Canadians on the Camino, Day 4: Los Arcos and the martyrs

Mount Monjardin in Navarre's vineyard region
Mount Monjardin in Navarre’s vineyard region

(September 07)

As we leave Estella early this (Sunday) morning, we encounter various groups of young Spaniards who are staggering home, likely after partying through the night. They are really drunk but also friendly. Most of today’s 22 kilometre walk is through lovely vineyard country. Just west of Estella, we come upon a fountain, not of water but of free red wine provided by the company Bodegas Irache. It is a little early for that but we sample it anyway, although there is only a thin dribble of wine remaining. Perhaps those young people were there before us.

We walk among vineyards throughout much of the day with the conical peak of Mount Monjardin always present nearby and a dark line of higher mountains off in the distance. It is misty in the morning and we fear that it may rain but the day is mainly sunny. The temperature again reaches the mid-30s by early afternoon and we are dragging when we finally arrive in Los Arcos, population 1,200 and declining.

Austrian hostel

We have reserved in a privately-run albergue called La Fuente de Austria, which provides simple accommodation but is more than adequate. The place does seem to be run by Austrians or perhaps Germans. It has a patio where people hand wash their clothes and hang them to dry, and where they sit and visit at tables under umbrellas to protect against the sun. The Wi-Fi works, which we are finding is not always the case.

There are about 50 other people staying here. There are so many people on the Camino this September that accommodation in small places is completely overloaded. Fortunately, I now have a SIMM card in my phone and I am able to use it to book accommodation here. It helps that I can speak Spanish.

Martha and I are in a shared room with bunks but just three other people: a short but buff soldier from Germany and a married couple from Toronto. He has a painful case of tendinitis and cannot walk much so he has been travelling ahead each day by bus to book accommodation while she walks the trail.

I have had, shamefacedly, to withdraw my previous sarcastic comment about the snoring in the albergue in Estella. This time I awoke to having my foot tugged on by the Toronto woman, who told me to sleep on my side because my snoring was filling the room. Whoops.

Los Arcos and the martyrs

Los Arcos is old and down at the heel but even small and declining towns along the Camino have old and out-sized churches. The one here, Santo Maria de Los Arcos, was built in the 12th century with later embellishments. The interior is spacious, the altar is gilded with gold, and there is an impressive bell tower and a cloister to one side with a lovely garden and intricately carved arches.

We attend the pilgrim mass, along with a number of other people who we have encountered along the trail in the past few days. The priest talks in his brief sermon about the many foreign missionaries and martyrs who had originated from this region and he praises their efforts in spreading Christianity. I find that a particularly Eurocentric and Christocentric reading of history. I can’t help but recall Eduardo Galeano’s book Open Veins of Latin America, where he describes in gruesome detail how the Spanish church accompanied the conquistadores in their genocidal colonization of Indigenous people in Latin America.

A sudden storm

After the mass, we stop in the adjacent arcaded square for dinner and order from the Menu del Peregrino (Pilgrims’ Menu). We share a table with a young couple who work for a Christian Reformed church in New York State. While we are eating the storm clouds gather and it becomes windy enough that some of the table umbrellas blow over. With encouragement from the waiters, we haul our table under an arcade but just as we are doing so I am startled by the sound of shattering glass from a beer bottle that has blown off of a window ledge above and shattered on the cobblestone beside me. The storm and its dark clouds soon pass and we are able to explore the few narrow streets that Los Arcos has to offer.

Canadians on the Camino, Day 3: Blessing the pilgrims

A priest blesses pilgrims in Estella
A priest blesses pilgrims in Estella

(September 06)

We are on the road in the dark prior to 7:00 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day – and to get a spot in an albergue in Estella, a larger town of 14,000 which is 22 kilometres down the road. We begin by walking down the main street in Puente de Reina and cross an impressive 12th century Roman bridge over the Rio Arga. We are hiking the Camino Frances, the most popular of the pilgrim routes, but just beyond the bridge here another trail from France joins ours. We have been cautioned not to take the wrong fork, which would lead us back along a trail toward another destination in France.

We meet two Swiss friendly guys just beyond the bridge but leave them behind when they stop to smoke. The hill is steep and soon we climb an incline to well above Puente La Reina. As dawn breaks the countryside becomes one of rolling vineyards, the skies are mainly sunny and the day begins to get warm. After the lovely hilltop town of Cirauqui, there is another medieval Roman bridge, a short one, over the Rio Saldo, where a knot of pilgrims sit either on the bridge or down by the water to have their morning snacks and to drink from their water bottles.

Albergue San Miguel

It seem a long walk, especially in the heat of early afternoon, but eventually we cross over a lovely stone bridge which puts us into the middle of Estella. After staying in hotels in Pamplona and Puente La Reina, we have opted for San Miguel, a parish run albergue with about 32 bunk beds packed into two rooms. We are just in time. They begin to turn people away not long after we arrive at about 2:00 p.m. They do make an exception, however, for an older man of perhaps 75 and his younger companion, who is blind. The younger man is tethered to the older with a thin rope attached at the wrists. There is no room remaining in the albergue but the two are allowed to spread their sleeping bags under a tarpaulin in the courtyard.

Our first point of contact in the albergue is a somewhat taciturn French man who registers us and says the charge is a donativo, or whatever we wish to pay.  We also meet Pilar, a friendly and smiling woman of perhaps 45, who gives us instructions about the rooms and bunks, about sharing the showers, and about the simple breakfast to be served in the morning. She tells us that there will be a mass and blessing for peregrinos at 7:00 p.m. in the nearby Church of San Miguel. We promise to attend but we barely make it because it is Saturday and we have read that often in small towns along the trail restaurants and stores are not open on Sundays. So we head off looking for a small supermarket and get quite lost before we find and buy some bread, cheese and fruit.

Blessing the pilgrims

The mass is attended, in addition to the pilgrims, by perhaps 50 local regulars — mostly older women but a few men too. It is really hot in the church and the women fan themselves as does the green-robed priest as he says the mass. He races through it in a 25-minute no-nonsense way and at the end he invites all pilgrims into an adjoining room. There he engages in an animated talk using a mix of Spanish, English and German and he caps it off by bestowing a blessing upon us. Pilar is there, her arm linked to that of the austere Frenchman who registered us at the albergue, and she is all smiles.

The room in which we bunk down is stinking hot and due to an operatic score of snoring, snorting and grunting that punctuates the night we do not sleep much. Over a simple breakfast of dry cereal, bread and coffee we learn that a number of people vacated the dorms and slept outside under the tarpaulin accompanying the older man and his blind companion.

Canadians on the Camino, Day 2: Alto de Perdón

Windmills on de Perdon
Wind turbines on Alto de Perdon

(September 05)

We rise early and in the dark to take the breakfast provided by our hotel. We will each be carrying backpacks, mine a 44-litre Osprey which weighs about 10 kilos (just over 20 pounds) when packed, while Martha’s is a 30-litre pack and will weigh about seven kilos. We took considerable care in buying our equipment and in packing but we wonder what it will be like carrying those packs when temperatures reach the mid-30s as they have in the afternoons since we arrived in Spain.

We are moderately fit and we did undertake some training in Ottawa where we live.  We walked more than usual during July and August, often 10 to 20 kilometres per outing while carrying full packs and water. Our favourite trails were one around Dow’s Lake near our home in the city, as well as others in the heavily wooded Gatineau Park near Ottawa. We walked about 350 kilometres in those two months to build up endurance and to break in our new hiking shoes.

First steps, Pamplona

This morning in Pamplona we need only to travel a short block to join the Camino de Santiago as it passes through the city, its way well marked by the iconic image of scallop shells found on road signs or even embedded in sidewalks or among stones on the street, all pointing the way to Santiago. Despite this excellent marking, we have hardly begun our walk through a park when an old man wearing a beret calls out to us and points to a path not far from the one on which we are walking. We have taken a wrong turn within our first few minutes on the trail.

We correct our way and soon find ourselves among many other peregrinos (pilgrims) streaming onto the path from their various hotels and hostels, carrying their packs and clicking their hiking poles on the asphalt. We had been skeptical about poles but found in our training hikes that they were useful in helping to maintain balance and to take some of the pressure off of our knees, especially when we walked down steep hills.

We pass through a tunnel under a busy highway and then across an old stone bridge over the Rio Sadar. Soon we are climbing along streets in a city suburb and later we ascend a dirt path toward a line of hills covered with white-bladed wind turbines. The views back over the fields toward Pamplona, with a range of mountains in the distance behind it, are lovely.

We stop with others at a water fountain in the little village of Zariquiegui. Martha sits on a low stone wall eating an apple and meets Sarah, a young woman from San Francisco. “What do you do in San Francisco?” Martha asks.  Sarah says she is a psychologist.  “Why are you walking the Camino?”  Sarah says that she was to be married but has called it off and that she has left her job as well. There has to be more to life than she was experiencing, she says, and she is here to think about that as she walks.

Alto de Perdón

We continue on, climbing a steep trail up to a high hill called Alto de Perdón, which means Mount of Forgiveness — it sounds nicer in Spanish. As we ascend, we see wind turbines all along the mountain ridges. By the time we reach the top we have climbed about 500 metres from our morning start in Pamplona, one of the steeper ascents on the entire Camino.

On top of the hill we see a line of sculpted wrought iron figures representing pilgrims on foot and horseback, all headed West toward Santiago. These figures bear some resemblance to the metallic horses created by Canadian sculptor Joe Fafard.

There is also on the hill top a concrete cairn where people sit in the welcome shade to drink from their water bottles and to rest. The long views to the west from the heights to the Arga Valley below display a carpet of gold and green, with stubble fields ringed here and there by scrubby trees. The way down is steep as we carefully pick our way along scrambled rock-strewn paths and then walk beside harvested fields and through small villages.

Puente La Reina

We are in Puente La Reina tonight in a hotel with private rooms adjacent to an albergue with bunks. We have decided to treat ourselves to a hotel for a second night and plan to begin staying in albergues tomorrow. After washing our sweaty clothes and having a shower, we head into the hotel dining room for dinner.

We walked 23 kilometres today with a stiff 500 metre climb and a steep descent. That’s 32,000 steps according to my pedometer and I calculate that it will be about one million steps to Santiago. I plan to put away the pedometer after today because I wore it on my belt beneath my backpack’s padded waist strap and it hurt my hip bone. No dreaded blisters on my first day but I do feel a couple of hotspots under the balls of my feet

Sheila Fraser, a new relationship with Indigenous Canadians

Sheila Fraser and Richard Van Loon
Sheila Fraser and Richard Van Loon

Two distinguished citizens are among those calling for a new relationship based upon trust and respect between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians. Sheila Fraser is Canada’s former auditor general. Richard Van Loon served as a senior civil servant, including stints as an associate deputy minister at the federal departments of health and Indian affairs before becoming the president of Carleton University between 1996 and 2005.

Van Loon and Fraser spent two hours in an Ottawa Unitarian church on May 20 speaking to a group of about 120 people and responding to their questions and comments.  Mary Simon, who has served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and for six years as president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was to speak but had to cancel due to illness.

First Nations have waited

Fraser, who was Canada’s auditor general from 2001 to 2011, said that her audits into education, housing and land claims negotiations showed that the situation facing Indigenous peoples was not improving. “Progress was slow,” she said. “Services on reserves were not keeping pace with services elsewhere. First Nations have waited too long for services that are available to other Canadians.”

Fraser is among a group of prominent individuals who have created an organization called Canadians for a New Partnership, dedicated to leading a dialogue aimed at building a new partnership between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians. Fraser said the tangible results should be better living conditions, education, and economic opportunities.

Break down barriers

She said that more than 60% of Canadians surveyed indicate that they have no contact with Indigenous people. “You recognize that a new relationship is needed,” she said to those at the Ottawa event, which was in turn organized by a local group called Issues That Matter. “Do everything that you can to learn more and to break down barriers,” Fraser said. She asked audience members to visit the Canadians for a New Partnership website and to sign an on line pledge promising that they will take steps to heighten awareness and increase understanding about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and their contributions.

A partnership gone sour

Van Loon, who was to have moderated the discussion, agreed to speak in the absence of Ms. Simon. He said that during and after early European contact in the 1600s there was a partnership between nations, one in which Indigenous peoples often held the more powerful hand. It was after the mid-19th century that the relationship changed following the widespread onslaught of disease and the destruction of the bison and other animals.

“We have no choice but to act,” Van Loon said. “We know what we have to do but we are not doing it well.” He said that Indigenous peoples have gone to the courts in frustration over having other Canadians ignore their rights to land and real consultation before resource developments occur.  “Supreme Court and other judgments affirm that Aboriginal rights exist and that they are not an empty box.” Van Loon said the other reason to act is simply that “it makes sense in so many ways.”

TRC final report

A number of the audience members on May 20 referred to the importance attached to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) releasing its final report into the history and legacy of residential schools on June 3. There are numerous supporting events planned by churches and faith groups to renew the call for a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers.

Fraser said she attended three of the listening events organized by the TRC and had heard some “pretty horrific things.”  She said, “I hope that the TRC recommendations are substantive and that they will be heeded. I am hopeful that things will change.”

Canadians on the Camino, Day 1: In Pamplona

Santa Maria Cathedral, Pamplona
Santa Maria Cathedral, Pamplona

My wife Martha Wiebe and I were in Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in September and October of 2014. We chose to start in Pamplona but our destination was the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela about 700 kilometres away through five autonomous regions and most of the distance across the north of Spain. We spent a month walking the trail and most days I posted to Facebook about what we were seeing, hearing and experiencing.  I have revised and fact checked that material and added more content  will post 31 pieces to this blog in the coming days and weeks. This is a pilgrims’ travelogue and is not meant to be a practical guide to preparing for and walking the Camino. There are, however, many hints embedded in the writing that will make it useful for those planning to make the pilgrimage. I hope that you enjoy what you read here.  If you are so inclined, please send me a note via the Comments section found at the end of the piece.

(September 04, 2014)

We arrive in Pamplona after a pleasant three hour ride aboard a modern and rapid train which we caught at the Atocha station in central Madrid.

Pamplona is the capital of the province of Navarre, a city of about 200,000 in the heart of Basque country. It is a pleasant city with a scenic old centre. Basque separatism in this region appears to be ebbing but the Camino de Santiago was also for several hundred years a kind of Mason-Dixon Line separating northern and Christian Spain from the remaining vast reaches of the country which were under control of the Muslims, or Moors. They were expelled by Christian armies in 1492, the same year that Columbus reached America.

History, however, is not uppermost in our minds as we catch a bus from the Pamplona train station into the city in search of our hotel. We are given directions by an elderly lady on the bus and helped by an attentive driver, both of who know immediately from our backpacks and hiking poles that we are peregrinos or pilgrims. The driver drops us off at a convenient location with instructions and after a 10-minute walk we find the Hotel Eslava across a narrow cobblestone street from an old convent which is now a school. Our hotel window looks out on a small square which forms part of the old city walls.

Exploring Pamplona

In the evening, after the mid-30 degree heat of the afternoon has subsided, we explore the city centre. We look for a store called Caminoteca whose website we had found useful for its information on what gear to buy, how to pack, when to travel and the best albergues (pilgrim hostels) in which to stay. We had most of what we needed but had read that at Caminoteca we could pick the Credencial del Peregrino, a kind of passport which can be stamped at churches, albergues and hotels along the way. The credencial is of stiff paper folded into eight panels with maps on one side and room for passport stamps on the other. Only if you have the credencial stamped at locations each day will you to receive a certificate at the end of your trip establishing that you have truly hiked the Camino.

We find the store, meet Istvan, the young man who runs it, and purchase the credencial. He tells us the Camino is busy this month and that the albergues are filling up with pilgrims by early in the afternoon of each day. He says that it pays to have a cell phone and to book ahead when possible. I have a phone but it lacks a SIMM card that I can use in Spain. No problem, he says and he gives me the name of a local store that sells cards on a month-by-month basis. Soon we are off on a hunt for the shop and after a few false leads we are able to find the store and buy a card.

Praying the rosary

Later we have meal in a restaurant on the Plaza de Castillo, the arcaded main square in the old city, and then we visit the Cathedral de Santa Maria. There we witness a group of about 60 people middle-aged and older clutching rosary their beads and praying in unison – a combination of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be and a profusion of Hail Mary’s.

I am familiar enough with that, having been raised as a Catholic at a time when people in my little prairie town still prayed the rosary, but I am surprised to see that at intervals between the cluster of prayers a group of male cantors begin to sing and then the entire group of parishioners walk, also singing, through the church’s aisles led by two men carrying a cloth banner. Spain was perhaps the most Catholic of European countries in the past and it was also  the centre of the feared Inquisition. However, when secularization moved quickly when it arrived in the 1970s, much as it did in Quebec. What I witness tonight is traditional indeed but there are no young people, not even middle-aged people, in the church.

We had planned to spend a second day in Pamplona but we are also keen to begin walking. So we have decided that early tomorrow morning we will lace up our hiking shoes, don our backpacks and be on our way.

No anti-poverty measures in 2015 budget

Joe Oliver & PM in Australia at G-20, PMO photo
Joe Oliver & PM in Australia at G-20, PMO photo

Finance Minister Joe Oliver delivered a 37-minute budget speech on April 21 without once mentioning the word “poverty” as it applies to Canada.  Shortly after many MPs, their staff members, journalists and Ottawa’s ubiquitous lobbyists headed off for the evening to Hy’s Steakhouse, an upscale spot near Parliament Hill. There are three food banks in Ottawa-Gatineau, one of them just a few kilometres from Hy’s but for those folks the budget offered only meagre crumbs from the table.

Food Banks Canada says that 841,000 Canadians turn to food banks each month and nearly half are families with children. Why have food banks become a permanent fixture? For one thing, provincial social assistance rates provide, at best, an income about 40 per cent below the poverty line. Another problem is precarious work and low wages. About 20 per cent of food bank users are people who are working or who have worked recently enough to be receiving Employment Insurance.

Our dirty little secret is that almost five million Canadians live in poverty but some good people want to change that. Food Banks Canada has a five point plan which includes having Ottawa invest in affordable housing (a field vacated under the Chretien Liberals), and replacing ineffective provincial social assistance bureaucracies with a basic income administered through the tax system.

If this sounds revolutionary, it isn’t. When I was a cub newspaper reporter in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1970, I covered a hearing of the Senate Committee on Poverty led by Senator David Kroll. His committee’s report called for a guaranteed annual income. In 2009, there was another Senate report on poverty which was inspired and driven by Senator Hugh Segal among others. Segal, now retired from the Senate, says that a guaranteed annual income is as worthy a Canadian project as Medicare.

A coalition called Dignity for All is leading a campaign for a national anti-poverty plan. Their recommendations include a national housing strategy; a national pharmacare program because Medicare covers only 70 per cent of health costs and prices for pharmaceuticals are rising rapidly; a publicly-funded early childhood education and care program; and a national minimum wage set above the poverty line.

In return for their good work both of Dignity for All’s partner organizations have been targeted for audits by the Canada Revenue Agency on the grounds that they are being too political.  Citizens for Public Justice survived its audit several years ago and Canada Without Poverty is currently under the CRA’s microscope. These audits, which threaten the loss of charitable status, are both mean-spirited and politically motivated.

The government’s 2015 budget continued with the politicized practice of providing boutique tax cuts to core constituencies but once again action to deal with on poverty has been ignored. In fact, the word wasn’t even mentioned. Perhaps we can all pitch in to help groups such as Food Banks Canada and Dignity for All make eradicating poverty an issue in upcoming federal election.

This piece appeared as a United Church Observer blog on April 22, 2015.

PM Harper a deadbeat on climate change

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, MP website photo
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, MP website photo

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq wrote recently to the provinces, criticizing them for not providing enough information about how they will combat climate change. She says Ottawa needs that data in order to submit Canada’s emission reduction plans to the United Nations. This is politics at its crudest. Aglukkaq is a minister in a government that has earned a well-deserved international reputation as deadbeat, laggard and obstructionist when it comes to taking action on climate change – yet she chooses to criticize those who are trying to accomplish something.

Aglukkaq’s letter arrived just prior to a scheduled announcement by the premiers of Ontario and Quebec on April 13 that they would sign a cap and trade accord which will attempt to have industry in their provinces reduce carbon emissions. The ink was barely dry on that agreement when federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver opposed it as “negative for the economy . . . negative for consumers and taxpayers.”

Aglukkaq’s epistle also preceded a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers in Quebec City on April 14. They gathered to pool their various climate change initiatives into something resembling a unified plan. The premiers are doing this in the absence of federal leadership from the Conservatives, who oppose pretty well anything that would reduce Canada’s carbon emissions. Continue reading PM Harper a deadbeat on climate change

Canada extends war in Iraq and Syria

CF-18 fighter plane, Canadian forces photo
CF-18 fighter plane, Canadian forces photo

After a debate in the House of Commons, the Conservative government announced that Canada will continue its war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and extend its bombing runs into Syria until at least March 30, 2016. But Canadians should be asking whether this costly mission is right or even useful.

ISIS fighters are Sunni fundamentalists attempting to impose a caliphate in territory that straddles borders in Iraq and Syria. It was a string of brutal attacks by ISIS against Christians and other minorities in Iraq in the summer of 2014 that galvanized public opinion in the West, leading to military action in the region.

Church leaders skeptical

On April 7, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that expressed polite skepticism about  extending the military campaign. The two dozen church leaders who signed the letter represent most of this country’s mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as some smaller denominations that include Mennonites, Quakers and The Salvation Army.

Together, they write: “Military intervention will not bring an end to the conflict without a broader internationally sanctioned strategy for achieving a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria.” They, and we, have seen this all before. The CCC points to the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003 and its “tragic consequences.”

Humanitarian and refugee assistance 

The leaders call on Ottawa to strengthen its diplomatic efforts, provide more humanitarian assistance in the region and offer refugee sponsorship and resettlement in Canada. It’s a position that mirrors that taken by opposition parties in the House of Commons and by many others outside of Parliament’s walls.

For decades now, Canadian churches have been deeply involved in refugee sponsorships, but that hasn’t been a priority for the Conservative government as the brutal civil war in Syria continues, driving an estimated 10 million people from their homes and creating three million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations.

Frustration palpable

Nor has the Canadian government shown much interest in consulting with church and other groups or co-operating with them to allow more private sponsorships to occur. The frustration of refugee-sponsoring groups is palpable, albeit muted, in the CCC letter. “Members of our parishes and congregations across Canada, as well as other organizations and volunteers, are eagerly waiting to receive Iraqi and Syrian refugees. . . . Accordingly, we urge you to consult with the Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association to discuss how to coordinate a response in Canada to the refugee crisis.”

$500 million better spent

Defence Minister Jason Kenney acknowledges that the Iraq-Syria war effort will cost Canada at least $500 million in the next year. Despite the warrior rhetoric from some of our politicians, Canada is not a robust military power. We do, however, have experience and credibility —  although it has been diminished recently — in diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and the resettlement of refugees.

We would make a greater international contribution by using the $500 million to focus on efforts such as those.

This piece appeared in slightly altered form in the United Church Observer on April 9, 2015.

Examines the relationship between religion and politics.