PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


The View from Beyond the Empire by peaceprobe
July 7, 2006, 12:12 pm
Filed under: Politics of Empire

About the time I moved to Northwestern Ontario last year from Chicago a Walmart opened outside our town, Fort Frances. For most of the town’s century long existence, since Canada and the British Empire circled the imperial wagon around the native population here, Fort Frances has survived by a single industry, timber. For years what local people refer to as the mill was owned on and off by Americans who also owned a partner mill 100 yards across the Rainy River border in International Falls. There has been a some friction at the border over the years. That friction reminds peacemakers that the work of building culture of peace remains incomplete. 

I like to try to shop at the locally owned stores in Ft. Frances’ main business thoroughfare, Scott Street. Shortly after I moved here I went to buy some craft supplies. After looking through the available items I was not completely satisfied so I asked the owner if he had a better fit in another area of the store. He looked at me with a long sad look face and said. “We can’t compete with the evil empire. Since Walmart arrived we can hardly make it.” 

A few days later my neighbor dropped by for a chat. He is head of the Rainy River Cattle Association, a group of some 230 beef cattle growers in the region. I asked how things were going with the cattle people. “We can’t compete with the “evil empire!”Then he explained, “Since the mad cow disease was discovered in Western Canada, 1000 miles from us, the US government has prevented us from selling our beef in the US. We don’t have a market for our beef. Would you like to buy some from me?” . 

Since I settled here in Northwestern Ontario, several lumber mills in the region have closed. Environmentalists and native people are happy because this means less clear cutting and general destruction of the boreal forest but workers and the middle class professionals are scared because most of the population of Fort Frances and nearby towns are dependent directly and indirectly on timber. This fear is exacerbated by another problem, sales of softwood lumber to the US. It turns out that despite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the US government has slapped a significant import duty on softwood lumber to protect the American lumber industry. Softwood lumber comes from trees like aspen, the first trees that grow in a clear-cut, or burnt over forest. Softwood lumber is usually chipped in highly mechanized mills to be used for products, like chipboard in the construction industry. Canada has argued that the tariff is illegal under NAFTA and has won its case twice in international arbitration forums but the US government refused to comply and the tariff continues. This is why still another neighbor who works in timber referred to the country to the south as the “evil empire”. 

Canadians are pretty good at distinguishing between individual Americans and the way in which the government and corporations from the United States slosh over the border grabbing this market, that tree, another mineral, and some fish. Outfitters and resort owners who organize the fishing and hunting expeditions for the people with big pick up trucks and boats are upset right now because it is getting harder for Americans cross the border. Perhaps in retaliation, Canadian immigration officials (No one will say that it is related to the various border conflicts with the evil empire or 9/11.) are now turning back any tourists and hunter/fishermen from entering Canada who have a DUI (driving under the influence) on their traffic record going back dozens of years. Yes, Canadian immigration has access to all American arrest records, including civil disobedience.

Empires write and implement the laws in a way the gives maximum benefit to their citizens, especially their corporate citizens. Local needs and culture are expected to submit. When the laws or international agreements don’t work in their interest, empires can afford to ignore them. When little people ignore the custom and law they are called anarchists or taken to court. When empires and their corporations ignore law and custom, local people and institutions just have to live with it. Or as another neighbor said the other day, “When you live so close to the “evil empire” you have to accept the fact that they will get their way and determine the timing for any depute resolution.” Come to think of it, this isn’t a lot different from they way bullies behaved in the school yard.

In 2002 when the great discussions about Weapons of Mass Destruction was circling the globe some of our friends here in Canada put together a WMD team to go to the US with the hope of making a fair assessment of the existence and potential danger of WMD in the United States. The group didn’t get very far and soon dropped off the radar of the peace chat lines. But it was a good idea that needed peace church support all across the US, and if sustained, may have really led to some fresh invitations for change. 

I suspect that none of the items I have identified here in this forgotten outpost of North America will even get on your list of peacemaking projects. The point I am trying to make is that if we take the time to listen in our local communities and in other nations, we will see clear identifiable packages of peacemaking opportunity. It takes a little time to decode language like “evil empire” but when you do, you discover real people with real legitimate needs. Most nations have a longer list than Canada. Try listening to people in Iraq, for example. Forget labels made-in the USA – profit incentive, economic growth, terrorism – just listen to the needs people are trying to identify behind the emotional outburst, “evil empire”.

But listening is not enough. Peacemakers will find common ground with the people who feel pushed out or unheard, and will figure out a way to love and nudge the bully captains into a new direction that will contribute to a larger culture of nonviolence.

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