MCC advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada: reflections from history and the present


Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

MCC Canada has a long history of speaking to the Canadian government about militarization and participation in armed activities. Over the years, this advocacy has evolved as relationships with Indigenous nations in Canada have opened the door to new understandings of peace and nonviolence. Yet these new understandings have come with challenges that continue today. MCC advocacy in support of various Indigenous communities of Labrador in protesting against NATO military activities at the end of the Cold War and later against a hydro-electric dam initiative illustrates both challenges and opportunities for MCC’s advocacy in Canada more broadly.

University students from across Canada attending MCC Ottawa Office student seminar February 12-14, 2015, on advocacy and faith gather around Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill as part of a witness walk in Ottawa. (MCC photo/Monica Figueroa)

Since the early 1950s, MCC Canada sought meetings with prime ministers to advocate for the rights of conscientious objection and alternative service. Over time, those petitions began to shift focus, moving from requests for the respect of Mennonite religious beliefs to including asks for government actions to reduce international conflict. Speaking to government about matters of conflict and war gradually became a part of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. This change, along with a recognition that a listening post in Ottawa would further the work of MCC, led to MCC opening its Ottawa Office in 1975.

Over the ensuing years, MCC advocacy became increasingly linked to MCC’s model of accompaniment and community service. As Esther Epp-Tiessen writes in her history of MCC in Canada, MCC service workers living in communities around the world and witnessing firsthand the harm of military action began to increasingly share about the impacts of Canadian policies and military action. These concerns began to form the basis of MCC’s advocacy communications and shape the way MCC understood its dual responsibilities—to its Anabaptist constituent in Canada and to the communities and partners MCC accompanied.

During the final years of the Cold War, MCC Canada undertook advocacy related to the impact of global militarization in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. MCC have had an ongoing, long-term presence in Labrador, with work in the province stemming back to the 1970s (and with partnership with Innu communities beginning in 1983). In the 1980s, NATO began testing low-level military flights over Innu traditional territory in Labrador, taking off from and landing at the Canadian military base in Goose Bay. More than 8,000 flights took place each year, harming wildlife and disrupting the Innu community’s traditional way of life. As the Cold War progressed, NATO proposed building a larger, more permanent training base in the area. Despite some hesitation from its governing board, MCC Canada began to highlight the concerns of these Innu communities through advocacy, as part of a larger advocacy campaign against Canada’s participation in NATO in general.

If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?

— Menno Wiebe

For several years, the Ottawa Office had consistently voiced concerns around NATO and Canada’s participation in the Cold War arms race in their correspondence to government. Now, the office began to include Innu voices and experiences in their communications to government officials, connecting advocacy against Canadian militarization with Innu concerns about how NATO flight were upending their traditional way of life. Advocacy against NATO began to include requests to also resolve land claims and to look for shared points of connections between Mennonites and Innu communities, including shared understandings of relationships to the state.

In a 1989 letter to MCC Canada program leaders, Menno Wiebe, director of MCC’s Native Concerns program, asked: “If the Innu are not requesting military defence, and if Mennonites from a Christian peace position are saying the same things, how would it be if we would find a way of making a joint statement between the Innu and Mennonites to that effect?” Wiebe highlighted a meeting between Peter Penashue, an Innu community leader, and five liberal members of parliament, in which the Innu stated that they were not asking Canada to defend them. For Wiebe, the Innu assertion of their sovereign right to refuse being defended by NATO and the Canadian military opened potential fruitful connections to Mennonite concerns about militarization.

MCC’s Ottawa Office raised further concerns about the NATO flights over Innu territory through its partnership with Project Ploughshares. These advocacy initiatives encouraged Canadians to send letters and request meetings with government officials to voice concerns about the NATO flights, arguing that “in the name of ‘security,’ such fighter-bomber flight training is imposing insecurity on the Innu peoples.” Other letters seeking to mobilize advocacy efforts referred to the lack of a just relationship between the Government of Canada and the Innu, calling on the Canadian government to re-examine its commitment to the proposed NATO base.

During this time, the Innu invited Rick and Louise Cober Bauman and their children to live in the more rural community of Sheshatshit, in part based on their increased trust of MCC through MCC’s willingness to advocate. Rick recalls sending faxes encouraging advocacy and providing updates from the local Innu resource centre, connecting Mennonites and many other interested supporters not only in Canada but also in the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. The family living room was the site of planning sessions to block fighter jets from taking off by occupying the runway at the military base. MCC was intimately involved in witnessing the devastations of colonization, the struggle for self-determination and the impacts of Cold War politics on those far removed from the causes of conflict.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Cold War, flights from and construction on the NATO base stopped. Without the push around direct militarization, Ottawa Office advocacy on the Innu issues declined. The Indigenous communities in Labrador, however, continued to face challenges to their right to live on their land. Structural violence, rather than overt military presence, continued. A hydro-electric dam built at Muskrat Falls and completed in 2019 has posed concerns around land and water contamination.

MCC workers sought to discern how to respond to such ongoing colonization, especially as shifts in approaches among Indigenous communities varied. Overall, the Innu did not oppose the dam, as the project approval was a part of their land claims agreement. The Southern Inuit and Northern Inuit communities downstream from the dam, however, engaged in advocacy over their concerns of methylmercury poisoning, with the support from only a very few members of the Innu community.

MCC workers, up until 2019, engaged actively in responding to these shifting concerns and nuances within the region. They built relationships with land defenders in the Inuit communities opposing the hydro project and actively facilitated community organizing processes. Instead of working with Chief and Council, as they had with the Innu, MCC workers connected with strategic individuals. They worked to bring members of the different communities together, along with working behind the scenes to support public statements and actions. MCC workers intentionally tried to keep a lower profile and focused on raising the voices of individual land defenders, rather than the voice of MCC.

The advocacy component of MCC’s local presence was strong, but public Anabaptist support of advocacy against the hydro project was not the same as with advocacy against the NATO flights, despite heavy RCMP presence at the site to arrest and remove protesters. Other grassroots organizations across Canada and the U.S. advocated against the hydro project, but there was very little Anabaptist outcry. The Ottawa Office was unable to offer much support, due to changing MCC priorities in Canada. Without the direct connections to militarization, there was no longer the same tangible draw for Mennonites or peace activists.

Rick Cober Bauman reflects that “mines and dams didn’t have the same impact as women running in front of jets. We may believe we can live without defense, but can we live without nickel or hydro? Things got more complex.” This complexity was seen not only in lack of Canadian Anabaptist support for advocacy against the hydro project, but also in the important nuances MCC workers navigated each day, as they responded to the different concerns and relationships they had built, relationships that included the different perspectives of multiple Indigenous groups, nuances that were easy to overlook when only focusing on a response to overt militarization or communicating a more simple story about MCC’s presence.

Elizabeth (Tshaukuish) Penashue, photographed in 2011, an Innu elder from Sheshatshit, north of Happy Valley Goose Bay, N.L., is deeply concerned about the future of her community and culture which she believes is closely linked to the wellbeing of the environment. Penashue organizes an annual canoe trip to increase awareness of the importance of protecting land and water from pollution and to pass on knowledge of Innu culture, traditional survival skills and food. MCC has a longstanding relationship with Penashue and has provided assistance for this and other initiatives that are in line with MCC’s values of caring for creation and improving relationships between broader Canadian society and Indigenous peoples. (MCC Photo/Nina Linton)

This history is relevant today as the Ottawa Office has been mandated to look for opportunities to engage in MCC advocacy around Indigenous justice, as MCC seeks to come to terms with its historical identity as an organization founded and supported by Canadian Mennonite settlers on Indigenous land. How do we understand and respond to state violence, such as colonization manifested as control over territory, when it isn’t obviously militarized? Can we use the language of state violence and our complicity to engage with constituents, in a way that engages on a national level, including in regions where extractive and mega-projects are major employers of MCC supporters? Additionally, MCC no longer has workers living with and directly supporting Indigenous communities in Canada, making it more difficult for us to “hear” Indigenous voices, including their diversity and nuances, in the ways that have traditionally shaped our advocacy work. How do we understand and portray nuance, without holding those active relationships? Addressing structural and colonial violence in Canada, reflecting on our own participation in that violence and then engaging in advocacy for Indigenous rights in Canada should be vital elements of MCC’s evolving peace advocacy, even as MCC faces multiple challenges in doing so.

Anna Vogt is director of MCC’s Ottawa Office.

Brody, Hugh. The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. From Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

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