Improving access to fresh food in Labrador

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Labrador is much like the rest of Canada’s north. Indigenous peoples have hunted, fished and raised their families on these lands for generations. The land has suffered from the impacts of colonization, as have its people. Resource extraction has changed the face of the land. Rivers have been diverted, habitat has been lost, causing a shift in migratory patterns of the caribou, and increased levels of methylmercury continue to affect fish and sea life in the Mishtashipu, now officially called the Churchill River, more than 40 years after the construction of the first hydroelectric project. Depletion of the caribou herds has resulted in a complete hunting ban and the government also places restrictions on hunting migratory birds and fish. In Labrador, gaining access to fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate food is more and more difficult each year. Yet in face of these challenges indigenous communities mobilize to address food and nutrition needs.

“No more than one a week to eat from the river,” Innu elder, Elizabeth Penashue, told me as we sat next to the Mishtashipu and talked about the pollution in the river. Only one rusted sign outside the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay warns people to limit consumption of fish caught in the river due to pollution. Penashue thinks there should be more warnings.

Access to quality, fresh food is a challenge in Labrador. Because of the area’s remoteness, shipping is expensive and can be slow. Walking into grocery stores in the winter and finding bare shelves is not unusual. Depending on the weather, that happens in the coastal communities throughout the summer, too. The cost of food is so high that people often eat cheaper, less nutritious and more processed foods just to help make ends meet.

The Community Food Hub, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, began in 2008 as a community project initiated by the local health authority and has grown into its own non-profit organization offering food education and programming in Labrador. An estimated 80% of the people served by the Community Food Hub identify as indigenous. The hub aims to address the community’s lack of healthy and culturally appropriate foods. MCC began a formal partnership with the Community Food Hub in 2012, when the food hub’s need for a part-time food security coordinator to complement and focus volunteer efforts became evident.

Currently the Community Food Hub facilitates several different programs. The hub’s children’s garden, in which an average of 190 students from two schools participate annually, is one of the hub’s most successful programs. The garden offers an opportunity for students in grades 4 and 5 to plant, care for, harvest and cook their own foods. Students have tried new vegetables, participated in the hard work of garden maintenance and cared for plants at home. Parents are also involved, and many have reported eating new foods and growing vegetables at home as a result of the program.

Community kitchens are another way of engaging the community. Focusing on low income families, the community kitchens provide opportunities for men and women to learn how to make low cost, healthy meals with others. Participants cook and eat together, after which they take the ingredients home to replicate the meal for their families. One of the surprising outcomes of this program is the online community-building it has facilitated. Members of the group share recipes, stories and pictures of their creations with one another, encouraging community.

The Community Food Hub works closely with the local agricultural association, ensuring that information about locally grown foods gets into the hands of shoppers. A community outdoor market program was started by the hub in 2013 in cooperation with the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the agricultural association. Farmers were invited every Saturday between July and September to join the market. The market also showcased locally made goods and offered fair trade coffee. Workshops on food preservation and wild food gathering were presented, along with demonstrations and trainings to encourage local gardening. In 2015, the Community Outdoor Market ceased being a program of the hub and continues successfully under the guidance of community volunteers. The hub nevertheless remains engaged with the market, setting up healthy eating and living displays at the market each week.

Initially, the hub began a community freezer project, hoping to provide food from the land gathered by local volunteers, such as fish, wild game and berries, to people who unable to hunt and gather on their own. It started with some exciting donations, like moose and caribou meat. However, due to reduced hunting quotas and people needing to save their catch for their own consumption in the winter, food donations were limited and the project ended. A similar project run by the Nunatsiavut Government is still available for seniors and shut-ins when food is able to be harvested or donated for distribution.

The challenges of food security continue to increase. Today, another large infrastructure project, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric (or Muskrat Falls) Dam, threatens the health of the waters and way of life for the people who live in central and eastern Labrador. All three indigenous groups in the area (the Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut and Innu nations), have come together to demand either the clearing of vegetation in the new reservoir in order to reduce imminent methylmercury poisoning and perhaps even to stop the dam completely. While the Community Food Hub is not directly involved in protesting, it does organize educational events to raise awareness about the effects of methylmercury in the local food system.

Food security and nutrition challenges have no easy answer in the North. Increasing access to fresh, local food from community gardens, children’s gardens and farmers’ markets can generally happen only in July, August and September. Freezing and canning meat and produce can help bridge the gap, but the winter period when food cannot be locally produced is long. Freezing and canning food is also expensive compared to the alternative of buying processed food during the winter months. Long term solutions are needed, but, for now, the Community Food Hub offers a partial solution with its ongoing focus on education to help people learn how to make healthier choices with available resources.

Dianne Climenhage is an MCC representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Learn more

 Council of Canadian Academies. Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge. Ottawa: The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, Council of Canadian Academies, 2014.

Islam, Durdana and Fikret Berkes. “Indigenous Peoples’ Fisheries and Food Security: A Case from Northern Canada.” Food Security 8/4 (2016): 815-826.

The awkward complexities of community-corporate partnerships

Disadvantaged communities are often forced into David-and-Goliath-style battles with large companies over resource rights and the impact of those companies’ actions on local resources. But increasingly that narrative takes an unexpected turn: David and Goliath are teaming up. Instead of trying to run over community resource management rights, some companies are winning local cooperation in ways that essentially subsume community management regimes within mega-development scenarios. As hydropower development in northern Manitoba attests, such cooperation is fraught with complexity.

Northern Manitoba is home to a legacy of bitter antipathy between ten Cree Indigenous communities and the government-owned electric utility, Manitoba Hydro. Over the past 60 years, Manitoba Hydro has constructed hydropower projects which have fundamentally altered the five largest rivers in the province and six of the twelve largest lakes. For many years, discussion of community-based resource management was overshadowed by the fact that Manitoba Hydro had imposed changes that significantly undermined traditional trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering activities, both for domestic and commercial uses. Beginning in the 1970s, the Interchurch Task Force on Northern Flooding, which included MCC, played an important role in advocating for fair treatment of affected Indigenous people and lands. With Indigenous communities nearly unanimous in their opposition to the dams, the task force’s narrative early on was one of standing with marginalized communities and giving voice to the voiceless.

Starting around 1999, Manitoba Hydro began approaching affected communities in the vicinity of three new hydropower dams the company had long wanted to build. The provincial government said it would not proceed with the three projects without the approval of five First Nations in the vicinity. What followed was a community engagement process that cost the utility millions. In time, some Indigenous leaders revised their community narratives away from the longstanding story of grievance with Manitoba Hydro. They said they could not remain stuck in the past and they needed to rely on the rivers in a new way. Of course, other Indigenous people said there could be no justification for further damage to lands and waters. To some extent it was a choice between maintaining traditional patterns of community-based natural resource management and replacing that resource base through alignment with the financial interests of an outside corporation. The interchurch advocacy group was caught between Indigenous people on either side of the issue, some of them aggressively pushing churches to stop raising concerns about hydropower projects. Eventually, five First Nations—representing roughly one-third of the affected population—signed partnership agreements with the utility.

While Manitoba Hydro got the community approvals it wanted, the price was high. Over 15 years the utility transferred $241 million to First Nations to cover costs of lawyers, consultants, travel, meeting participation and community engagement. While this served in some sense to level the playing field, it also created a largely unaccountable and arguably biased mini-industry. Numerous well-paying jobs in impoverished Indigenous communities were dependent on continuing along the path toward partnership with Manitoba Hydro. People responsible for “consulting” their fellow community members had a direct self-interest in a particular outcome. The lines between consultation and promoting a pro-development agenda were often blurred. And while total expenditure figures are available, Manitoba Hydro has denied all requests for breakdowns of its spending on the grounds of confidentiality agreements between the utility and the First Nations. Accounts of inappropriate expenditures abound, allegedly used to provide direct personal benefit to people supporting partnership with Manitoba Hydro. Reportedly, those in favour of dams got perks while those opposed did not. Families and communities were split, leaving long-term scars. This form of community engagement also created tensions between different communities, as Manitoba Hydro’s much touted “new era” of northern relations really only extended to communities near proposed new projects, not communities still suffering from the impact of existing projects.

First Nations were also saddled with the greatest risk. Partnership agreements centered around First Nations being offered the opportunity to invest in the dams. In the case of the first dam, Wuskwatim (completed in 2013), the nearby Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation invested over $100 million—most of that borrowed from Manitoba Hydro—to leverage a 33-percent share in the $1.8 billion dam. The dam was supposed to make between $5 and 25 million annually in its early years, but instead it has lost over $100 million to date. Partly for that reason, the four First Nation partners in the $6.5-billion Keeyask dam currently under construction are expected to obtain a much smaller share in the dam than what was touted at the time the communities voted on the partnership. The utility itself faces little risk as rate increases can cover losses.

On the plus side, hydropower construction has created significant and desperately needed employment. The catch, of course, is that the employment is temporary. At last report, only two members of the local First Nation were employed permanently at the Wuskwatim dam. Hydropower dams are by nature capital rather than labour intensive. Few people are required for ongoing operation. That makes them a poor match for communities that are capital poor with high levels of available labour.

Part of the problem with the hydropower engagement process is that communities were in essence forced to choose between poverty and ill-suited mega-projects. Arguably, a third option could have involved a diverse suite of possibilities, including maximum Indigenous employment at existing northern hydropower facilities and a range of smaller ventures based in part on emerging social enterprise models, with capital inputs from the utility. Such enterprises could have included small-scale logging, energy retrofits for homes, local food production, thrift stores or maximization of traditional harvesting. Generally these types of third options are ignored.

Several learnings about community-corporate partnership in natural resource management can be gleaned from the northern Manitoba example:

  • Society owes disadvantaged communities a creative range of economic options;
  • According to the emerging concept of free, prior and informed consent, communities should be brought into open-ended processes about natural resource management early on. In this Manitoba example, the utility and its parent government were clearly seeking their desired outcome right from the start;
  • Full accountability for all spending is essential;
  • An independent study should look at the real costs and benefits of such mega-projects for impacted communities over time.
  • Any benefit-sharing arrangements should minimize community risks; and
  • The higher the stakes, the greater the inherent potential for tension.

As for NGOs like MCC seeking to support disadvantaged communities, they must accept the complexity of such situations and discard simplified narratives. Given the very high stakes in such situations, NGOs, which have far less vested interest than other parties, can create space for candid, non-polarized discussion. To the extent possible they should maintain rapport with all parties while maintaining their own independent voice. They must also be willing to absorb criticism from community leaders. NGOs can serve as a needed counterweight to corporate interests which bring an innate bias to these situations. The bottom line for communities and NGOs is to embrace the complexity; to candidly consider pros, cons and trade-offs of different options; and to find healthy ways to navigate the tensions that arise when community-based values collide with the dependence we all have on the sorts of mega-projects that threaten Indigenous communities and their traditional resources.

Will Braun lives in Morden, Manitoba and works for the Interchurch Council on Hydropower. He has previously worked on issues related to hydropower for MCC and Pimicikamak Cree Nation.

Learn more:

Thibault, M., and Hoffman, S.M. Eds. Power Struggles: Hydroelectric Development and First Nations in Manitoba and Quebec. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009.

Waldram, James B. As Long as the Rivers Run: Hydroelectric Development and Native Communities. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1993.

Braun, Will. “Keeyask Dam on Shaky Political Foundation: Split Lake Residents Have Good Reason to Wonder What Became of Promised Millions.” Winnipeg Free Press (July 3 2012). Available at

Braun, Will. “Dam Deal Loses Shine: First Nations Gambled on Bold Talk of Prosperity.” Winnipeg Free Press (April 24 2014). Available at

Speaking up about food assistance – and being heard

Food assistance has been and continues to be controversial. On the one hand, for someone who has missed several meals in a row, the provision of food is a gift from heaven. On the other hand, the motivations that have driven food assistance have been highly mixed, often (but not always) based on disposing of donor stocks of surplus grain, pulses or cooking oil. There are good people and good arguments on both sides of the heated debate about the appropriate modalities of food assistance.

Timely advocacy by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) has led to significant changes in the Canadian government’s commitments to, and the modalities of, food assistance. Moreover, the changes in the past decade may have rendered the food assistance debate irrelevant. Indeed, current humanitarian trends, notably the growing acceptance of cash transfers, may eliminate traditional food assistance altogether.

In this article I tell the story of the dramatic change in food assistance policy by one major global food assistance donor: Canada. Canada was, in fact, the first modern food assistance donor as part of the intergovernmental Colombo Plan for economic and social development in Asia and the Pacific in the early 1950s. Except for some brief periods of reform in the 1970s, until 2005 Canadian food assistance donations were mostly tied to sending food produced in Canada to countries around the world. Most U.S. food assistance continues to be tied to U.S. production, although European donor governments largely untied their food assistance in 1996.

In the decade leading up to the untying of Canadian food aid in 2005, the Canadian government had been quietly cutting its food assistance program, with the funding redirected towards more ‘evidence-based’ programs like vitamin pills and food fortification. This trend meant that Canada was falling farther and farther behind the food aid commitments it had made as part of the multilateral Food Aid Convention in 1999.

This convention, created in the 1960s, was designed to ensure that rich agricultural exporting countries would share the burden of providing emergency food and avoid using food assistance to steal each other’s export markets. The convention has been renegotiated several times since its instigation, broadening the range of foods covered and changing the commitments of the various donors. Since 1999 Canada had been committed to providing 420,000 tonnes of food each year in emergency food aid. But actual donations had slipped as low as 250,000 tonnes/year in the first years of the twenty-first century, and Canada owed the hungry of the world several hundred thousand tonnes of food.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s work focuses on providing food for those who face hunger. The funding for this work comes from private contributions, matched by the Canadian government. Operationally, the government requirement to send food from Canada meant that it often arrived many weeks after it was first needed. And, as international shipping was revolutionized by containerization, the shipping of bulk food
commodities became slower and more expensive. Getting more flexibility for increased local and regional purchase of food for food assistance had become a high priority.

The creation of the public policy program at CFGB in 2000 focused the organization’s efforts to effect policy changes. In addition to lobbying the Canadian government for the untying of Canadian food assistance, CFGB catalyzed the creation in 2005 of a consortium of European and North American NGOs to push for the reform of the 1999 Food Aid Convention. To strengthen the case for change, public policy staff linked the desirability of untying Canadian food assistance with Canada’s interest at the World Trade Organization to limit the ability of U.S. food assistance to interfere with Canadian food exports.

Although CFGB and other humanitarian actors had some success in persuading Canadian elected officials of the value of untying food assistance and meeting Canada’s commitments, it took the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami to tip the balance. In places like Sri Lanka, local food was plentiful and largely unaffected. It made no sense to send more food from Canada.

The national media, having run out of direct stories about the tsunami, picked up on this obvious fact and took aim at Canada’s food assistance policies. Policy change came swiftly, with 50% of Canadian food assistance funding becoming available to buy food wherever it made the most sense early in 2005.

Meanwhile, Canada’s failure to meet its Food Aid Convention commitments began to receive more attention, at least in part as a result of CFGB’s advocacy. The partial untying of Canada’s food assistance helped by permitting Canada to recalculate its food assistance shipments. Starting in 2005 Canada met or exceeded its 420,000 tonne commitment.

Finally, Canada’s food assistance policy reform and the 2008 global food price crisis stirred the members of the Food Aid Convention into action. During 2010 and 2011 member states agreed upon a new Food Assistance Convention. The new Convention went far beyond providing traditional food assistance to include providing food vouchers and cash transfers to allow recipients to buy their own food on the local market. It also included provisions to allow cash to purchase livestock and other short-term agricultural inputs.

These changes make sense. But as the focus of food assistance has broadened and become more closely linked to the market, other issues have arisen. Food assistance commitments are increasingly made in cash terms rather than amounts of food. If the food prices skyrocket, as they did in 2008 and again in 2010, less food will be available to those who need it most, when they need it most.

Within the humanitarian sector there is now a push to dispense entirely with a food focus in favor of simply giving cash to allow people to buy whatever they need, including food. We may be seeing the end of the modern food assistance era.

The Foodgrains Bank’s efforts to reform food assistance demonstrate the importance of building coalitions of support and being ready for the opportunity to build the momentum for change. But the momentum for change can exceed the goals of reform. Would a loss of a focus on food and a move toward cash transfers reduce the public commitment to end hunger? It is certainly possible. Or will we perhaps see a renewed commitment to a more flexible, less restrictive way to help the least of these?

Stuart Clark is special advisor to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and is based in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Learn more:

Clapp, Jennifer. Hunger in the Balance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Barret, Chris and Dan Maxwell. Food Aid after 50 Years, Recasting Its Role. London: Routledge, 2005.

Charlton, Mark W. The Making of Canadian Food Aid Policy. Montreal and London: McGill and Queens University Press, 1992.

Rieff, David. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

The making of a COMT

A lifetime journey led me to make the moral choice to become a COMT—a “conscientious objector to military taxation.” World War II was raging when my journey began. I grew up in a Canadian city amongst patriotic people of British origin. Young men who were neighbours, relatives and even fellow church members were enlisting to help defeat Hitler. Some of them lost their lives in that endeavor. Even my beloved teacher came to school one morning in the splendid uniform of the Canadian navy.

Meanwhile, my Mennonite parents, teachers and wider church family were shaping my mind in other ways. The war savings certificates promoted at school got no approval at home—my first lesson in conscientious objection to military taxation. War costs money, but the government was not getting any from our family. In my baptismal instruction class I struggled with the doctrine of nonresistance. It sounded heroic for the sixteenth century, but definitely not cool in the 1940s. When my father served as pastor at an alternative service camp for COs, I became more aware that, while most of society was on the track rushing to war, some heroes refused to board that train.

The church schools where I received my secondary and college education strengthened my commitment to Christ and his teachings. When I taught with MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program in Kenya in the 1960s, I learned about the Kikuyu Christians who paid dearly at the hands of the Mau Mau for their unflinching commitment to the same nonviolent Jesus.

Back in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cold War and anti-nuclear movement drew me and members of my faith community into Ban the Bomb demonstrations and marches. One day we heard Edith Adamson speak about what Quakers in Victoria, BC were doing to protest Canada’s use of their income taxes for military purposes. Adamson made it clear that, if we expect our young people to stay out of the army, we should be just as categorical about keeping our money from funding the army.

Adamson’s organization, eventually known as Conscience Canada, encouraged people to withhold the portion of income tax intended for military purposes, deposit it into a trust fund and lobby the government for a Peace Tax Fund to be used only for peaceful purposes. This was “fiscal” rather than “physical” conscientious objection to war. The idea captivated me and I decided to become a COMT as soon as my income from teaching piano lessons rose to a taxable level.

For at least 15 years I annually followed Conscience Canada’s instructions on how to file my income tax, withholding a specific percentage and sending a letter explaining as persuasively as possible the reason for this action. I received responses from successive Ministers of Finance informing me that my actions were illegal, along with cold letters from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) telling me I owed them money. The CRA probably considered my “debt” too insignificant to try to recover, but after my 65th birthday, it annually withheld a Goods and Services Tax refund due me until the full amount was erased. I suffered no great harm from all those years of civil disobedience.

Currently, the only legal way to avoid paying taxes for military purposes is to keep one’s income low and/or increase charitable donations up to the limit. But even for the pensioner who receives a refund after filing, the conscience is not perfectly at ease. We can downsize our income, but our monthly old age security allowance depends on investments in corporations which fuel the military. We are inextricably involved, so it seems.

We COMTs need to find new ways of inviting others to make the moral choice of conscientious objection to military taxation. We need to find new ways of appealing to legislators for the legal means of redirecting our taxes for peaceful purposes. We need to find new allies in those who object to lavish military spending.

Mary Groh lives in Toronto. She has been president of Conscience Canada since 2010.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

Mennonite women as conscientious objectors

Shortly after the Second World War began in 1939, women in Ontario organized their local sewing circles into the Nonresistant Relief Sewing Organization. In describing the humanitarian assistance and moral support given to conscientious objectors in camps and war sufferers overseas, secretary Clara Snider said: “We are representing a common cause and stand for the same principles. . . . United we stand, divided we fall.”

American Edna Ramseyer, writing in 1943, reflected a similar desire that women be included in the discourse on nonresistance and conscientious objection. She asked: “Have you ever wished that you could prove your convictions on peace and war as your boyfriend, husband, brother, or son has? . . . Girls and women of the Mennonite church groups! Our Christian responsibility, to our God, the world, the church, our boys . . . is tremendous. The challenge is before us; the projects await us; the question is, do we as girls and women want to serve?”

These Mennonite women were not called up to serve their country militarily, but they nevertheless chose to identify as conscientious objectors and to provide an ‘alternate service’ to their country and to humanity. Indeed, they served voluntarily while Mennonite men were required to provide service to the state in eras when military conscription was enacted. And while men were confronted with the question of what they ‘would not do’ during war, women considered what they ‘would do’ in the midst of conflict. What they did was offer a ‘positive peace’ in the form of material and moral relief and service to those who suffered from the violence of war.

Mennonite women, and others from historic peace churches, expressed their conscientious objection in both world wars of the twentieth century by providing material relief and voluntary labour, both to their own men in work camps for conscientious objectors (COs) at home and to war sufferers overseas. During the Second World War, a church-administered work program for COs in the United States called Civilian Public Service (CPS) drew women into labour as nutritionists, nurses, cooks and other roles within the 151 CPS camps established across the country.

In Canada, the Alternative Service (AS) work program for COs was government-run, and so women were not as involved in the camps. Yet Canadian women declared a pacifist stance by sending care packages and letters to their own sons and husbands in AS camps and by entering paid employment in order to support their families in the absence of male wages.

Mennonite women’s organizations across Canada and the United States prepared clothing, bandages, food and other relief goods to be sent directly overseas and held sales and other events to raise money to support organizations engaged in wartime relief. Relief workers in England suggested that women in Canada and the United States adopt the slogan “Non-Resistant Needles Knitting for the Needy” to underscore the “magnificent opportunity” that their work represented. A 1940 report on Mennonite Central Committee’s relief clothing program for war sufferers in Europe described the relationship between relief and peace thus: “In the face of war’s havoc there is need for a positive testimony of peace, love, and compassion toward the suffering.”

The voluntary ‘positive peacemaking’ of women was literally embodied as numerous young women went overseas themselves, during and after the war, to work in orphanages and refugee centres and to distribute food and clothing. Arlene Sitler of Ontario was one woman who took up this opportunity: she affirmed the material relief provided by Mennonite women, suggesting that through their giving “the bonds of peace and Christian fellowship may become stronger throughout the world.”

Women continued to demonstrate a ‘positive peace’ in the decades after the Second World War, volunteering for overseas relief work or domestic voluntary service in high numbers. Between 1940 and 1970, for example, nearly twice as many Canadian women did service with MCC as Canadian men (Epp-Tiessen, 63). Moreover, during the Vietnam War draft in the U.S., when most of the 89 men in MCC service in Vietnam were there to perform the required alternative service duty, 39 women were there completely voluntarily. Women have also demonstrated a keen commitment to active nonviolence through their participation in Christian Peacemaker Teams.

If notions of Mennonite nonresistance, as expressed by male church leaders, shifted from a passive to an active pacifism in the latter part of the twentieth century, it could be argued that such a shift had already been anticipated in the words and actions of Mennonite women.

Marlene Epp is professor of History and Peace & Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

Conscientious objection, race and class

Ertell Whigham is a former Marine recruiter and currently serves as Executive Minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. The following is an interview with Whigham about how race and class factor into military recruitment and conscientious objection in the United States.

What are young people who grow up in settings of poverty looking for after high school?

I did military recruiting in both rural and urban settings of poverty. I found that youth were looking for opportunities that would help them advance beyond the low-income status of their parents. With few family resources, many of them could not anticipate going to college. But they wanted to “belong” and to have a position of respect in their community. In some cases they simply wanted to leave a bad situation at home and were looking for a way out.

How do young people in settings of poverty tend to view the option of military enlistment?

As recruiters, we found that it was fairly easy to take advantage of the needs expressed by these young people. In many ways, our pitch to the young people was predatory in nature. For youth who felt like they were on the edges of society due to poverty or racism, we could offer stability. We could provide a job, food, clothing and a roof. We could offer travel, training, sharp uniforms, money for college and status. Compared to the minimum wage jobs with little option for advancement that likely awaited many of them, the military offers looked pretty good.

When you later became a pastor of a Mennonite church in a setting where many families struggled with poverty, how did you work with youth who were looking for post-high school options?

It was a very labor-intensive effort. We set up mentorships for young people as early as middle school. We helped them visit a college campus. We provided modest scholarship money and helped them investigate grants. We helped them make a connection with a business person in the area of their career interest. We created employment opportunities in our child care center that would at least help them earn some money while they were thinking about future options. Several members of our congregation offered a room in their homes for young people who just needed to get out of a difficult home situation. We made sure they knew that they had a church family that they could depend on.

We did all this in addition to helping young people understand that Jesus’ way of peace does not fit with the military mission. For if we wished to persuade our youth that they should not enlist, we had to be able to offer another meaningful option for their lives.

One of the biggest challenges is with immigrant families. Many of them feel a deep debt of gratitude for the opportunity to live in this country, and see military service as a way to repay this debt.

So, how does conscientious objection to war look to youth who don’t have good options for job, school or career?

For someone who doesn’t have good non-military options, conscientious objection exacts a high cost. It may mean being stuck in a difficult environment with little opportunity for financial stability. Military enlistment may also be costly, but this is usually not on the young person’s mind or in the pitch the recruiter normally makes. This is in sharp contrast to youth who have resources for college, travel or skills training. Conscientious objection to war does not exact the same cost from these youth.

Many young people grow up in a context where nonresistance or nonviolence as a way of life is simply not a part of the culture. In many settings, a young person who responds peacefully to aggression is viewed as weak and can become easy prey to bullying and harassment. The church can offer strong, peaceful role models and become a place of sanctuary, but if peace and nonviolence are not reinforced elsewhere in a young person’s life, including the home, the teaching may seem irrelevant. If peace does not seem relevant when a young person is on the street, it may well seem irrelevant when listening to the well-spoken pitch of a military recruiter.

In my recent experience with veterans’ groups, I’ve learned that veterans can be some of the most effective communicators in support of peace and nonviolence when talking with youth.

The challenge to our churches is this: make peace relevant to all of our youth and offer meaningful alternatives to military enlistment.

Ertell Whigham is the Executive Minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. He was interviewed by Titus Peachey, MCC U.S. Peace Education Coordinator.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

When peace church members enlist

In the historic peace churches, when young people choose military service the impact on family and the faith community can be painful. These contrasting stories challenge peace churches to consider the meaning of community when strong disagreements arise.

Who is my neighbor? (Conrad Stoesz)

In 1939, as the Western world edged ever closer to war, Mennonite leaders in both Canada and the U.S. met to discuss what their response should be. They were guided by a belief in non-resistance, an important thread through many migrations and hardships, as well as a strong commitment to community. It was the community that provided the emotional, financial, spiritual and physical help enabling Mennonites to pioneer in difficult new contexts, overcome hardships and help keep people on the right spiritual path.

In the Second World War Mennonite leaders went to great lengths to advocate for a system of alternative service in Canada and the U.S. as a way of ensuring that drafted young men could uphold the church’s pacifist convictions as conscientious objectors. However, some Mennonite men chose not to enroll in alternative service, but to enlist for active combat. To the church which had suffered, migrated and worked hard for conscientious objection, their actions represented a slap in the face and were contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

In southern Manitoba, Peter Hildebrand was one of these men who did enlist. His parents Peter and Katharina were not proud of their son’s decision, but they cared deeply about him. They quickly learned they would need to carry their burden alone. Their friends and family did not want to talk to them and they felt shunned. When the Hildebrands received a telegram saying that Peter was missing in action, Katharina internalized her grief, sitting in her rocking chair for weeks on end ruminating. No friends or family came to console her. In one month she became hunched and her red hair turned white. The faith community that was supposed to care for the vulnerable failed Katharina, as well as others like her, when they most needed support.

The Hildebrands were overjoyed when they learned their son Peter had been found alive in Europe. But the deep physical and emotional scars were with Peter for the rest of his life. Like many Mennonite war veterans, he never did return to his Mennonite church.

A Mennonite parents’ journey with a marine son (Dot and Dale Hershey)

As we were preparing to leave for church one Sunday morning in February of 2000, our son, a high school senior, asked us, “Would you disown me if I joined the Marines?” He quickly made it clear that he had already signed with the Marines and had every intention of following through with that commitment. We were shocked, but sensed it was a time to put aside differences and give him all the support we could find within ourselves. He saw himself being a peacemaker in the Marines, so the day he left for boot camp we together planted a peace rose to symbolize our differing views of peace.

We attended his boot camp graduation as a way of showing our parental support for him. He was then sent for further training just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our son would sometimes call in the middle of the night because he was also concerned and fearful. He would ask if we would be able to honor and support his sacrifice if he were sent to Iraq. Would we be able to accept the flag from his coffin if he were killed?

Meanwhile, we were not comfortable discussing our son’s military service with our Mennonite congregation, where teachers and pastors taught peace and nonresistance. Children from the congregation went to Botswana, Nepal and Bolivia to serve others and did not train to kill. Despite this, many people in our congregation provided us with love and support. Some sent notes to our son, letting him know they were praying for him and that he was loved and missed.

Once while on leave our son told us he was going to attend church with us. We hoped he would not come in uniform, but that was exactly what he did. He wore his Marine dress blues and was ready with his holy war arguments. He expected things to go badly. However, much to his surprise, two hours later he was still talking to members of the congregation. He was being received with warmth and compassion, hugs and handshakes, and genuine acceptance as a child of the church. This was an important event for him and an important event for us.

Fourteen years later we have a strong relationship with our son and we can agree to disagree on the role of the military in our society. This past year, for the first time, we were able to call him on Veterans Day and let him know we were thinking about him.

Conrad Stoesz is Archivist for both the Mennonite Heritage Centre and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg. Dot and Dale Hershey live in Manheim, PA and are members at Akron Mennonite Church.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

Privilege, right and responsibility: peace and Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada

At the core of Mennonite identity in the U.S. and Canada is the practice of peace. It goes by various names, including nonresistance, pacifism and nonviolence. Even within an historic peace church, however, peace has not been a static term. Over their 300-year history in the U.S. and Canada, Mennonites have seen peace, in sequence, as a “privilege,” a “right” and then as a “responsibility.” But the three terms have overlapped, and in some respects all three exist today.

The privilege of military exemption

The story begins in 1683 as Mennonite victims of persecution in Europe sought the privilege of military exemption in Quaker-run Pennsylvania. Deferential to authority, they were “absolute pacifists.” As an English missionary in Lancaster County put it, Mennonites always chose “to leave their Properties and Liberty exposed to the first Invader, than bear arms in their Defence” (McMaster, 229). Local lore recounted the cost of this idea; Mennonites were in some ways the privileged—encroaching on the lands of Native Americans—but as the 1764 murder of the entire John Roads family shows, they came to be known in time as a people who would not defend themselves under any circumstances (Dyck, 200). In 1775, during the American Revolutionary War, Mennonites petitioners declared that because of “the Doctrine of the blessed Jesus Christ” and “finding ourselves very poor [in spirit]” they were “not at Liberty in Conscience to take up arms to conquer our Enemies” (McMaster, 256).

Following the War of Independence, some Mennonites headed to Canada, embracing its 1793 Militia Act offering commutation fees in lieu of military service. The United States adopted a similar policy in 1862 during the Civil War with the first federal American draft. Mennonites, thus, were more worried about youthful volunteers joining the war than being compelled to fight.

In the meantime new waves of Mennonite and Amish immigrants from western Europe in the 1830s and from New Russia in the 1870s bolstered the old idea of group privilege. Both groups encountered modernizing governments who were re-imagining the state as a “nation” and heralding “universal military service” as its handmaiden (Loewen and Nolt, 13). In the New World they found frontier land to buffer them from these changes. Especially in Canada the newcomers found a British system still recognizing group “privileges.” In 1873 a federal Order-in-Council exempted them from military service, an arrangement that remained in effect through the First World War.

The right to alternative service

During the First World War, events in the United States changed the meaning of pacifism. A universal military service act in 1917 granted draftees the “right” to seek personal exemption. But it was only a limited right, lightly enforced by a Secretary of State who declared that “war was the purest mission that a nation ever espoused” (Juhnke, 230). Hazings, threatened hangings and the death of two young Hutterite men, Joseph and Michael Hofer, from mistreatment in a military camp in 1918 revealed the limitation of the supposed right to personal exemption.

World War II enshrined the idea of “rights” for pacifists in both countries. Conscientious objectors now were exempted if they could demonstrate personal religious scruples. COs then joined the Civilian Public Service in the U.S. or performed Alternative Service Work in Canada, mostly as forestry, soil conservation and mental health hospital workers. Even within this system were the seeds of a new view on pacifism. Robert Kreider spoke of being restless as a CO, longing to do work of “real . . . national importance” (Kreider, 19). In both countries some 35 percent of all Mennonite draftees answered the call to arms. Pilot Henry Pankratz of Canada spoke of his service as the “highlight of my life” (Regehr, 36) while Roland Juhnke of the U.S. declared “a sense of duty to my buddies” (Bush, 271). Mennonite COs, on the other hand, faced taunts of being cowardly “yellow bellies” and ethnocentric rural bumpkins (Epp, 110).

The responsibility to peacebuilding

After the war many Mennonites considered more engaged ways of expressing their pacifism. In November 1950, at an MCC-supported conference at Winona Lake, Indiana, Mennonite thinkers overrode the word “nonresistance” for a new imperative, the “responsibility . . . to the total social order of which we are a part” (Driedger and Kraybill, 85). During the 1960s and ‘70s, in the midst of the Cold War, the Vietnam War draft and the Civil Rights Movement, Mennonite thinkers recalled their own “radical” and “revolutionary” Anabaptist heritage (Klaassen).

Reflecting a broadening acceptance of engaged pacifism, MCC opened advocacy offices in both Washington, D.C. (1968) and Ottawa (1975). The first Washington office director, Delton Franz, spoke of the chance to “sensitize the powerful to the impact of their actions on the world’s powerless” (Loewen and Nolt, 316). Later organizations, including Mennonite Conciliation Service and Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), pushed for international justice through action (Miller, 16).

Later, even these ideas broadened. In 1997 one CPTer, Patricia Shelly, challenged the binary of “personal” versus “political” peace, demanding it confront all of life, including consumer greed and the attending “need to protect what we have” (Heisey and Schipani, 39). At the same time, some Mennonites began to re-envision the very idea of conscientious objection. During the Vietnam War, MCC had provided a way for U.S. draftees to perform alternative service in many settings, including Vietnam. However, some draftees chose not to register with Selective Service as an act of noncooperation with and as a prophetic witness to the system. In 1969 the Mennonite Church even went on record in support of such acts of civil disobedience, while Canadian Mennonites hosted draft resisters and deserters arriving from the U.S.

More recently, Mennonites in the U.S. have participated in broader efforts to counsel military personnel seeking CO status as a way of linking privilege and responsibility. Similarly, in the 1990s the Ottawa Office of MCC Canada felt the responsibility to advocate on behalf of soldiers who developed a conviction of conscientious objection while in service. Additionally, some Mennonites began to practice “war tax resistance” as a new form of conscientious objection that aims to address the system, while also asserting the rights of the individual.


After 300 years in the U.S. and Canada, many Mennonites still held to the old “two kingdom” theology and a nonresistance of the “quiet in the land.” Still other initiatives highlighted “responsibility.” Attention to conscientious objection continued, particularly in the U.S., but it occurred within a much larger framework of proactive and “responsible” peacemaking. Clearly a fundamental shift had turned an historic peace church from attending to a question of “privilege” to one of “responsibility.”

Royden Loewen is Professor of History and Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

Power and partnership: responding to crises in Attawapiskat

The theory of community-based disaster management, which highlights the importance of community empowerment and the active participation of disaster-affected peoples in decisions around mitigation and response, is a welcome conceptual shift from previous theories that framed communities as passive victims who lack the capacity to assist themselves. In bringing the community to the fore, however, there is a risk that the focus sidelines the issues of partnership and power, two critical determinants of a community’s ability to manage a disaster event. Just as no person is an island, all communities rely on a host of external actors for support in determining what response options are possible and for acquiring the necessary resources to implement those plans. These actors fall along a rather broad continuum that includes informal social networks, civil society organizations and formal government institutions. Simply put: communities with strong partnerships are better positioned to manage a crisis than those who attempt to do so on their own. But when the partner (e.g., a government agency) controls the resources that affected communities need, the ability of those communities to chart their own course is significantly diminished, as decision making power is largely left in the hands of others.

For all communities in Canada, government is one of the most crucial partners in disaster management. In the majority of these communities, local municipalities have the primary responsibility (in coordination with the provincial government) of managing the prevention of, preparedness for and response to disasters and emergencies that affect them, be they fires, floods, snowstorms or other humanitarian crises. The municipal governments and/or provinces and territories are also responsible for a vast network of infrastructure that is critical to the functioning and resiliency of these communities. A notable exception to this partnership model exists in First Nations communities, where the federal government has assumed responsibility for providing emergency management support, and holds all fiduciary responsibility. Moreover, under the Indian Act—a statute which governs the relationship between the Canadian state and registered First Nations peoples—responsibility for infrastructure falls to the federal government. It is a distinctive arrangement, characterized by an extreme asymmetry of power, and one which poses considerable challenges for First Nations communities seeking to mobilize in the face of seasonal disaster risks and ongoing crises. A look into the case of the Attawapiskat First Nation highlights these challenges.

Like many isolated communities in northern Canada, the Attawapiskat First Nation has found itself increasingly threatened by a variety of natural and human-made hazards that pose a serious risk to the community’s existence: on more than one occasion, the community has seriously discussed the possibility of resettling elsewhere. While climatic hazards, such as flooding during the spring ice break-up, are nothing new for this community situated along the Attawapiskat River only a few kilometers inland from the coast of the James Bay, changing weather patterns have significantly reduced the predictability and scale of this annual event, thereby heightening the community’s vulnerability to these floodwaters. In the face of this increased risk of flooding Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency in three separate years since 2008, each time resulting in the evacuation of a significant proportion of the approximately 1,900 persons living on the reserve at great financial and social cost.

Current plans for extensive mining in the lucrative “Ring of Fire”— Ontario’s largest mineral reserve located upstream from Attawapiskat— pose an uncertain and potentially grave risk to the life and livelihoods of First Nations in the region, who are justifiably alarmed by the potential contamination of their water systems. For Attawapiskat, this would not be the first time they were affected by a human-made disaster related to resource extraction. In 1979, 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel—to date, the largest petroleum spill in Northern Ontario—leaked under the community’s elementary school. Despite repeated efforts by Chiefs and band council members to call attention to the ongoing health problems suffered by students and teachers, the school only closed in 2001.

In addition to these discrete disaster events, a more chronic humanitarian crisis emerges from Attawapiskat’s inadequate and substandard infrastructure, particularly its subpar housing and water treatment facilities. At present 124 families in Attawapiskat lack adequate housing, and substantially more have no access to treated drinking water. These families live in 24’ x 36’ bungalows sheltering 18 to 24 people sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. These specifications fall considerably below minimum shelter and sanitation standards recognized and observed by countless humanitarian organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee. Though this crisis was brought to light in 2011, when Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike to demand a federal response made international news, it has been an ever-present issue for decades.

Despite the urgency and protracted nature of these crises, little progress has been made to address them in a comprehensive manner. In fact, the increasing rate of population growth in the community only exacerbates its vulnerability, as additional demands are put on infrastructure that is already inadequate. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the community of Attawapiskat has not explored its own solutions to bring about change. In response to the annual flood risk, for example, the community seriously investigated several options, ranging from the construction of major dyke infrastructure to the seasonal migration of the community back to traditional spring camps. The government, however, had its own solution: evacuation and temporary resettlement. Another example of the Attawapiskat community organizing to mitigate its vulnerabilities to disaster occurred when, as a way of addressing inadequate housing and the exorbitant costs of building material, the Chief Assembly passed a resolution to establish a regional saw mill that would allow multiple communities in the area to access local natural resources at considerably lower prices than imported materials. The government, sadly, had its own flawed solution: woefully inadequate “temporary” shelters, which have since turned into subpar permanent housing.

There are many reasons why alternative solutions to the deficient answers provided by the Canadian government to the challenges facing Attawapiskat have not materialized and not all of them are external sources. That said, there are substantial obstacles within the
current partnership between the federal government and First Nations communities that make it very difficult to achieve permanent solutions to the vulnerabilities First Nations communities like Attawapiskat have to disasters. First, payments from the government are unpredictable and often ill-timed. For a community that is only accessible by air or by inter roads for the majority of the year, late transfers mean huge transportation costs that can render projects untenable. Second, the year-to-year allocation of funding by the government is insufficient to finance permanent solutions which require substantial up-front capital investments. This also makes long-term planning rather difficult. Finally, the fragmentation of the bureaucratic structure between various departments leads to temporary piecemeal solutions, when what is needed is a more holistic strategy that recognizes the multifaceted nature of these crises.

In exploring the challenge of a community-based response to crises within First Nations communities, the issues of partnership and power cannot be avoided. For the community of Attawapiskat to protect itself from hazards and ensure that each family has access to adequate housing and clean water, a serious commitment by the federal government to stand as an equal partner with Attawapiskat is required. This involves listening to the ideas of the community and taking seriously the concerns that have been raised with the current partnership model which disempowers First Nations communities who are best positioned to identify and implement measures to protect themselves.
Ignace Gull is the former Chief of Attawapiskat (1991-2001) and Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council (2003/04). He is currently the President/Chair of the Specialized Solvent Abuse Treatment Center Board in Thunder Bay. Christopher Ewert is a Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.