On the Possibility of a Nonviolent Nation

Last night Karen Ridd opened up our lecture series with “Swimming Upstream: Being Nonviolent in a Violent World.” Her presentation was by turns enchanting, engaging, challenging, and inspiring. One thing that came up several times, perhaps given that I was hosting the event, is how nonviolence relates to a national stance on ISIS and foreign policy in general. I’ve spent much of today thinking about this. It’s wonderful for individuals to practice nonviolence, but is it possible as a national policy?

Karen talked about the distinction between using nonviolent action and being nonviolent as a way of life (there are many people who would, say, go on strike, without actually committing to nonviolence in any other situation, much less as an ongoing approach to conflict), but in terms of actually executing a nonviolent approach I think it can happen in two ways. First, we can choose to make ourselves weak so that we cannot do any harm; and second, we can maintain our power while exercising restraint. Either can be done by an individual, and either can be done by a nation. Let’s take a look.

My favourite exemplar in regard to most important issues is Jesus, and this case is no different. Jesus made himself “weak” by taking on human flesh in all of its frailty: the God of the universe, eternal spirit, became vulnerable to the elements, hunger, abuse, and even death. He chose weakness in order to empathize and express solidarity with the weak. Vulnerability is a powerful aspect of nonviolent action; Karen’s stories about the effective use of nonviolent direct action were almost all about little old ladies. Nonviolent action tends to rely on exposing injustice, and there is little that is more obviously unjust than violent treatment of the vulnerable. In that way, choosing vulnerability can create a degree of safety while at the same time appealing to the best in our opponents, humanizing them even while we humanize ourselves by exposing our vulnerability.

At the same time, while Jesus became vulnerable he remained incredibly powerful. When he was arrested by an entire detachment of soldiers, Peter pulled out a sword to try to defend him; Jesus not only told Peter to stand down (and healed the soldier Peter had injured), but reminded Peter that he could have called on a legion of angels at any moment. During his arrest, his trial, and even his execution, Jesus retained the power to destroy his enemies, and yet chose to forgive them instead. His concern for the well-being of even his enemies led him to exercise restraint on that power. That’s what made Jesus’ refusal to use violence so powerful: weakness in itself is no virtue, but exercising restraint most certainly is.

So it’s possible for an individual to choose nonviolence either by choosing to be vulnerable or weak, or by exercising careful restraint of the power he or she has. But what about a nation? Is it possible to be nonviolent in either way? Not only is it possible, but there are clear examples of both.

Costa Rica has not had a standing army since 1948. They have a small armed guard probably more similar to the RCMP than to an army, and they contribute to international peacekeeping, but that’s it. As a nation, they have chosen not to have a military. They have made themselves vulnerable. Since then they have not had any war, even civil war, in spite of the revolutions that occurred throughout the region in the 1980s. Some people may write this off as a benefit of being allies with nations like the US and Canada whose military capabilities make up for Costa Rica’s lack, but perhaps that’s part of the point: a nation without a significant armed force must use other foreign policy tools, and making allies with other nations is an important one. If Canada were to reduce our military capabilities we would be less quick to enter into wars and would rely much more on diplomacy and trade to settle our disputes. By making ourselves vulnerable in one way, we could build on other strengths (and frankly, we’ve always been better at diplomacy than at warfare).

The other example is Switzerland. As gun advocates love to point out, nearly everyone in Switzerland has a gun and knows how to use it. This is because military service is mandatory in Switzerland (for males starting at 19). The amazing thing is, even though every single (male) Swiss citizen is (at least in theory) ready to go to war (their military force per capita is the second largest in the world, after the Israeli Defence Forces), they haven’t violently participated in a war in almost 150 years. Even during the World Wars, their participation took the form of economic and nonviolent tactics. They have an international reputation for neutrality, and therefore as a place to meet for discussion rather than battle; and they contribute to peacekeeping efforts around the world. They pose no threat to anyone in spite of their great power, and they present the world with opportunities for nonviolent conflict resolution.

The Green Party’s plan is somewhere between these two models. We would reduce Canada’s military to a functional defensive force, redirecting funding and personnel toward new forces that focus on disaster relief, and restoring our place as one of the main contributors to the UN Peacekeeping forces. As climate change gets worse, environmental issues will spark conflict. Clean water reserves are depleting worldwide as glaciers recede and sea levels rise, for example. Canada’s ability to respond quickly with humanitarian aid and disaster relief will help prevent conflicts from arising in such situations; and our Peacekeepers will help provide security and space for diplomacy to work in situations where conflict does arise. At the same time, our lack of a significant standing army will give credibility to our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, and nobody will suspect ulterior motives or fear a humanitarian mission may turn into an invasion force.

Our ability to do good in the world and humanize others is our greatest defence. Promoting peace is more powerful than the ability to win wars. Through a combination of deliberate vulnerability and restraint, and a refocusing on meeting the needs of others, Canadian foreign policy can be nonviolent in very significant ways without leaving Canada defenceless. Then we can restore the reputation that I grew up with, our former international renown for promoting peace.

Join us next Friday for our second lecture in the series: “Embracing Diversity: Living an Enriched Life Within Canada’s Borders” with Wendy Peterson!

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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On the Cusp of Greatness

Yesterday was Canada Day, and a very busy day across the country. I attended community events, talked with strangers, collected some signatures, and most of all, reflected on what I was seeing. I deeply and dearly love Canada, but on a day all about loving Canada, I wondered why. Why do I love this nation? Allow me to explain.

Canada Day is a time for nationalism, sentimentality, and political speeches. At Steinbach’s Mennonite Heritage Village there were speeches from the MP, the MLA, the Mayor, and the Reeve of the surrounding municipality, one after another. Each of them repeated the phrase “Canada is the greatest country in the world,” some with gusto, others with solemnity. I heard the same words from Stephen Harper on the radio afterward, in a clip from the celebrations in Ottawa. I tend to agree, Canada is great – but what does that mean? How are we great?

The thing that caught my attention, that made me question our seemingly obvious greatness, was the comments of a speaker from the Mennonite Heritage Village. He also said that Canada is great, but he said something else that stood out. He pointed out that when Mennonites first came to Canada they were promised the ability to run their own schools and teach their children in German, with their own curriculum. Not too long after that, however, the Canadian government decided that they must use Provincial curriculum, in English. Many Mennonites moved on to South America to maintain their cultural freedom, but many stayed. And in spite of this betrayal by the Canadian government of that day, this speaker didn’t think that any of the Mennonites who stayed in Canada would wish today that they had moved on, or returned to places like Ukraine and Russia. He’s probably right, but I immediately felt that his repetition of the Canada Day mantra, “Canada is great,” was different from the other speakers. They all spoke about Canada today, our position in the G7, the great things our current government is doing, etc., so that “Canada is great” sounded like self-congratulation; he spoke about the past, and in a way that caused his “Canada is great” to sound like a hope, or even a compromise. Like Canada is great because things turned out okay, but it’s great in spite of past double-dealing and conflict.

But not everything has turned out great for all Canadians. Some conflicts continue. Is Canada great for everyone?

Each of the speakers commented on the number of immigrants and new citizens at the event, noting how this Canada Day must be extra special for them as newcomers. I met a man in the park yesterday who is trying to improve his English quickly enough to renew his work permit, so that eventually he can get Permanent Resident status and continue on the long road to citizenship. I know enough newcomers to Canada to know that achieving citizenship is a powerful, joyful event, and that Canada Day has a different significance for someone who cannot take their citizenship for granted. But that’s just it: many newcomers cannot take their Canadian citizenship for granted, even after they’ve achieved it, because of a new law that allows the immigration minister to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens. Also, not all newcomers receive as warm of a welcome as the ones celebrating at the Heritage Village yesterday: the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has been quite vocal in his opposition to the idea that a woman whose face is covered as an expression of her religious beliefs can take an oath of citizenship. Pledging allegiance to Canada is not enough, apparently; new Canadians must also express their faith in ways that align with someone else’s view of what Canadians should do.

That’s now, but Canada’s history of cultural assimilation goes back to before there was a Canada. Several articles online yesterday reminded me that Canada Day is not a day of celebration for our First Nations, whose history predates Canada’s by centuries. Canada is one of the richest nations in the world, it’s true, but our privileges are not shared by our Indigenous citizens, who were systematically stripped of their land, rights, and culture. To them, Canada Day is a celebration of the subjugation and disenfranchisement of their people, which remains an ongoing struggle. Mennonites were once betrayed by Canada, but now enjoy its benefits; First Nations are still betrayed by Canada, subject to the patriarchal Indian Act and the general refusal of the Canadian government to acknowledge and act upon the treaties signed so long ago. Is Canada really great? Were we ever?

Yet I have hope. Several years ago, the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of the government for enacting the Residential School system that took so many Indigenous children from their families with the goal to “kill the Indian in the child.” Recently the Premier of Manitoba apologized on behalf of the Province for the “Sixties Scoop,” in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted by white families in Canada, the US, and the UK. And we’ve also recently celebrated the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a powerful report about the extent of the abuse that First Nations have suffered at the hands of colonialist Canada. Survivors have had a chance to tell their stories, and we’ve had a chance to listen, and mourn with them.

Sharing stories gives our Indigenous people a chance to heal, but it doesn’t change the current situation. Apologies are an important symbolic step, but they haven’t led to any changes in the status quo. On one hand, they’re even quite negative: they remind us that, from the perspective of our vulnerable people, Canada has rarely been anywhere near “greatness.” But reports and apologies are incredibly important, because they give us a glimpse of what Canada could be. They give us a glimpse of Canada’s true greatness.

We are on the cusp of that greatness.

Canada is not great, but we’re so close that we can taste it. We’ve always been there, on the brink, able to see and celebrate the best in us even if it’s just out of our grasp. The Canada I so deeply love is not the Canada that was, or even the Canada that is (though they each have their moments), but the Canada that may yet be.

We’re not perfect, and we never have been. We’ve been downright awful at (far too many) times, but we’ve always been just a choice or two away from doing the right thing. We signed treaties, some of them in bad faith and some of them in good faith, and either way we have failed to honour them. But even to this day we remain just one or two good choices away from doing the right thing and making good on our old promises. We can honour the treaties, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on multiculturalism, but we press our newest citizens to conform to our ways of life and dress. We can be a truly multicultural nation, welcoming outsiders and celebrating difference, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on our international reputation as peacemakers and peacekeepers, yet we’ve reduced our involvement in the UN (we invented UN Peacekeepers, and used to contribute up to 3,300 at a time; now there are 34) and increased our involvement in NATO and interventionist wars on the other side of the world. We’ve pulled out of climate treaties, and frustrated the processes of international climate talks so much that we’ve been the repeated recipients of the ironic “colossal fossil” award. Our reputation has become more tied to the oil economy than to the natural beauty, conscience, and compassion that once defined us around the world. Yet we still have a place at the international table, we still have the ability to be leaders in peacemaking and care of the earth, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

I could go on. We are always, and have always been, at the cusp of greatness. I can see what it would look like for Canada to truly be the “greatest country in the world” as so many politicians said yesterday, and it’s because of that vision that I love Canada. It’s because of that vision of peace, justice, compassion, and honour that I continue to work toward those good choices, to try to bring out the best in our nation, to unlock that greatness. We’re not that great, yet, but we could be.

Today is the day after Canada Day, the day after the celebration of our greatness. Let’s make it the day we get to work, to build a better Canada that builds on the wrongs of the past by righting them, so that we can someday earn the title of “the greatest country in the world.”

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

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