reality of Islamophobia in Canada and about her fears for the future.

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Senator Mobina Jaffer (centre) with seminar participants. Photo Thomas Coldwell.

Her words were influenced by the recent massacre of Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Quebec City, the increase of messages of hatred directed towards Muslims and others online, and the reaction to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s motion against Islamophobia in the House of Commons.  As a result of the motion, Khalid has received thousands of harassing and hateful emails, even including death threats.

Political developments in the U.S. and the impact on Muslims is also affecting Canada. Muslim asylum seekers from the U.S. are increasingly crossing the border into Canada at points other than official border crossings so as to avoid being returned to the U.S. through the Safe Third Country Agreement. Some Canadians are sounding the alarm about the potential threat these individuals pose.

“We are having a real crisis here in Canada,” Senator Jaffer said. “The conflict is at our door.”

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Small group discussion. Photo Janessa Mann

Nevertheless, she urged the students to be ambassadors of peace and goodwill and to resist the stereotypes which paint all Muslims as terrorists and a threat to society.  “Take time to get to know your Muslim neighbours,” she urged.  “Be curious about them. Ask them questions.”

Above all, she said, “Reach out.  Ask your Muslim neighbours, ‘How can I stand with you?’”

Jaffer’s plea for friendship and solidarity was a poignant interruption in the well-laid plans of our seminar.  At the conclusion of her speech, we paused to take a group photo and a few individuals spoke with her one on one. Then we continued with our agenda.

But the “interruption” returned at the conclusion of the seminar when two of the seminar participants shared their personal stories. Both are Muslims who arrived in Canada as refugees. Both felt emboldened to speak because of Jaffer’s words.

One young woman from Syria told how, as a result of the war in her country, she had lost her dream of becoming an engineer. After one year in Canada, she is beginning to believe the dream might become a reality. She reminded us of the saying, “I am because you are.” In other words, our lives as humans are intimately intertwined.

The other young woman, a Palestinian from Iraq, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. She urged her fellow students not to accept life as it is, but to commit to changing it for the good. “You can make a difference in the world!” she insisted. She expressed her deep gratitude for the Mennonite congregation that sponsored her and her family’s resettlement in Canada and for the friendship experienced at the seminar.

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In front of the Peace Tower.  Photo Thomas Coldwell

MCC has long been committed to building bridges of friendship with Muslims here in Canada and around the world.  Interfaith dialogue and bridge-building is, in fact, a key way that MCC, together with the partners we support around the world, seeks to build peace where there is hostility, friendship where there is fear.

We hadn’t identified interfaith friendship and peacebuilding  as one of the intended outcomes of our student seminar. But, thanks to a senator’s heartfelt plea, that’s precisely what happened.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

Everyone has something to offer

This week’s guest writer is Mark Tymm. A former intern in the Ottawa Office, Mark is currently working with MCC in Chad.

“What do you think, Paul?” I asked, looking at my supervisor during my internship with the MCC Ottawa Office in the fall of 2013. “How do I need to grow to better address issues of peace and justice? How do I live a life of more intentional discipleship?”

“Well, you’d benefit from some more grassroots or international experience… You’re passionate, but grassroots experience is invaluable,” was his response.

Over three years later, I find myself in N’Djamena, Chad, a hot and dry country in central Africa surrounded by Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Nigeria. I came to Chad first with SALT, a one-year MCC program for young adults focused on Serving And Learning Together. Since completing the program, I have continued with MCC in Chad as a Service Worker, specifically working with our long term partner Ethics Peace and Justice (EPJ). EPJ’s work is centered predominantly on hosting interfaith workshops on conflict transformation across the country.

My time in Africa so far has certainly been eye-opening, challenging, filled with great friendships, perspective-changing moments, and life-giving experiences. One of these rich times was the recent All Africa Peace Exchange.

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Participants in the All Africa Peace Exchange. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Following on the success of an exchange of education specialists in 2015, MCC decided to coordinate a summit of peace practitioners in 2017. This summit took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in January of this year.

Over thirty delegates from fourteen MCC programs across the continent, as well as visiting guests from MCC Ontario and US offices, came together to talk about our peacebuilding efforts. Participants brought a breadth of perspectives and peacebuilding experiences from contexts as diverse as Burkina Faso and Mozambique, from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.

One of the presenters at the summit was Issa Ebombolo from Zambia, currently completing graduate studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Issa is the brains behind Peace Clubs, an MCC-funded project that teaches peacebuilding skills to children and youth. The Peace Clubs program began in Zambia but has since spread to South Africa, Burundi, Nigeria and pilot projects are being developed elsewhere, such as Chad.

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Participants from Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia and Ontario discuss the challenges of peace work in interfaith contexts.  MCC photo by Mark Tymm

My new friend shared his wisdom and insight with the group of peace practitioners. Issa encouraged us in our work with grassroots initiatives, rather than asking, “What do you need?” to reframe the question as, “What do you have?” Rather than demanding, “What needs to be done?” he urged us to ask, “What are you already doing?”

Be it life experience, time, energy, knowledge of the current context, or a wealth of cultural wisdom, Issa pointed out the depth of resources African peoples possess, resources which are often ignored. “No one under the sun has nothing; everyone has something to offer in any circumstances, including those we think have nothing.”

What a refreshing reminder for those who seek to create spaces of wholeness, peace and justice!

I have often struggled to identify exactly how a white middle class guy in his mid-twenties can possible contribute to building peace in Chad. Issa’s words also encouraged me to look at what I have to offer.

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MCC staff and partners listen to a presentation on contemporary issues in intercultural partnership in peacebuilding. MCC photo by Mark Tymm

Peacebuilders, it seems by nature, are people of high ideals. I know for myself personally, I am driven by the hope that one day injustice will be eliminated, equality and fullness will envelope our societies, and shalom will form the foundation for life. It is also important to remember that despite the messy reality of here-and-now, Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace and good news also exists in a “now-yet-not-yet” kind of manifestation.

Peacebuilding rooted in faith was an important topic at the summit. We discussed MCC’s position of working with the existing local church, rather than establishing new churches. Alain Epp Weaver, director of strategic planning for MCC, noted that MCC’s work “is not focused on planting new churches, but [such churches] have emerged from MCC presence and the desire of MCC workers to share through their lives the gospel of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.”

One of the most exciting outcomes of the summit was the formation of an MCC Africa Peace Network, a formal space for MCC staff to discuss and meet on a regular basis. Though we haven’t met yet, seeing this group of peace practitioners commit to ongoing collaboration and to encouraging and supporting each other’s efforts is an inspiration.

The pursuit of peace continues to be a driving motivator for MCC workers across Africa, and collaboration between programs will no doubt be a good move. Echoed frequently across the continent is a proverb, the origins of which seem to have been lost from the annals of history:

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Together we continue towards peace. On the journey, everyone has something to offer.

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

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Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office

Muskrat Falls: An opportunity for respect and reconciliation

This week’s writers are Dianne and Marty Climenhage, MCC representatives in Labrador.

June 27, 2016 was an historic day in Labrador. It marked the first time that all three Indigenous groups–Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government representing Northern Inuit and NunatuKavut Government representing Southern Inuit–stood together publicly and asked for a halt to Nalcor Corporation’s Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Project (Muskrat Falls).

It has been our privilege, as MCC workers in Labrador, to stand with Indigenous partners in their call for respect for their land and their lives.

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Sign at the blockade. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

Since 2011, “land protectors” have been warning the public about the potential risks of moving forward with a project of this magnitude. In 2013, the project began with an estimated price tag of $6.2 billion and was expected to go online in 2017. Due to delays, miscalculations and changes in management, the project is now not expected to go online before 2019 and with an estimated total cost of $11.4 billion in an already financially unstable province.

Prior to the start of the project, only one of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador were consulted. The Innu Nation signed an Impact Benefit Agreement, allowing construction with conditions. NunatuKavut and Nunatsiavut were not given the opportunity for involvement on decisions that directly affect their traditional territories.

There are two issues that the Indigenous leaders are calling on Nalcor and the government to consider before moving forward with initial flooding of the reservoir.  First, the rise in methyl mercury levels in the Churchill River system has been reported by Nalcor to increase to the point where consumption warnings are put in place for a minimum of 15 years.  An estimated 2,000 Indigenous people rely on the Churchill River system for their food supply. Fishing and hunting are not only traditional ways of life that must be protected, they can mean the difference between life and death in Labrador. An independent study by Harvard University indicates that if organic material is not removed, methyl mercury levels could increase anywhere from 25%-200% downstream, depending on conditions in the river. This would have devastating results, poisoning the food chain for generations in food insecure northern communities.

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Muskrat Falls will disappear when the flooding begins. MCC photo/Dianne Climenhage

The second concern is the North Spur. This is a natural barrier that will be used as a wall for the reservoir. The North Spur is made up of layers of sand and marine clay, also known as quick clay. Nalcor has used stabilization methods to reinforce the spur, but there is no precedent for building on marine clay. It is, “moving and alive” according to dam safety expert Jim Gordon. Experts from Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and Sweden have all cautioned there is a high likelihood of a North Spur breech and collapse.  This would have devastating effects for communities downstream: lower Happy Valley and Mud Lake.  Mud Lake is an island community in the Churchill River with the only access being boat or skidoo, which would not allow enough time for evacuation according to Nalcor’s emergency timeline.

The provincial government has issued permits to Nalcor allowing initial flooding, up to 25% of the reservoir, to begin any time after October 15, 2016. On that day, protesters from Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and settlers all descended on the main gate of the Muskrat Falls Project in a desperate attempt to halt the flooding of the reservoir until organic matter is cleared. They successfully blocked workers from entering the site over the weekend and on Monday, October 17, nine protesters were arrested for defying a Nalcor court injunction. There are currently 4 people on hunger strikes from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut. Three of them–Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister–traveled to Ottawa to take part in a rally at the Human Rights Monument on Sunday. On Monday they planned meetings with Amnesty International representatives, Indigenous and government officials.

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Brooklyn Woolfrey Allen drumming for Elders at the blockade.  Photo courtesy Jenny Gear

The number of land protectors has increased on site, communities across the country have held solidarity rallies, and Amnesty International and Idle No More have issued statements, all asking the Federal Government to step in and use this case as an example of how they will implement United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and work toward true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In May 2016, Canada officially adopted UNDRIP. The federal government announced “unqualified support” of the document that ensures Indigenous rights are considered in every decision they make. True Nation to Nation relationships can only be built if the federal government follows through on what it promised.  Now is its chance.

Shirley Flowers, a member of Nunatsiavut and a partner of MCC, has been holding an almost daily vigil, at times alone, at the Muskrat Falls gate since June of this year.  She sees the risks to her own way of life and the consequences of non-action for her children, grandchildren and generations that follow. Shirley says, “If the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are not respected and followed, then the whole process is tokenism.”

Just as this blog post was prepared for publication, Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Government came to an agreement with all three Indigenous Governments and a plan for moving forward together. Though concerns regarding methyl mercury and the North Spur remain, UNDRIP has been considered in the agreement, and Indigenous leadership and knowledge with be part of the process.