Trevor Herriot, Towards a Prairie Atonement

Writer, naturalist and activist Trevor Herriot says settlers have much to learn from First Peoples about living in harmony with the land and with one another.
Trevor Herriot speaks in Ottawa. Photo by Dennis Gruending.

In April,  I was invited by the Canadian Council of Churches to interview the well-known writer, naturalist and activist Trevor Herriot. Members of the CCC’s Commission on Justice and Peace were meeting in Ottawa and asked Trevor to address them during an all-day meeting. They believe, correctly, that Trevor has much to say about living sustainably and with justice in our environment. Continue reading Trevor Herriot, Towards a Prairie Atonement

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.

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.”

Medicare’s 50th anniversary, it’s biblical

Tommy Douglas, proposed medicare

We are approaching an important anniversary in Canada, which doesn’t appear to be getting the same amount of attention as are events to celebrate the War of 1812. It was on July 1, 1962 that publicly administered and financed medical care came into existence in Saskatchewan – it has since become known throughout as medicare. On the same day, Saskatchewan’s doctors went on strike, an action that caused controversy, fear, even hysteria in the province. There ensued a bitter 23-day standoff with doctors and the Canadian medical establishment, supported by the Liberal opposition and almost the entire Saskatchewan media, arraigned against the CCF government of Woodrow Lloyd and its allies in the labour and farm movements and citizens’ support groups. The strike ended on July 23 and the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act was passed during a special sitting of the legislature in August.

Justice Emmett Hall

By 1964, a federal Royal Commission led by Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall had recommended the Saskatchewan model for all of Canada. In 1968, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson passed legislation enabling provinces to introduce publicly funded and administered health care. All provinces eventually did so.

Transcends politics

Roy Romanow, after he retired as Saskatchewan’s premier, led another Royal Commission into Health Care in 2001-02. Romanow was fond of saying that medicare transcended politics because eventually it won support from all political parties in Canada. It was conceived under a CCF government in Saskatchewan led by Tommy Douglas, and was later introduced and implemented by Woodrow Lloyd, who became premier in 1961 when Douglas left to lead the newly-created New Democratic Party. It was Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who appointed Judge Hall (who had previously been active as a Conservative) to the Royal Commission on Health Services. And it was a Liberal government led by Lester Pearson that implemented Hall’s recommendations.

Minority opinions

Romanow is right but there has always been a minority opinion that chafes under the reality that a good portion of health care in Canada is provided as a public good rather than a private commodity. Many Conservatives in the 1960s, including former Justice Minister Davie Fulton, were both surprised and unhappy with the recommendations of Justice Hall’s Royal Commission. Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp and other of Lester Pearson’s cabinet ministers in the 1960s attempted, unsuccessfully, to prevent the federal government from introducing the plan. Some premiers, including Alberta’s Ernest Manning, were unenthusiastic as well. But the federal government’s offer to share the costs of medicare on a 50-50 basis was too good a deal to refuse. The federal contribution accounts for a much lower percentage today.

There have always been politicians who would like to undercut the principles and features of medicare. They include former Premiers Mike Harris and Ralph Klein, the Reform Party in its early stages, and also a younger Stephen Harper. Has he changed his spots?  These points of view have had both research and propaganda arms in organizations such as the Fraser Institute.

It is the enduring support of medicare by ordinary Canadians that has prevented widespread experiments with privatization or the provision of parallel public services, where those who can pay can jump the queue.  I have, however, had a pollster try to convince me that it is not medicare as a concept that people support but rather the fact that they, as individuals, don’t have to pay out-of-pocket when they visit a doctor or are hospitalized. The same pollster said that Canadians vary little from Americans in their views on health care – they look at what is in it for them rather perceiving public health care as being in the interest of the common good.  I remain unconvinced of this analysis.

Serves us well

Our public health care system has served us well. I have experienced it close up during some encounters with pesky gall stones in the past month. The health care that I received was admirable other than a several hour wait in the hospital emergency room when I first went in. I am aware that there are longer waiting lists for conditions that are not acute. There are stories and statistics about long waits for procedures such as knee replacements and if you live in Ottawa, for example, it is a long wait to see a dermatologist. The system needs improvements but on balance we have good health care and it is available to everyone.

The costs

We are often told that we cannot afford public health care. Admittedly, there is a need to find new efficiencies and to spend more wisely. But let’s compare alternatives. In 2008, the United States spent an amount equivalent to 17% of its Gross Domestic Product on health care. In Canada, we spent 9.7% of GDP in the same year. In 2009, about 49 million Americans, or 16% of the population, did not have any health insurance. In Canada, everyone has coverage. 


Janet Sommerville, a former chair of the Canadian Council of Churches, has written, “The principles guiding our health care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by God’s word in Scripture.”

Rubbing their toes

The federal government has plans this summer to spend $28 million commemorating the War of 1812, but no plans as far as I know to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the introduction of medicare. I’ll take a pass on the parades, the air force fly overs and the military re-enactments of border skirmishes between British forces and Canadian militia against the Americans.

I’ll go down to Parliament Hill where they have statues of former prime ministers. I’ll rub the toe on the shoes of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker and if the statue of Tommy Douglas were there, I would rub the toe on his shoe as well. Thanks guys.

Elizabeth May, churches and climate change

In October 2011, the leaders of about 30 faith communities met in Ottawa to talk about the urgent need to take a stand on climate change as a moral issue. These deliberations were organized by the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Canadian Council of Churches. The faith leaders crafted and released an interfaith call for action in advance of an international conference in Durban, South Africa. They held a news conference, lobbied politicians on Parliament Hill and created a petition that MPs could table in the House of Commons. Recently about 100 people, including Green party leader Elizabeth May and three other MPs, gathered in a meeting room near the Hill for a panel discussion about whether last October’s interfaith call is having an impact. Continue reading Elizabeth May, churches and climate change