Monday, February 27, 2012

Who are you?

What if I'd been born a butterfly?

Who IS that guy?!?
Howard Cameron told a group of us at a church conference last weekend that during his days as an angry, self-destructive young man he was having coffee with his father one day. His father broke the silence at one point with a baffling question: “Who are you?”
       Confused, Cameron could think of nothing to say other than, “Well, Dad, I’m your son, Howard.”
       His father persisted: “I know you’re my son Howard, but who are you?”
       I recently heard a guest on CBC’s Tapestry claim that there are only two questions we ever have to answer in our lives: Who am I? and What, therefore, do I do? (I may not have quoted this exactly, but I think I have the gist of it right.)
       Cameron’s talk to us was planned by the conference organizers to give participants a first-hand witness to the consequences of generations of one family trapped in the holocaust that was the residential school system. The topic was occasioned by the fact of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings currently taking place across Canada.
        As Cameron spoke, some things became clearer to me. Most importantly was the insight that it wasn’t the presentation of the Christian gospel, per se, that did the great harm in the residential school system; it was the false and foolish misconception that it would first be necessary to scrape away all remnants of Aboriginal children’s identities in order to make room for the “right religion,” hence the “right civilization.” Language, culture, folkways, identification with the ancestors, the comforts of centuries of spiritual continuity, all were brutally whipped (not a figure of speech) out of these poor little children, simultaneously depriving them of the love and embrace of their parents and grandparents.   
       How was this possible? Why didn’t these same parents and grandparents stand between their children and the authorities and say, “You’re taking my children away for ten months at a time?? Like hell you are!” Those who experienced the system would be far better qualified to answer, but I can imagine that on the bleak and hungry horizon that was reserve life at the time, the promise of warmth and food for the children convinced communities and families that it would be the best they could do.
       Maybe it’s time for all Canadians—aboriginal and immigrant—to sincerely revisit the “Who am I” question; we are all signatories to the treaties made so long ago, treaties that should have defined our identities and secured our contiguous futures for generations to come. What does it mean that only the dominant culture has truly benefited from them?  
       Before the two nations in Canada—the aboriginal and the immigrant—are reconciled completely, it will be necessary that they agree on some important basic truths. So Truth and Reconciliation is aptly titled, and the order is important. I would urge everyone to attend one of the hearings to learn first-hand the truth about the course aboriginal people’s lives took in the wake of the residential school experience. To get in touch with the process, please click on

Sunday, February 19, 2012

. . . since we belong to the day

Ground cover

Daisy and Silverberry
6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. (I Thessalonians 5: 6 – 8)
12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. (Romans 13: 12)

Numerous Biblical references make the point that people who set out to perform nefarious deeds do so under cover of darkness. Light/darkness makes for a powerful metaphor; the contrasts between day and night are deeply embedded in the human psyche and unlike the parables that include objects like sheep or goats, for instance, we universally experience day turning to night turning to day approximately once each, every 24 hours.
               Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians quoted above is obviously referring more specifically to the need for alertness and wakefulness (characterized by our daytime persona) as opposed to the unconsciousness of sleep or drunkenness (as in our nighttime persona). But today I’m more interested in night/day as a metaphor for secrecy versus openness, what is private versus what is public. What we draw the blinds against and what we do and say openly. What we do and say under the glare of the sun versus what we wait for darkness to say and do.
               The federal government introduced a bill this week to allow the police to tap into email and cell phone records and communications without first obtaining a warrant from a judge. The justification for this was given as a need to take drastic measures against child pornographers, for whom the internet has become a virtual “night,” a place where wickedness can be perpetrated under cover of cyber-darkness.
               The olden-days version of this would be the granting of the right to police officers to open anybody’s mail, or plant listening or other surveillance devices in a home without a judge’s warrant. The very idea raised hackles across the country and Vic Toews had to do the two things he appears to hate most: backtracking and apologizing.
               The relevant question remains: what right do you and I have as regards what is private and what is open to public access?  Obviously, it’s not a case of one or the other, so where the line is drawn between what is public and what is private . . . is crucial. We have the examples of NAZI Germany, Stalin’s USSR and present-day North Korea to remind us of the folly of drawing the surveillance line too close to the public-access extreme. In Canada today, we certainly wouldn’t want the police to have the right to open our snail mail without proving to a judge first that it was absolutely necessary; neither will we stand for willy-nilly access to our emails and phone communications.
               Agnes and I once took a teachers’ tour to the Soviet Union and were housed in the Rossia Hotel just off Red Square for four or five nights. People warned us that all the rooms were probably bugged and we imagined what information of value would be gleaned from our private conversations in our hotel room at night, and since the hotel had hundreds of rooms, how many people would be required to monitor what was being said . . . and we had a few laughs making up nonsense phrases for the KGB’s edification.
 “We belong to the day,” as the Apostle Paul says, but that, unfortunately, is a description of life in the Kingdom of God and doesn’t describe our current world well. Would that it did. There, we don’t hide behind the cover of cyber-darkness to throw anonymous bombs. There, we sign our opinions, pronouncements and announcements. There, we don’t make up avatars to represent us. There we are more like Harper Bell’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the same in the street as we are at home.
There, there is no need for surveillance privileges that reach into the pockets of citizens to see what secrets are hidden there.
There, we belong to the day.
If our lives lack direction, then consider that there really is only one purpose, and that is to hasten that day when night is banished and we all are people of the day.
Or is that too much of a pipe dream?
(I apologize for the sermon; it got away on me.)   

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Liberal Democratic Green Party of Canada

Oh Canada
Our home and native land
Something I don’t generally do is pass on political agendas on this blog, but I’m one of 10,000 members of a growing community called LEADNOW which has set as its distant goal the reform of Canadian democracy and a more immediate goal of replacing the Conservative government in the next election.
                It’s my opinion that the brand of conservatism we’re seeing in the Harper government’s actions of late don’t reflect the wishes of the majority of Canadians and that the longer they are in power, the harder it will be to undo the ill-advised changes they are currently making. The pushing through of a shoddy, useless and expensive crime bill, the promise of rolling over environmental concerns to sell dirty oil to China, the deplorable handling of the Attawapiskat file, the sloppy way a discussion of pension reform is being introduced, the cancelling of the long gun registry, wasting our resources on jet fighters, the dictatorial method by which the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on wheat and barley sales was shut down, etc., etc., have convinced me that a change of government is urgent, and that this will only happen if the Liberals, NDP and Greens stop splitting the “liberal” vote and do basically what Reform and the PCs did in order to amass enough votes to create what we now see in the Conservative Party of Canada.
               Please take the time to read the appeal below and consider adding your voice to the growing demand for positive changes.


Dear friends,

If you're like us, you are deeply concerned about the state of our democracy, and looking for a way to make a difference.

Last week, we asked the community what they thought of the following statement:

“I call on the opposition party leaders to support political cooperation for electoral reform. During the next federal election, the NDP, Liberals and Greens should work together in key ridings to defeat Conservative incumbents. After the election, they should cooperate to pass electoral reform and make sure our government better reflects the values and priorities of all Canadians.”

The result was amazing. 95% of the 10,000 Leadnow members who responded said they supported the statement!

As both the NDP and Liberals search for new leaders, we have an urgent opportunity to show the potential party leaders that thousands of Canadians are ready to support a cooperative politics that will make our democracy better for all Canadians.

Click here to add your name to our urgent open letter calling on the opposition parties to cooperate to defeat this government and achieve electoral reform:

Cooperation is a major issue in these party elections, and your voice can make a big difference.

Thanks for all you do.

With hope and respect,

Jamie, Matthew, Anna, Emma, Adam, Gracen, Ryan on behalf of the team and volunteers. is an independent community that brings Canadians together to hold government accountable, deepen our democracy and take action for the common good.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Lives on Paper

A common gift for children years ago was a diary, a little book with a hard cover and a tiny lock and key that signaled to the whole world that the contents were secret. Most often, the gift was appreciated—for a few days—after which it lay unused in a drawer. The discipline of a keeping a daily diary is, I suspect, a gift that few have ever possessed.
            I spent a few hours in the Archives on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University last week. In particular, I was looking for the original diaries of Jacob D. Epp and Jacob Klaassen, both of which I had been reading recently. The former was my great great grandfather's, written between 1851 and 1885 in Ukrainian Russia; the latter was by a minister in my home church (Eigenheim, near Rosthern, Saskatchewan) roughly between 1920 and 1940. Both were written in handwritten Gothic German. Both have been transcribed into Latin cursive and then translated into English: laborious and time-consuming tasks.
            It’s evident that there existed a strong motivation to record the flow of daily events in these two men. It’s also evident that in the case of both diaries, a common style prevails; they are at the same time diary and journal. Diaries in that they include careful recordings of weather, farm work, seeding and harvests, illness and death, etc.; journals in that emotional, intellectual and spiritual responses to events are included. In the latter vein, they also served as confessionals: both Epp and Klaassen speak of their failures and weaknesses, ask God for forgiveness and pledge to do their best to be faithful servants. Both men see themselves as inadequate for the tasks God sets before them. Many entries end in a prayer for strength as well as for a blessing on families and church communities.
            In my family, the need to keep a diary or journal appears to have disappeared after emigration to Canada in 1893; there are, however diary scraps around from the 1900 – 1945 period in many families and some of these have also been translated and made available, mostly to family members. I journaled and published in limited quantity our MCC years in Europe (1986-89) but have never been able to settle down to that discipline since.
            It’s a shame, really. History ought to be more than the assessments of political affairs by historians. The diary/journal is a way of preserving the temper of the times, particularly as experienced by those who live them away from the centres of power and influence. Ordinary people in ordinary places living ordinary lives, something like that.
            So if I were a diarist like my great grandfather, my entry for today might look like this:
February 3, 2012: -2Another leisurely day in our extended stay in Winnipeg. We spent the morning packing for our return to Rosthern on Sunday. At noon, we picked up my sister Rosella and took her to the MCC bookstore on Henderson Highway where old friends from Thompson—Tony and Marie D. joined us for lunch and a long chat about old times and our respective children. During our stay here, we’ve become aware of how blessed we have been health-wise; many of our friends with whom we “were young” together are dealing with illness. Lord teach us again to be grateful for health and to respect the bodies you’ve given us so that we may be fruitful servants of the kingdom. Amen.
Would this be historically interesting, let alone useful? I wonder. I can't help thinking that the contemplation, the consideration before putting down words on paper must be formative for the individual, while serving down the years as a special vehicle to one's roots that has no real alternative.