Category Archives: Dennis Gruending

Pulpit and Politics in pictures

There has been much to write about in my Pulpit and Politics blog during the past year. Please see a sampling below. If you would like to read any of these posts in full, just scroll down to the Archives section at the bottom of the screen and click on the appropriate month. In reviewing these many posts, I see that the predominant themes revolve around Environment, First Nations, Refugees, Peace and Democracy. If we could get those things right, we would live in a much healthier and more harmonious way with one another. I plan to continue Pulpit and Politics in 2015 with perhaps an increased number of posts. I retired from my day job recently but certainly not from writing and I look forward to remaining engaged in this way. I am pleased that you read the blog and I always appreciate the feedback posted to the Comments section.

Best wishes to you and yours in the New Year.



Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo
Christmas Truce 1914, Creative Commons photo

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. There were a lot of parades and bravado as young Canadians marched off to enlist,  expecting to defeat the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians and to be home by Christmas. It did not turn out that way, as the sides dug in for muddy and brutal trench warfare along lines in Belgium and France.

Canadians were not home for Christmas but something exceptional did happen at the front among German and allied soldiers. Estimates are that up to 100,000 British and German participated in an unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front. There was also a Christmas truce on the Eastern front which, although lesser known, involved Austrian and Russian soldiers.

In the West, the truce started on Christmas Eve, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in Belgium. They placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then they sang carols, and the British responded with carols of their own. Men from the two sides called out Christmas greetings to each other. Soon after, they crossed No Man’s Land to exchange small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs. They even played soccer.  Continue reading Christmas Truce 1914

Clearing the plains

James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains
James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains

The countdown is on to celebrate the 200th anniversary in 2015 of Sir John A Macdonald’s birth. Author James Daschuk, however, says that Macdonald deliberately used “the politics of famine” to force Indigenous people into submission so that Canada could build a railway and populate the West with European settlers.

Daschuk is an assistant professor at the University of Regina. His book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, is the culmination of research that began 25 years ago for his PhD thesis.

He says that prior to the arrival of Europeans (in the late 1600s) indigenous people on the northern plains enjoyed generally good health, based mainly upon their harvesting of bison. By the 1890s they had become so sick that it was thought they were doomed to extinction. The reasons are many and complex, including famine and epidemics of smallpox and measles which the Europeans brought with them and to which indigenous people had no immunity.

Macdonald had been tossed out of office by voters as a result of a financial scandal in 1873 but was back in power by 1878. He devised a new National Policy based on building a railroad and agricultural settlement in the West. Macdonald, who also appointed himself Indian Affairs minister, wanted Indigenous people out of the way so that the railway could proceed. By then most of the chiefs had sadly accepted that their people would have to shift from a semi-nomadic life based upon hunting bison to one where they engaged in agriculture. They petitioned the government for treaties providing a formal agreement for the future but they clearly believed that the land belonged to them.

Within two short years the bison had virtually disappeared and the famine had arrived. Daschuk says, “At this point, crisis turned into opportunity for Macdonald. The treaties had been negotiated nation-to-nation but now the First Nations were weakened. The government would provide food only if they took reserves and even then they were fed at minimum rations.”

Verge of starvation

Macdonald described his government’s policy in the following terms in the House of Commons: “We cannot allow them to die for want of food … [We] are doing all that we can by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Daschuk says that the deliberate withholding of food to hungry people led to hundreds of deaths by starvation but it also created the conditions for a tuberculosis epidemic in indigenous communities.

Glorifying Macdonald

He adds, “A glorification of John A Macdonald is underway as we come up to the 200th anniversary of his birth. How do we process this? White Canadians have this myth of decency, friendliness, and helping our neighbours, but in our relationship with Indigenous peoples we have not been decent. I live in hope that we will become more open-minded about what is going on in Canada.”

Ironically, Daschuk has been awarded the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for a Canadian book of history judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.

This piece was carried in slightly modified form in the United Church Observer in  November 2014.   

Global cry of the people

Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining
Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining

Recently, I attended a Saint Paul University symposium dealing with environmental and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies — with the knowledge and complicity of the federal government. The Ottawa symposium was called the Global Cry of the People: Mining Extraction and Justice, and the presenters included a range of church-based and other civil society advocates from Canada, Latin America and Asia.

Jennifer Henry, the executive director of the Canadian inter-church justice group, KAIROS, told the audience that there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric and action of Canadian mining companies. “Our partners and neighbours are pleading with us to respond to this, and they wonder why nothing in changing,” she said. “Surely, we can take concrete steps to change the way in which Canadian mining companies do business.”

Meanwhile, Development and Peace, a Canadian Catholic aid organization, distributed  literature about the deleterious effects of mining on various communities. In it were comments from bishops in Latin America, Asia and the Philippines. Said the Philippines’ Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo: “Mining is not helping our people, and it is destroying our environment.”

Canada’s investment and activity in foreign mining has increased exponentially in recent decades — in tandem with mounting abuses. Many groups at the Ottawa symposium belong to a 29-member coalition called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA). They want the government to take measures compelling the industry to act more responsibly. They have even taken their concerns to the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member.

In October 2014, the CNCA submitted a brief to the organization’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. The CNCA says that there are more large mining companies domiciled in Canada than any other country. In fact, 41 percent of the large companies present in Latin America and the Caribbean are Canadian. As of December 2013, Canada had 1,500 mining projects in the region.

The CNCA says this concentration of mining companies in Canada is partly the result of Canada’s low rate of corporate taxation, a securities industry designed to promote mining, and enthusiastic support from the Canadian government. Export Development Canada, for example, provided financing and insurance worth $25 billion to the extractive sector in 2013, which represented 29% of the corporation’s exposure.

The CNCA brief also referred to a systematic pattern of Indigenous and human rights abuses that have accompanied increased Canadian mining activity. It cited a report presented to the IACHR Commission last year by the Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America. In ten of the 22 Canadian mining projects reviewed by the group, 23 violent deaths and 25 cases of injury were found.

So what does the CNCA and others want done? For starters, it wants the government to appoint an independent extractive sector ombudsperson to provide redress whenever Canadian companies are involved in abuses. Secondly, it wants the government to provide access to Canadian courts for people who have been seriously harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The Conservative government has responded with a project for Corporate Social Responsibility, a purely voluntary endeavour in which Canadian extractive companies agree to abide by certain guidelines. But the government has shown no enthusiasm for the proposals by civil society, and any attempts to introduce regulation have been met with opposition by the mining industry lobby.

Still, despite the lack of response from the government or industry, attendees at the November symposium agreed that the campaign must — and will — continue.This piece appeared in slightly different form recently in my blog for the United Church Observer.   


Snow boating with my dad

Snowboating with my dad, Rudy Gruending
Snowboating with my dad, Rudy Gruending

I am thinking today of my father Rudy Gruending who would have been 96 years old on November 15. He was born on a farm in Saskatchewan in 1918 several years before the Canadian Pacific Railway built tracks nearby and a small, false-fronted village called St. Benedict was built beside them. My dad was to live there for his entire life save for a year working in the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario and a couple of years with a brother trying to create a new farm near Leoville, Saskatchewan, which was then on the northern fringe of the grain belt. They were wiped out by a forest fire.

He was one of nine children although a tenth died of appendicitis when he was 14 years old. His parents were farmers and pioneers in the area, arriving in 1904 from Minnesota. They were among a group of Germans who had arrived there to find that the farmland had all been taken. A group of them decided to move north to Canada and to file homesteads on land that the federal government was making available to settlers.

Working hard, playing hard

My father would have been of working age on the farm by about the early 1930s. That was a time just prior to the introduction of rubber tired tractors into the community and my grandfather tended to his growing farm using horses to pull ploughs, seeders and (later in the season) binders to cut the grain, which was then put through steam-driven threshing machines. It was a hard life but one which dad always recalled with great fondness. It was also a good training ground. At one time or another in his adult life, dad worked as a mechanic, a truck driver, a cat skinner, and a lumber jack – in addition to farming, which was always his first love.

He and his five surviving brothers worked hard and played in the same way. They loved baseball, which the settlers had brought with them from Minnesota, and the six Gruendings formed the nucleus of their local ball team. My father was slender as a boy but he grew into a big and powerful man who was a workhorse as a baseball pitcher and was someone who could hit a ball a long way.

He and my mother Anne were married in 1946, when he was 27 and she 22. They both attended the local school and she would always say that for her it was love at first sight. Their life on the farm began hopefully enough, but they, like all but one of dad’s brothers and many of our neighbours, found that their farms were too small in an era of increasing consolidation.

Life in the village

We moved into the village in the early 1950s and my father continued to operate the farm from there. At its peak our village had several hundred people although there are fewer now.  There was one street strung out along the railway track and the grain elevators, and a few other streets that ran perpendicular to it.

We did not have electricity at first and I remember the flickering light thrown by what my parents called a coal oil lamp. The province’s rural electrification program was just being completed at about that time. Nor did we have indoor plumbing or what we called running water. One of my jobs as a boy was to walk several hundred metres with water pails to the home of neighbours who had a well. I would work the handle on the pump, which usually screeched, and then carry home two pails of cold, fresh water. Another of my jobs was to split lengths of wood with an axe and carry it indoors to be used in our wood stove.

A photo speaks  

In the photo that you see above, my father is giving me a ride in town on an early version of a home made snowmobile made from scratch by someone in our village. This was at least several years before Bombardier got around to introducing a commercial product in eastern Canada.

My dad was fond and he liked to take me along when he went places or did something special. I don’t actually remember this snow boat ride but he told me about it in later years when we looked at the photo. Behind us, you can see the railway fence which was built to keep snow from drifting across the tracks. You can also see a portion of the railway station and the back end of what appears to be a late 1940s model car – aficionados can help me with the year and make of the vehicle.

I am wearing a warm parka for this outing along with a cap, mittens and boots.  You can see that I have a lot of snow on my pant legs, which may mean that I have taken a tumble from the machine, or that I had to walk through deep snow to get onto it.

I see that in the photo my dad is wearing a cap as he always did when he was outdoors, winter or summer. This one appears to have an insulated liner, useful in winter. Dad has a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was pretty well a chain smoker and he usually prepared his own using a cigarette roller comprised of a wooden frame with rubberized cloth stretched over it. Eventually the long cigarettes that he rolled had to be cut into shorter lengths using a razor blade, a job that I loved but which he allowed me to do only under his supervision.

A moment in time

This was a moment in time in about 1952. It is so easy to forget these things. I am grateful that somehow this photo survived and that I can share it.




Father Gustavo Gutiérrez receives honorary degree

Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez receives honorary doctorate
Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (centre) receives honorary doctorate from Saint Paul University in Ottawa

Saint Paul University in Ottawa has conferred an honorary doctorate on the Peruvian theologian Father Gustavo Gutiérrez during a November 7 ceremony in the university’s chapel. Rector Dr. Chantal Beauvais said that the degree is the university’s way of showing “profound gratitude to Father Gutierrez and to recognize his contribution to Catholic theology. We are celebrating a contemporary witness to something that we value – reflection in action.”

Fr. Gutiérrez was born in 1928 in Lima, Peru and is regarded as one of the key founders of liberation theology — which focuses upon the emancipation of the poor and the oppressed. Latin American bishops later described this focus as the “preferential option for the poor.”

As a child and adolescent, Gutiérrez was frequently ill but he went on to studies in literature and medicine. Later he shifted to studying psychology and philosophy in Switzerland and France, where he also obtained a doctorate in theology. He was ordained in 1959 and later taught at the Catholic University in Lima, but he also spent much of his time living and working as a parish priest among the poor in that city.

A Theology of Liberation

His seminal book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), outlines his description of the Christian witness as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a protest against their poverty. That poverty, he says is the result of unjust and sinful social structures.

Fr. Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians came under papal investigation and in some cases censure for their views. His joining the Dominican order in 1988 was likely his way of seeking a degree of institutional protection from that group against his detractors.

Blessed are the poor

In her remarks, Dr. Beauvais added that Fr. Gutiérrez “has articulated the impact that theology should have upon our lives. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the oppressed, not in some future utopian society but in the here and now. It’s all about walking the talk and for that we need a particular kind of spiritual intelligence.”

Fr. Gutiérrez, speaking mainly in French, thanked the university and said that the central preoccupation of his life and work has been to answer one question – how do we tell the poor that God loves them?” He said that it is important to place the kingdom of God within human history.

Fr. Gutiérrez now teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

No rock star

During the conferring of his honorary degree in Ottawa Fr. Gutiérrez was wearing dark glasses. Dr. Beauvais joked that he is not a rock star, but rather that he is recovering from recent surgery to his eyes.

Canadians on the Camino de Santiago

Canadians on the Camino de Santiago
Canadians on the Camino de Santiago

For most of September and into early October my wife Martha and I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I had planned to post occasionally to my Pulpit and Politics blog but found that Facebook presented an easier format in which I could write while on the move, so I made multiple Facebook posts instead. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will find much that is familiar in the following piece about the Camino.

29 days of walking

We flew into Madrid on September 2 and two days later took a train to Pamplona, a city near the Pyrenees and not far from the border with France. We were on the Camino for 29 days and walked about 25 kilometres a day, 650 kilometres in all. We hiked through four Spanish provinces whose topography includes two mountain ranges, the meseta, or high plain that covers much of the Iberian Peninsula, and finally through the rocky, green hills of Galicia to our destination in Santiago de Compostela.

Saint James — Santiago

The Camino is also called the way of Saint James and falls within the ancient pilgrimage tradition of the Catholic Church. It is claimed that James made his way to Spain, where he proselytized among pagan tribes before returning to Jerusalem where he was martyred. It is claimed, as well, that his followers took the body of James back to Spain and that his tomb and relics were later discovered near Santiago in the year 834.

The Camino became a hugely popular pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, when in contrast to today it could be a dangerous trip to make. Later it fell into disuse (more or less) and later still it was rehabilitated. Today about 200,000 people walk some or all of the Camino each year. Does that mean there is a new, widespread commitment to the Church? I suspect not. A new interest in some sort of spirituality? Perhaps.

Seeking meaning

We did meet people who were searching in a specifically religious sense. A young American, for example, was trying to decide whether to continue his studies for the priesthood. We also met a German priest trying to decide whether to remain a priest or to leave. But we met a larger number of people who were not necessarily religious but who were either searching or were unhappy and unfulfilled in their work and in some cases, their relationships.

We spent some of our walking time with a young German woman who was traveling on her own. She had approached us one evening and asked if she could join us for dinner because she did not like to eat alone. She has two young daughters, aged six and eight, and a partner, but she had left them for six weeks to walk the Camino. She was vaguely dissatisfied and searching for something.

We liked her and felt somewhat parental about it. She even spent one night sleeping on our floor when we had a hotel room and she could not find any accommodation. She was also with us on our last day in Santiago, standing in the same lineup as we waited to pick up a certificate indicating that we had completed the walk. She was in tears when we said goodbye. We wish her well.

My motives

I was asked along the trail and by some of my followers on Facebook what my motivation was for walking the Camino. My reasons were not overtly spiritual or religious and I was not seeking any divine guidance or assistance.

I retired from my day job in June, although not from writing. Martha is quite recently retired, too, so we looked on this walk as a kind of marker. However, her reasons for walking the Camino may well vary from mine and I make no claim to speak for her.

Pilgrim masses

We did attend 10 or a dozen of the pilgrim (peregrino) masses held, usually in the evening, in churches along the way. I found them meaningful and even moving at times. I was raised as a Catholic and remain a cultural Catholic, familiar with the mass and other of the Church’s rituals. I have fond recall of my high school education in a Catholic boarding school and have many friends within the Catholic and other churches. But if you were to ask if I believe in the phrases recited in the Apostles’ Creed, I would for the most part have to say that I think not.

So why did I walk the Camino? It interested me as a project. I also want in retirement to be intentional about fitness. And I had both the time to go and the money to pay my way.

Pilgrims and privilege

I believe that some pilgrims overlook their privilege. They are often self-conscious about their identity as seekers on the Camino. But most people on the planet do not have the luxury of making such a journey to contemplate their lives and futures. Yet they, too, are seekers after meaning and often the divine.

All about people

One Scripture reading that occurred several times during the pilgrim masses we attended was that of Christ falling into step with two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus after his tomb had been found empty. For a long while they talked to him without recognizing him.

In their brief sermons at pilgrim masses, some of the priests used this story to talk about the importance of recognizing the divine in each person that we meet. I really like this idea and wish that I practiced it more often.

So, that’s where I will leave the Camino — with the lovely people who we met, both pilgrims and Spaniards, most of the latter serving our needs for a price it is true, but doing it with patience and grace.

2014 Climate Summit    

80% of reserves should stay in the ground
80% of carbon reserves should stay in the ground

In April 2014, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their fourth report, which said more clearly than ever that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity.  Carbon emissions are being trapped in the atmosphere and warming the planet. The scientists said that if we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption the results will be potentially catastrophic. They predicted, for example, that we might see the collapse of ice sheets with an ensuing rapid rise in sea levels in coming years.

Less than a month after the IPCC report, a part of that prediction came to pass. Two scientific groups, one of them the North American Space Agency (NASA), reported that a large section of the West Antarctica ice sheet has begun to disintegrate and its continued melting has likely passed a point of no return. The IPCC had earlier warned that the global sea levels could rise by as much as a metre by the end of this century and by more in subsequent years. American researchers say that, in turn, would inundate land in cities such as Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston.

There is a growing sense of urgency among scientists but it is difficult for most individuals, and certainly for politicians driven by four year cycles, to be concerned about what will happen a century or two from now.  However, Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, fears for the future and has called upon world leaders to attend a Climate Summit in New York City on September 21-22. By inviting heads of state to attend, Ban Ki Moon wants to break an enduring cycle of stalled international negotiations on climate change.

There are vast proven reserves fossil fuel reserves in the world, a good deal of it trapped in the sticky bitumen of the Canadian tar sands. According to Bill McKibben, the climate change activist behind a group called, 80 % of the oil, coal and gas on our planet must stay in the ground if we are to limit the future rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.

McKibben’s and 850 other groups are planning a giant march and rally to accompany the climate change summit in New York City. “We think that organizing, mobilizing, and building social movements are ultimately what change the course of history,” says the website.

The 25-member Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) wants to get Canadian churches and other faith-based organizations active on the issue as well. To that end, the ecumenical group Citizens for Public Justice has prepared worship aid materials, including prayers and sermon notes, for use on Sunday, September 21.

Joe Gunn, CPJ’s executive director, says, “We will be asking faith communities to make this day the largest demonstration of action on climate sensitivity on record, by walking, biking or taking public transit to work on that day. We also hope that faith-based organizations will make free use of the materials that we have prepared for them.”