Category Archives: Dennis Gruending

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. Continue reading Canadians on the Camino, Day 2: Alto de Perdón

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. Continue reading Sheila Fraser, a new relationship with Indigenous Canadians

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. Continue reading Canadians on the Camino, Day 1: In Pamplona

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.

Charles Taylor on Muslims in Canada

Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum
Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum

The celebrated Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor made headlines recently when he said that the prime minister’s critical comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab (a partial face covering) were both “dumb” and a boon for terrorist recruiters such as the Islamic State. Taylor’s point was that the prime minister is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment and that in turn makes alienated Muslims in Canada more likely targets for terrorist recruiters. Taylor called the comments “a ridiculously disproportionate reaction” to the tiny number of women who wear the niqab in Canada. He speculated that some politicians are cynically trolling for votes by trying to sew division.

The news stories quoting Taylor arose largely from a scrum that he had with reporters following a keynote speech that he made to a gathering organized by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, a think tank named after the former NDP leader.

A public intellectual

Taylor, a professor emeritus of political philosophy at McGill University, is perhaps Canada’s most prominent public intellectual. He was, for example, one of the main speakers early in March at an international conference in Rome convened by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Taylor was also co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, which arose from a controversy stoked by some in Quebec against Muslims and other minority groups. The commission’s report Building the Future was released in 2008 after months of testimony at public hearings.

Taylor’s speech to the Broadbent Institute did target recent comments by some federal politicians, but at an earlier time he was also a blunt critic of plans by the Parti Quebecois to introduce a charter of values that would have forbade people working in public institutions from wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature.

Historical sweep

Taylor’s speech was rich in its historical sweep, providing examples of how social exclusion has been practiced but also how it has been overcome. “We are in a race,” he said, “between measures that create solidarity and those that create division. We must create bonds of solidarity and avoid stigmatization.”

Taylor said that all societies at one time or another attempt to exclude certain people and groups. There was once a strong opposition to Irish immigration into the United States, but Taylor said that the Americans overcame it. The symbolic end to that discrimination occurred when John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the country’s president in 1960. “But today in the U.S. Hispanics are unwanted by a lot of Anglo-Saxon types,” Taylor said, but he predicted that Americans will get beyond that exclusion as well.

He used France as an example of a country that once had a positive attitude toward accepting immigrants, but that changed after World War II and especially after the war in the former French colony of Algeria. “There is now a deep alienation among immigrants in France and the country is aggravating it with anti-Muslim measures.”

Bonds of solidarity

Taylor asked his audience to think about how certain countries succeed in confronting the obstacles to welcoming newcomers while other nations do not. “If we allow people to get to know each other and if we create enough connections, we can get beyond this just as the Americans did with the Irish and the Polish,” Taylor said. “We have to build connections of solidarity and to include those who are excluded.”

All political leaders, Taylor said, have a responsibility to refrain from stigmatization. “It is really dangerous for the prime minister to say that Islam is anti-feminine because some women choose to wear the niqab. This creates confrontation and stigmatizes all Muslims and ultimately the bonds of solidarity may not be able to keep up with the amount of division. You can be desperate to win an election and think you can do that by creating tension, but if you succeed you may actually lose the country you want. We have to think in the long term.”

Despite the controversies, Taylor said that he remains optimistic about the likelihood of having solidarity triumph over division in Canada. “We can meet this challenge. We have done so in the past in Canada and in Quebec and we can do so again.”         




Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Anglican mission school, La Ronge, Sask. LAC photo
Anglican mission school, La Ronge, Sask. LAC photo

On June 2, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will release its report on the legacy of residential schools. The TRC was appointed by the federal government to examine the legacy of the schools back in 2008. It’s documented what happened there and held events at which survivors came forward to tell their stories. Also in 2008, Prime Minister Harper and churches, which operated the schools on the government’s behalf, apologized to former residential school students, who have since received financial compensation.

Indigenous people overlooked 

We may think that we know our history but unfortunately most of us do not. Perhaps my own life experience may serve to illustrate. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan, where Treaty Six — between the Crown and nations of the Plains Cree — was negotiated and signed in 1876. About 20 years later, my grandparents and others arrived as agricultural settlers. Our village was about 80 kilometres from Batoche, where the Metis made their last stand against the soldiers and militia of the Canadian government.

Amazingly, I grew up knowing nothing about the treaties or Batoche until I took a Grade 12 Canadian history course. In prairie communities, it was as though the First Nations people who preceded the Europeans never existed. History, it seemed, had begun only when the settlers arrived, and, invariably, comments about indigenous people in our community were negative.

No excuse for ignorance

There’s no longer any excuse for prejudice or ignorance, if ever there was one. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1991 described the history of oppression across Canada in exhaustive detail. There were a variety of instruments used in what’s now seen as aggressive assimilation, including the Indian Act. But perhaps, residential schools were the cruelest manifestation.

Beginning in the 1880s and continuing well into the 20th century, an estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed — often forcibly —from their homes and placed in schools. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and, in some cases, sexual abuse (I mourn as a parent when I think of that experience). According to documents obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, some schools even carried out nutritional experiments on malnourished students with the federal government’s knowledge.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, says that the residential school system constituted genocide. And there’s no harsher indictment for a nation.

Moving forward together

Of course, many Canadians may believe that we’ve put this all behind us and that we should move on. We know, however, from United Nations studies, media reports, the stories of survivors and from our own experience that indigenous people in Canada are still being left behind. We need altered political, regulatory and economic arrangements, not to mention a change of heart if we’re ever to move forward together.

Ecumenical group KAIROS aims at just that. During the months of May and June, it’s holding TRC-related events in Ottawa and across the country.

This piece appeared, in a slightly altered form, as a blog with the United Church Observer on March 26, 2015.