Thursday, November 19, 2015

Winter update 2015

The fatgirl has been ready to go for a month already and I've taken her out a few times when I lacked the effort to deal with a puncture in the rear of my skyline. It has been unseasonably, blissfully warm. However, I'm surprised to discover, looking back, that I'm only bringing out the winter bike slightly later than last year (Nov. 12).

I was on the skyline tonight, hoping the snow wouldn't fall till I got home. Alas, icy shards pelted my eyes (okay, the fatgirl couldn't have helped with that), and slippery, snowy roads bore me home. Time for cold and ice.

So, tomorrow the fatgirl will be on the road for good, just a few days before her birthday, November 22.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Refugees welcome??

I should be happy every time I open another church bulletin or see another facebook post that says a church is considering sponsoring a refugee family.

Instead, I'm disgusted.

Really, you're merely considering it? Only now?

Your congregation is so busy running your little affinity groups and holy huddles and going on your personal enrichment "mission" trips that it took the secular newsmedia's outraged publication of a heart-rending photo of a dead child washed up on a beach to get you to even realize there's a refugee crisis out there?!

And, so moved, you still wonder not when and how to respond but whether?

When did the church stop believing itself in some way responsible to care for people outside our own doors?

Why is the church not ashamed that it took wider culture to wake us up to a tremendous need?

(It's not that the news hasn't been out there. For example, my church magazine has been running articles from MCC on the dire situation in Syria since 2012. And it's not just Syria. Africans have been perishing in increasing numbers on the Mediterranean in unsuitable boats crammed with humanity. Some of these are economic migrants, not people fleeing war or political persecution, but this desperate flight from stark income inequality and lack of opportunity should also concern those who profess to believe we all have equal value in the eyes of God.) 

Why is it not a foregone conclusion that an organized group of people who believe in hope, reconciliation and service would be able to collectively offer hospitality for at least one year -- financially and emotionally -- to a family escaping crisis?!

And when we finally decide maybe we do have a responsibility to do something, why are we still so very stinting in our response? We're actually reasonably willing to cough up some money; we're certainly willing to find some cast-offs to donate to help a refugee set up a household (whew! de-cluttering and do-goodering in one fell swoop), but ourselves? Nope, not called to do that. Churn the group through the system and provide funds for one year, then sigh in relief at having discharged a responsibility. Don't ask me to be friends, especially not over the long term. Does our perpetual invocation of "relationship" mean nothing?

It is with a tragically unrecognized irony that we whisper self-righteously about hidden terrorists and practitioners of Islam not integrating into Canadian while we fail to invite them into our lives? What an opportunity we have to demonstrate our hope in the Prince of Peace and to be transformed by learning from those whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.

Isn't it time we shut up our indignant claims of having done enough, stop falling for -- and spreading -- the rhetoric of fear and entitlement and start being the church Christ called us to be? Church, it's time we remember that we are witnesses to hope, hospitality and wholeness, and start living like it.

Revised Nov. 27, 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Candidates debate

For all the criticisms I could make of politicians and their policies and how they often comport themselves, I’ll grant them this much: they generally try to answer the questions lobbed at them.

Even though one might suggest that in itself is part of the problem. Because a lot of the accusations thinly veiled – or not disguised at all –  as questions at public fora are far more about the “questioner” wanting to air his or her grievance than hearing the politician’s response. He or she usually isn’t interested in the answer; it wouldn’t be believed anyway.

People often hurl their comment at the candidates, then stride away, only pausing to turn back when their intention is to rail further against their pet injustice.

Not that there aren’t plenty of injustices to rail at. I’m just not sure it’s constructive. On the other hand, do the “answers” get us anywhere either? When you’re so determined to have your say, you just want to be heard – i.e. acknowledged – not necessarily given a response full of facts, promises or anecdotes. 

The downtown candidates debate was more interesting for how the candidates acted than what they said. I probably left with a better opinion of three out of the four representatives present, and a disappointingly lowered opinion of the fourth, such that I am actually considering changing my vote plans.

One candidate modelled “hearing” well, actually apologizing to an irate constituent despite the fact that it seemed the person taking offense had badly misunderstood what had been said on that issue. 

It probably made no difference that the Conservative Party candidate wasn’t present; I’m sure she’s perfectly earnest but I can’t see her collecting many votes in this riding, and strongly doubt the crowd present at the debate contained a single Tory. However, I find it utterly reprehensible that the ruling party in a representative democracy would call its candidates to refrain from participating in debates and doing interviews. “Hearing” requires showing up.

Scattered impressions from the event:

Kudos to the Communist guy for riding his bike to the event. He came across as folksy but genuine and though of course he was flogging his party’s vision of utopia, he wasn’t obnoxious about it. I liked his line about how universal health care was the Communist Party’s idea first, implemented by another party; he said wryly, “we’d like you other parties to steal more of our ideas.” Not such an ideologue he can’t be realistic about election chances and capable of sharing credit for good ideas.

It’s irritating enough that the media can’t get the city’s neighbourhoods right (buy a map already and stop assuming that every crime-related news story that’s not clearly in the suburbs must have happened in the most nefarious-sounding central neighbourhoods), but to hear this sentence from someone trying to represent the central neighbourhoods was galling: “I’ve lived in the West End for years, on Ruby and Canora.” The east and west boundaries of that neighbourhood may be open to interpretation but the southern boundary – Portage Avenue – is not in doubt. Neither Ruby nor Canora extend north of Portage.

Speaking of the suburbs, I was appalled to hear another candidate promise us the life of suburb dwellers. Who said we should or do *want* the life of suburb dwellers?! In fairness, he was speaking to the quality of services, but even in that context, it’s misinformed. Let’s talk services in winter after a snowstorm and see who gets their sidewalks – oh, assuming suburb dweller even *has* sidewalks – ploughed first.

And the ironies. Oh, the ironies! “Don’t follow the rhetoric,” one candidate exhorts, dripping with rhetoric. He was the least civil toward his fellow candidates, harping repeatedly on the past record of the incumbent but rarely adding anything of his own solutions except to lament how terrible the problems were. Buddy, if you have no insight or plans to address any of these problems you identify so pithily, how are you any better than the incumbent you are attacking?

The incumbent has a reputation for being bombastic and accusatory. I daresay this candidate who so roundly condemned the incumbent on every chance – even interrupting and name-calling – bested the incumbent on that score.

The candidates took every opportunity possible to tell us how bad things are. One of the worst ridings in Canada for child poverty, staggering mental health problems, poverty, crime, First Nations issues, degraded water (in Lake Winnipeg) – on and on they go about how terrible we have it. Then they turn on a dime when the Syria refugee crisis comes up and all promise to bring hundreds to settle in our good and wonderful city. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, thinking, which is it: is everything broken in our neighbourhood or is it a wonderful place to welcome and shelter trauma-affected people from overseas?

I won’t ever envy the life of a politician. After the mercifully short comment-grenade hurling of the questions-from-the-floor time, the candidates had to face media questions (not so daunting) and more constituent outrage, now unmoderated by a time keeper and MC. (And, in one case, caught on film, and turned into an unflattering national news story within a few hours.) Besides policy making, complaint taking, and maybe some good governance mixed in, we also expect them to inspire.

Sometimes, they do.

“Hey, look; he’s there!” An Aboriginal middle school boy walking through the mall exclaimed to his sister as he stopped to see who was on stage. “The one with the long hair! He came to our house!”

That felt a little bit like hope on a very cynical evening.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Refugees welcome

It's a complex issue.

Right from the top, it must be acknowledged that the current hype on the Syrian refugee crisis may very well fade shortly and it doesn't necessarily dig deeply into the many facets to this particular situation which has been developing for years, much less into other areas or peoples who are displaced. For one, African migrants have been perishing in the Mediterranean in growing numbers for years without tugging at our heart strings.

Is it fair to hijack the photo of one family's tragedy to galvanize a response? Perhaps the media's integrity around the photo (which many outlets will say they carefully considered before using) will be tested by the child's aunt in Canada who has reportedly asked, now that the point has been made, that those who wish to show photos of Aylan use one of him happy and alive.

That said, it's good to see the energy the general populace is expending on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Harper points out that something should be done about the situation in Syria that is causing all these displaced people. He's right, especially since many Syrians don't actually want to emigrate elsewhere; they want their country back, stable and productive, not to have to move somewhere else. But to suggest we have to choose between trying to ameliorate the situation and helping those who have been made homeless by it seems ludicrous.

There was a demonstration at City Hall tonight. It was sparsely attended, but there was a decent diversity represented. (I don't know all the Winnipeg political candidates on sight, however I recognized three Liberals and one Green.)

I was impressed that the organizer -- a young professional of Middle Eastern background, judging by facebook -- opened the event with several First Nations speakers. It was quite profound to have First Nations people in Winnipeg speak an unstinting welcome to people in crisis around the world -- despite the fact that First Nations have generally gotten the short stick from newcomers and are a people in crisis themselves.

A number of planned speakers -- who included not only some Middle Eastern refugees (one of whom gave a nice shout out to MCC as the agency that helped to sponsor him) but also some Africans -- the mic was opened to a comment free for all.

The speakers generally did well, even the more spontaneous ones.

One woman rambled a tad but her point was that the ableism she hears from both the government and citizens regarding refugees is distressing. She identified herself as a person with a hidden disability that has prevented her from working -- something that lent weight to her argument that we can value people for more than the employment potential they represent. We should help people because our common humanity demands it of us, not because they can help our economy.

The one person I know personally who spoke was the weakest, though my abhorrence for her presentation may in part be because of the degree I identify with her...except I don't. She started with an awkward, unnecessary and offensive apologetic for her Christian remarks, went off on a bizarre tangent about being proud to be a Mennonite, that Menno Simons was actually Jewish (a. where on earth did she get that information? and b. how is that even the slightest bit relevant?) and then continued in this underlying theme of generational blessing that was a lot more prosperity gospel than Anabaptist. She pleaded for the children ("because they are our future whereas older people are gonna die, let's face it!"). She didn't want for passion though I could have asked for a bit more common sense. She capped it off by asking everyone to join her in singing O Canada, which she proceeded to belt it out like the soloist at a hockey game.

The director of IRCOM underscored the important point that the Somali and Eritrean refugees made by their presence: there are more people around the world languishing in long-term displacement than just Iraqis and Syrians.

I'm proud to be able to say that long before the picture last week and the news from Hungary piqued the world's interest, refugees in general, Syria in particular, have been on my radar. For half a year, I have been part of a group helping a Syrian family acclimatize to Canada and supporting a group that's working to bring a refugee from DR Congo to Winnipeg. For years, I've been receiving communiques from Mennonite Central Committee about the dire situation in Syria. Over the past several months, it was in large part due to my initiative that the publication I work for ran feature articles on sponsoring refugees (one how-to, one story of sponsor experiences), and that my denomination released a push for churches to consider sponsoring refugees.

Let's not be foolishly blind to complexities. But let's not do nothing either.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The ugly American

Yes, that's me.

As long as you're in the majority, you can feel quite noble about teaching English to an Iraqi family. You can even feel quite clever that from one week to the next, you remember (mostly) how to count to 10, say "thank you," "good bye," and "same thing" in Arabic.

But it's humbling when you barely scrape through a brief conversation in French, always desperately grasping for words and having to stop yourself from tutoyer-ing.

And it's even more humbling when you join a group several of whom could speak English to you but among themselves can also converse in Spanish, Portuguese and German.

That humility, however, is the key to getting beyond my sad communication situation. The embarrassment of never quite keeping up with what's going on. The ignominy of trying to speak -- and being wrong. The mortification of having worse grammar than a three-year old. The frustration that nearly all significant conversation is out of reach due to your limited vocabulary and even your banal attempts can be stymied by poor pronunciation.

Yet, to avoid the shame of being that ugly, ethnocentric monoglot, I must be willing that my speech be uncouth, inelegant, and imprecise.

There's really no way past it without going through it.

En avant!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


For an event centred around redress for horrific, sustained, systemic abuse of vulnerable people within a country, the tone was remarkably hopeful.

The officers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were serious, unafraid of speaking hard words, firmly denouncing the cultural genocide and calmly but insistently calling Canadians to a better future.

This is a Canadian story, not an indigenous one. That was repeated over again. Regardless of whether an individual is complicit in any way with the residential schools (e.g., affiliation with decision-making governments of the past or involved churches), all Canadians bear a responsibility to acknowledge our shameful history and seek a better way forward.

Mayor Brian Bowman, unsurprisingly, spoke of the importance of moving forward, for the health of our communities, city and country, calling Canadians to take action to support positive change. We heard this from him after the Macleans article, and I have no doubt his heart is in it. What remains to be seen is how he takes action through policies and budgets to support his words.

Also unsurprisingly, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak gave an unvarnished challenge, evoking the plague of missing and murdered indigenous women and the tragically disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in care as signs of continuing colonial mindsets. He urged those present to make change in this lifetime so the next generation isn’t calling for another TRC around First Nations young people apprehended by Child and Family Services in 40 years.

Yet, “We gather in hope,” said the elder who mc’d the local gathering at University of Winnipeg on June 2, 2015. (I thought it was Lavallee, but may have ascribed that name to the wrong person.)
Treaty Commissioner James Wilson also spoke of hope amid the burden of facing the terrible truth of the past. He wanted to point a way forward where native and non-native could “walk gently together to turn our greatest shame into our greatest source of pride.”

Another theme was relationship and family.

With the treaties, we entered a relationship, said Annette Trimbee, president of the University of Winnipeg. It did not go well historically, but in the present, she wishes the U of W to be a place that acknowledges that connection between the land and its history and makes it known through more than formalized learning.

Aboriginal families showed remarkable resilience, observed Commissioner Wilton Littlechild via live feed from Ottawa. In those unspeakably tragic cases where the students died before returning home, the government succeeded in permanently separating children from their families, and the schools did wreak havoc on the survivors who often grew up to parent their children in the model of the heavy-handed and abusive treatment they received at the schools, patterns which are likely connected to the CFS crisis we currently see. But in general, the families returned to each other; the bonds, though damaged, remained. “Family is critical to the journey of reconciliation,” Littlechild said.

The elder mc called for a new attitude. “I’m tired, I’m fed up with people who want to help,” he said. “We don’t need help; we need relatives.” Family love us even when we’re weak and broken or just a bit crazy. He spoke of how the residential schools took away the students’ confidence in their capacity. “To be healthy, we must learn to be together in dignity.”

Here, he slipped into a third theme of the morning – spirituality. Manitoba is based on the Cree meaning Creator’s resting place. The elder’s language was familiar as he spoke of the need for transformation.

Reconciliation is a spiritual journey, emphasized broadcaster and educator Wab Kinew by pre-recorded video.

Littlechild called for a return to spirituality through language, culture and the land. There is a sacred trust, he said.

One call that particularly caused me to take notice was Commissioner Marie Wilson’s demand that denominational schools ensure their comparative religion courses include teaching on Aboriginal spiritualty – facilitated by an accredited First Nations person. This will be a challenge for some, as evidenced by MCC’s brouhaha with Immanuel Pentecostal Church. I don’t think evangelicals like comparative religion, except so far as learning about another religion gives the apologist better tools to convert the (in their mind, inappropriately-attached) believer.

Commissioner and Justice Murray Sinclair, via live feed from Ottawa, said we must apologize and atone and support the healing journey. This is a beginning, not an end.

It was an event for Aboriginal voices, a time for First Nations people to assert their dignity and capability and say what they need to say in their own way. But there were other voices. There were heads of churches – Anglican, United – whose apologies appeared in video montages. There were clips of former prime ministers speaking from the heart about Canada’s need to work toward reconciliation for the horrors of residential schools. Missing was any representative of the current government. Perhaps it was not their place to be speaking at this time, but their absence from any part of the proceedings was noticeable. In the local crowd, the absence of leaders from my own denomination was a marked omission to me, though I didn’t see who sat in the overflow, and perhaps my boss and I would count for some as representatives. I also saw no evidence of the police force, though of course, out of uniform, I would not recognize anyone other than Clunis. Given the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in prison as well, the lack of visible law enforcement presence was also discouraging.

Sure, it’s just a ceremony, a formality. But if this event isn’t on our radar, have we any hope to get involved in the long, messy and painful work of reconciliation?

And that is where we must start. Walking together, in equal dignity, with gifts to receive and gifts to share.

Littlechild left us with 7 simple words (which are in fact two phrases short of a Jesuit prayer) we need to speak to each other: I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Are we done with that yet?

Not even close.

Ry Moran of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, established at the University of Manitoba to serve as an archive and continuing holding, research and service and education centre for materials around Canada's Indian Residential Schools, emphatically but without rancour asserted that it is almost offensive and certainly lacking compassion for members of majority culture to say indigenous people should just "get over it already."

Moran gave a presentation on the centre at Bethel Mennonite Church, May 20, 2015, sponsored also by MCC and KAIROS. Housed in Chancellor Hall at the U of M (an ironically colonial edifice, but a building of honour on campus, located in a serene, wooded spot along the river), the centre's tagline is "built on integrity, trust and dignity."

Moran's aspect conveys dignity and his impassioned presentation spoke of the need to establish trust between indigenous and majority peoples in Canada.

One of the ways trust was broken is that not only were the treaties not honoured by white Canadians, it was through education -- which First Nations people requested in good faith, knowing their children would need to respond to the changing world around them -- that violence was perpetuated on aboriginal peoples.

"It was a direct attack on families," Moran says. Not an argument I've heard before, but one that makes sense, and, again, multiplies the sense of betrayal that the government's "educational" strategies for First Nations youth would aim at disconnecting the backbone of a communal culture.

Once he finished his presentation, the floor was open to questions and comments. The theme that quickly impressed itself on me in both the questions and Moran's responses was education.

"Education is how we got into this mess and it's how we're going to get out of it," Moran said earlier in the evening and it was driven home.

Moran's tips for how we can move toward reconciliation all revolve around education:
  • learn
  • understand
  • explore (i.e. learn more!); push against the status quo
  • recognize contributions of Aboriginal people
  • take action
  • teach others.
In other words, get education, transform your behaviour as a result, then educate others.

"The majority of society doesn't fundamentally understand the particular challenges and concerns of indigenous people in Canada," says Moran. 

Besides understanding the generational trauma wrought on a people and the effort required to begin to heal the wounds, there is also an understanding required of what reconciliation itself is all about.

Reconciliation is both a goal and a process, says Moran. It's a journey that doesn't go in a straight path. Real change is needed, but sometimes things can get worse in the process of trying to make them better, he observed, mentioning South Africa as a place that has experienced some of the latter.

And, of course, it takes a long time.

Through it all, addressing a mostly white audience, a mostly Mennonite audience -- that is, a group that was for the most part not complicit in the government or church aspects of the residential school, but one that certain has pockets of self-sufficient, paternalistic people who may be quick to voice the hurtful sentiment "why can't they just get over it?!" -- Moran was well spoken, and more importantly, gracious and hopeful. Despite having worked for the TRC for years hearing dreadful personal testimonies of heinous treatment children received in residential schools, he spoke of the need for reconciliation without bitterness or blame. That said, he was quite clear that majority Canadian society have not yet taken ownership of our responsibility for the harm that was inflicted.

It was an audience member who insisted that the path between truth and reconciliation is not as short as the title suggests. Repentance, confession and forgiveness must lie in between, the audience member said. We must admit our wrongdoing and truly accept our responsibility and need for change and for forgiveness before the deep and restorative work of reconciliation can really take place.

So, no, we're not done with truth and reconciliation yet. The multi-year national commission and cross-country event process may be drawing to a close next weekend, but as for reconciliation? We've only just begun.

*post likely to contain many grammatical errors. Ongoing editing to ensue. But I suspect I managed to beat Esther Epp-Thiessen (who sat next to me, scribbling in her notebook as well) to blog reflections on the event, though hers will likely be more thoughtful than mine.