Will Trudeau boost Mennonite causes?

Will Braun, Senior Writer

When a provincial election brought a wave of optimism to Manitoba—or at least parts of it—in 1999, a colleague said, “Yep, the reign of God should descend upon us any time now.”

So what might the change in Ottawa mean for a few issues of particular concern to Mennonites with the Liberals in power and Markham-Stouffville MP Jane Philpott, a member of Community Mennonite Church, Stouffville, Ont., appointed as the new Minister of Health?

Social values

Traditionally, Mennonites have cared about conservative social issues, such as abortion and same-sex rights. But Conservatives dropped those battles years ago, so change is a moot point.

Aid

Canada's official development assistance budget has sunk to 0.24 percent of Gross National Income, far below the 0.7 percent goal set in 1969 by a United Nations commission led by the late Lester Pearson, a former Liberal prime minister. Will Justin Trudeau live up to Pearson's ideal? During the campaign, Liberal Party president Anna Gainey said the party "will aspire to reach this allocation," noting that “[Trudeau], in particular, is strongly committed to Canada fulfilling this obligation." Good intentions, but no commitment.

The Liberal platform does commit to refocus aid on “the poorest and most vulnerable,” reversing a Conservative trend toward blending aid with commercial, political and ideological goals.

Jennifer Wiebe, who directs the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ottawa Office, says she'll be watching for reassessment of Canada's list of 25 priority countries to include fewer middle-income nations.

Justice

None of the 100-plus categories in the online version of the Liberal platform is devoted to justice issues. There is nothing, for instance, about Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), the bold and innovative program struggling to survive after being largely dropped by Ottawa. Last year, there were 16 CoSA organizations across Canada, many with Mennonite ties. They match released high-risk sex offenders with volunteers who provide friendship and accountability.

The CoSA offices had received about $650,000 annually from Correctional Service Canada (CSC). Public Safety Canada had also funded a $7.5-million demonstration project that allowed for significant expansion of the programs between 2009 and 2014. That project proved the program to be effective at reducing re-offences and saving government money. Despite that, last year Ottawa cut about half of the $650,000 and offered nothing to replace the demonstration project funding.

Eileen Henderson, who heads CoSA work for MCC Ontario, says four of the 16 CoSA organizations no longer function and the others are struggling to stay alive. She is hopeful the new government will shift its justice focus from punishment to rehabilitation and reintegration.

In addition to funding, she will be looking for greater dialogue with decision makers and sustainable funding for community-based organizations, so they can focus on their work, rather than paying bills.

Refugees

One photograph had all parties suddenly scrambling to appear responsive to refugee concerns in September. The Liberals promised to bring 25,000 government-sponsored refugees from Syria and Iraq to Canada by year's end. Practicalities may be a challenge, but it is clearly part of a shift.

Among various promises to make it easier, faster and cheaper to become Canadian, the Liberals committed to reinstate health coverage for people in the immigration process, reversing a Conservative move that stung refugee claimants and sponsors.

Brian Dyck, who serves as MCC Canada’s director for its migration and resettlement program, will be watching to see whether overall refugee settlement targets rise, or whether Syrians will simply fill existing limits, displacing others. Over the long term, Dyck wonders how humanitarian immigration—primarily refugees as opposed to other immigrants—will fit in the overall immigration plan.

War

The Liberals have committed to “maintain current National Defence spending levels,” although they will opt for something cheaper than the F-35 stealth fighter jets the Conservatives had on order. They have made vague commitments to increase Canada's role in UN peacekeeping missions, something former prime minister Stephen Harper had nearly eliminated. And of course, Trudeau has said he will end the combat mission in Iraq, while still training local forces. 

Kairos

Kairos, the national ecumenical organization best known for having its funding abruptly cut by the Conservatives, is hoping for change. In an e-mail, Kairos director Jennifer Henry said that at the time their funding was nixed, “assurances were made to [Kairos] from all opposition parties that they would restore funding.” She hopes the new government will “honour this commitment.”

The chill

Church organizations and aid agencies have felt the threat of Ottawa coming after them if they publicly ruffled Conservative feathers. That has changed. Julia Sánchez, head of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, said via e-mail: “Our sense and our expectation is that the chill is off.” She added that organizations have become so “used to self-censoring over the past few years” that it may take time to readjust.

Wiebe points to the section of the Liberal platform that says the party will “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment.” The platform refers to “an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.”

Let me exercise this new freedom to say the Liberals, like other parties, pandered to the financial self-interest of voters as much as they invoked a broader vision for society. Still, the new government may well extend its sunshine to some of “the least of these.” Mennonites will be there to encourage and collaborate.

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