Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Stephen Harper has dropped out of sight. We're waiting to see if he has a passion to contribute anything positive in retirement.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Art Babych photo

Stephen Harper has vanished from sight in the past six months but his Where’s Waldo status may be about to change. Harper will address the Conservative convention in Vancouver late in May.  Recently he also spoke to Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other Republican super donors about how fractured political parties can unite.

In Canada, Harper last spoke publicly on October 19 when he conceded defeat in the 2015 federal election.  He resigned almost immediately as Conservative leader but remains an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage. He receives a salary of $167,400 but could collect considerably more in pension each year if he resigned his seat. Continue reading Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Bill C-14, churches one voice among many in debate on assisted dying

Faith groups in Canada are one voice among many in assisted dying debate
Faith groups one voice among many in assisted dying debate

The current debate surrounding Bill C-14 — the legislation regarding medical assistance in dying — is a reminder of how Canada has become a more secular society in which organized religion plays a diminished role in public life.

My own parents, both in their 50s, died within 16 months of one another in the 1970s. During their ordeals in our rural Saskatchewan community, there was never any mention of assistance in dying and no possibility of their choosing such a path even if they had wished it so. We didn’t even have the language to describe it. There had, of course, been suicides in our predominantly Catholic community, and they were considered a grievous sin equivalent to murder. We were told that, ultimately, our lives didn’t belong to us but rather to God, and that it was God who chose when and how those lives would end.

Sue Rodriguez sought assisted suicide

Fifteen years later, such concepts were challenged by Sue Rodriguez, who believed that her life did, indeed, belong to her. She was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and fought to have the legal right to assisted suicide. Her case then went to the Supreme Court, where she argued that a ban on assisted suicide was an infringement of her Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Meanwhile, religious leaders — including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) — appeared as intervenors before the court in opposing Rodriguez. This marked the beginning of an informal alliance between bishops and evangelicals which has continued on other public issues, including legal opposition to same sex marriage.

Rodriguez eventually lost in a 5-4 judgment and, in 1994, she took her own life with the help of an anonymous physician. But fast forward to 2011, when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association went to the Supreme Court on behalf of two other gravely ill women, once again challenging the law against assistance in dying. That time, the court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition was unconstitutional because it breached the same provision of the charter that Rodriguez had challenged more than 20 years earlier. In 2015, the court then instructed parliament to draft new legislation allowing medical assistance in dying in certain limited circumstances — something that’s now being debated.

Civil society on C-14 

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents 83,000 physicians, has come out in support of Bill C-14. The Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Association for Community Living were more cautious, although not opposed to the bill. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which launched the challenge at the Supreme Court, is keenly disappointed that the provisions for medically assisted death are, in its estimation, too restrictive.

Response from faith based organizations

And once more, the most vociferous opposition has come from the Catholic-Evangelical leadership and a number of allied groups. A news conference on Parliament Hill organized by the EFC and Catholic bishops also included representatives from the Canadian Council of Imams, the Salvation Army and a local rabbi.  Curiously, neither the United Church nor the Anglicans, Canada’s largest Protestant denominations, have released an official position on Bill C-14. The Anglicans have set up a task force and the United Church says it is developing a statement.

Religious leaders no longer talk, at least publicly, about our lives belonging to God. They do, however, talk about medical assistance in dying as “intentional killing,” and as being morally and ethically wrong. Catholic leaders warn that their many hospitals will not participate in any such procedures and will not make referrals to other physicians on behalf of terminally ill patients who request it. One wonders how they can do so when most of their funding comes from governments.

A diminished role

Indeed, times have changed. Religious leaders used to meet with the entire federal cabinet. Today, churches and religiously based organizations are merely a few among many mature and competent voices, such as the CMA, debating public policy. The contributions from faith-based organizations are valuable but no longer prescriptive.

This piece appeared in somewhat shorter form on my blog with the United Church Observer on April 28, 2016.

Truth and Reconciliation, there’s hope but it’s a marathon

Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair
Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, in June 2015

It has been 20 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued a lengthy report calling for changes in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as well as governments across Canada. Not much happened as a result. But now, in the wake of a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  (TRC) led by Justice Murray Sinclair, there is new hope for reconciliation, not to mention a renewed relationship altogether.

RCAP and residential schools

Back in 1991, RCAP was appointed by Brian Mulroney’s government after an armed standoff at Oka, Qué. There were many issues to consider, but an RCAP commissioner recalls that in almost every community they visited, the painful issue of residential schools was raised. Survivors eventually launched a class action law suit against the government and the churches that operated the schools, and they received compensation. Still, they also wanted to be heard, so the TRC was created, not as a government commission but rather one commanded by survivors and financed by the payments made to them.

TRC recommendations

When it reported in June 2015, the TRC made 94 recommendations. The Harper government, at the time, was mostly non-committal. But the Trudeau Liberals have promised to accept and act upon all of the recommendations. Politically, this is the most hopeful sign in decades. Trudeau has also appointed Justice Sinclair to the Senate, where presumably, he’ll continue to advocate on behalf of the recommendations he made.

One of those recommendations calls on Canadian governments and churches to adopt and comply with principles outlined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The TRC also wants governments and churches to publicly repudiate the doctrine of discovery, which granted sovereignty to European colonizers who were deemed to have “discovered” lands that were already populated by Indigenous peoples.

The TRC says that the discovery doctrine originated from 15th century papal bulls, which purported to give Portuguese and Spanish monarchs the right to any lands that they encountered because they were spreading Christianity to non-European peoples.

Church promises

In late March, leaders from seven churches and religious organizations met in Ottawa, committing to support these and other TRC recommendations. Catholics, who administered 60 percent of the residential schools, chose not to be involved.  Catholic leaders, however, issued their own statements. One supported the UN declaration while the other stopped just short of repudiating the discovery doctrine even while “rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind [it].” Perhaps the church felt that rejecting the doctrine would also mean rejecting the bulls published by medieval popes, and that would be one step too far.

Martahon of hope

At another Ottawa event involving Protestant church leaders, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Susan Johnson used the metaphor of a marathon race to describe the journey toward reconciliation. Some people, she said, are already at the starting line while others are so far back in the crowd of runners that they haven’t even heard the starting gun. We’re all running the same race at different speeds, she added, but the ultimate goal is reconciliation.

This piece appeared in as a blog on the United Church Observer website on April 14, 2016.

Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.

 

Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Project Ploughshares andf Cesar Jaramillo blow the whistle on Canada's arms deal with Saudi Arabia
Project Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo

In December 2014, the Harper government made a deal to sell $15 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, whose regime likely beheads more people than does ISIS. The Trudeau government now says that a deal is a deal and they cannot overturn it, but a recent Angus Reid poll shows that fewer than one in five Canadians believe that abiding by the deal is a good idea. Continue reading Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism

Canada's first ministers and climate change
Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism. Dennis Gruending photo.

Prime Minister Trudeau called the first ministers together in Vancouver recently to begin mapping out a plan for Canada to meet commitments made at December’s Paris Climate Conference. The Paris meeting  was a last ditch attempt to prevent the most dramatic impacts of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels whose emissions remain trapped in the atmosphere. At that gathering 195 nations reached an accord committing them to lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) although they did not say by exactly how much. Continue reading Canada’s first ministers and climate change, no room for cynicism

Federal Court rules on Edgar Schmidt’s whistleblower case

Former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower Edgar Schmidt
Edgar Schmidt, former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower. Dennis Gruending photo.

The Federal Court of Canada will provide a ruling on Wednesday March 2 regarding the case of Edgar Schmidt, a former Justice Department lawyer who took his employer to court for failing to do it duty. I have posted several pieces on Schmidt’s case and am providing this edited version as a backgrounder to the court’s ruling. Continue reading Federal Court rules on Edgar Schmidt’s whistleblower case

Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak

20 years ago I taught a video production course in Vietnam. I discovered interesting cultural differences between us.
Vietnamese students in 1996 video production course. Dennis Gruending photo

It was 20 years ago, in February 1996, that I went to southern Vietnam on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency. I taught video production to a group of young agrologists at a research institute in the Mekong Delta. They had been using television to provide farmers with information but wanted a refresher on story writing and video techniques. In this piece broadcast on CBC Radio’s Morningside, then hosted by Peter Gzowski, I talk about the video course and some of my students. Continue reading Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak