This article, marking the 40th anniversary of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office in 2015, was written by Monica Scheifele and published on the Ottawa Notebook, the MCC Ottawa Office blog. Scheifele, originally from Waterloo, Ontario, served with MCC in the Maritimes for six years before working with the Ottawa Office from 1997 to 2019. Learn more about the Ottawa Office or check out the blog. (Top photo: Spring tulips bloom in Major’s Hill Park in Ottawa, next to the Parliament buildings in 2020. MCC photo/Anna Vogt)
We have been trying to get an avocado seed to sprout here at the office. We put it in water in January and have been faithfully watching it for four months. While it has cracked, there is still no sign of a sprout, but we haven’t given up on it. After all, the azalea that had not bloomed in over 12 years — and we were sure would never bloom again — surprised us in February with four beautiful white blossoms.
Sometimes you never know what to expect when you give something the opportunity to grow.
Forty years ago — on May 1, 1975 — MCC Canada took the bold step of opening an advocacy office in Ottawa, just a few steps from Parliament Hill. The seeds for such an office had been sown several years earlier with proposals, studies and debates around the question of a permanent organizational presence in Ottawa.
MCC photo/Anna Vogt
There were many arguments for and against the idea of an Ottawa Office, and no one quite knew if those seeds would take root. Even if they did manage to sprout, would they survive and flourish or wither away? Trying to grow anything in a political climate can be a challenge!
At the MCC Canada annual meeting in 1974, a resolution was passed for the establishment of an office in Ottawa for a three-year trial basis. An MCC Ottawa garden was planted with the hiring of a part-time director, Bill Janzen, and part-time office assistant, Anne Garber.
“There were many arguments for and against the idea of an Ottawa Office, and no one quite knew if those seeds would take root. Even if they did manage to sprout, would they survive and flourish or wither away?”
- Monica Scheifele
What has been growing in this advocacy garden on the Hill for the last 40 years?
A surprising number of blooms can be found blossoming in our two “gardens:” the political engagement garden (which involves direct advocacy to parliamentarians and civil servants) and the public engagement garden (which involves awareness-raising with constituents and supporters).
MCC photo/Erin Bader
Relationships in both gardens — with politicians, civil servants, other church and NGO groups and MCC constituents — have been carefully nurtured and cultivated over the years, providing a rich soil for growing advocacy. Thanks to the efforts of directors Bill Janzen, Chris Derksen-Hiebert, Paul Heidebrecht, Jennifer Wiebe and other staff, MCC has a positive reputation on Parliament Hill and among civil society groups.
Although some advocacy seeds have failed to germinate and others were choked out by weeds, we can point to many successful blooms in these gardens.
When the Canadian government was planning to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 1979 (a controversial move), representatives consulted with MCC because of MCC’s long-term presence and reputation in the region and due to the relationship officials in the Department of External Affairs had with MCC Ottawa Office.
Also in 1979, the Ottawa Office was instrumental in helping to negotiate a private sponsorship agreement, allowing churches to help resettle thousands of refugees to Canada. Between 1979 and 1985 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches sponsored nearly 5,000 refugees from Southeast Asia.
MCC photo/Rudy Regehr
In the political garden many seeds were planted around the citizenship issues for Low German-speaking Mennonites returning to Canada from other countries. Some grew quickly while others took many years to germinate and more than a few succumbed to political weeds.
When the world learned of famine in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the 1990s, the Ottawa Office asked the government for permission to use CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) funds for food aid to this isolated country. What a surprise to discover a former MCCer working at the Department of Foreign Affairs on the North Korea file! Permission was granted.
More recently, the Ottawa Office facilitated engagement with parliamentarians to re-instate federal funding for Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a program helping re-integrate incarcerated sex offenders back into society. This advocacy was successful in extending funding for a year.
MCC photo/Anna Vogt
On the agenda of mining justice or corporate social responsibility, seeds have struggled in the political garden, but have done quite well in the public engagement soil. Seeds planted around landmines also did well in both gardens with a treaty banning landmines bursting into bloom in 1997 and then “re-seeding” into a ban on cluster munitions and, very recently, a campaign to outlaw killer robots.
Many seeds were planted with the opening of the MCC Ottawa Office in 1975. Over 40 years later we continue to be amazed — and gratified — by the surprising blossoms that emerge.