Judith Robinson is a regular contributor to the Business Times serving Kitchener/Waterloo, Guelph and Cambridge. For seven years, she was a regional reporter for the Globe & Mail, covering northern Ontario. She has also freelanced for numerous publications including Quill & Quire, Education Forum, The United Church Observer, and Mandate Magazine.

Recent Publications

The Bard Speaks to Business Leader

Revitalizing City's Cultural Core

Corporate Funds Set the Stage for Artistic Success

Leadership - Empowering Everyday People

Mandate Magazine - Offering Sanctuary

The Bard Speaks to Business Leaders

 Graham Abbey takes the ‘Timeless Lessons’ of Shakespeare
 and brings them to the boardroom.

           “The great thing about Shakespeare,” says Graham Abbey, “is that you always have something to learn.” The young actor, who is currently playing Macbeth at the Stratford Festival said that he is “always humbled in the face of these great roles” and challenged by “these great parts.”

Shakespeare had a profound effect on the Abbey’s life. He got a political science degree at Queen’s University, and was about to enter law school at Osgoode Hall, when Shakespeare’s words called out to him. “I knew I had to get out there and tell stories. People love a great story, and Shakespeare’s stories are epic,” he said.

          Abbey makes it his mission to spread Shakespeare everywhere  – even to the business community. He believes that the plays empower people, with a new sense of vision, and self-understanding.

Abbey, and several of his fellow actors, voice and movement coaches, have been conducting workshops for business leaders, at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, and around southern Ontario, since 2000.

          Abbey says that the “Timeless Lessons” workshops, organized by Janus Global Consulting Inc. of Kingston Ontario, are forming a bridge between the artistic and business communities. He calls these twice yearly sessions “bonding experiences” for the actors and the executives. “We know so little about each others worlds,” he said. “We’re learning from each other.”

“Graham Abbey has been very much an asset in the delivery of the programs,” Janus president, Gerry Duda, commented. “Shakespeare had a lot to say in his plays about human nature – things that you won’t get out of a business textbook – deeper lessons about how to build alliances, how to understand people, and how to grow, change and adapt. He teaches people to think outside the organizational box.”

The Timeless programs were developed in consultation with Richard Olivier, the late Sir Laurence Olivier’s son, who delivers similar seminars at the Old Globe Theatre. Janus’ Felicity Somerset met with Olivier’s colleagues in London, England, to discuss the seminars he runs, in conjunction with the Cranfield School of Management.

Over 700 senior managers, and 37 companies have taken Duda’s Shakespearean workshops over the past four years. “We prefer no more than 50 at a time, but a year ago we had 200,” he said. “That required three facilitators and two actors.” The sessions run anywhere from 3 hours to three days depending on the needs of the company.

Duda is currently attempting to arrange a workshop for 40 to 50 CEO’s from across North America, in Stratford, in 2005. “We could really reach a lot of people through the CEO’s,” he said.

          In the year 2001, Abbey took a central role in the “Timeless Lessons” by exploring with the business executives, the process Prince Hal went through before he became King Henry V – both roles Abbey played at the Festival that year. The participants became Henry’s army, inspired by his call to arms before the battle at Agincourt – the one Winston Churchill used to rouse the troops during WWII.

Abbey said that actors and business leaders may have more in common than they realize.

Managers must be taught how to overcome stage fright, in the same way that a young actor must learn to control their anxiety, and present a strong front. Leaders and actors must learn how to connect to people in a physical sense, how to have an authentic presence, and how to engage their bodies in their work.

“Leaders and actors both need to engage their audiences in authentic and truthful ways,” Duda commented. “Actors need to find their character in themselves otherwise their performance may ring hollow. As one participant said at one our Timeless Lessons sessions ‘If leaders are not essentially truthful, others can smell the BS factor’. This is a lesson for all leaders especially political leaders.”

           “Leaders like actors have many roles to play,” Duda said.  “In Daniel Golman's 1995 best selling book, Emotional Intelligence Golman argues that human competencies like self-awareness, self-discipline, persistence and empathy are of greater consequence than IQ in much of life. Golman's argues that Emotionally Intelligent leaders are called upon to exercise different roles in a truthful and engaging way depending on the situation - sometimes effective leaders are tough minded and at other times compassionate. Shakespeare knew something about this over 400 years ago.”

          This is witnessed in Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage” speech, Duda continued, from As You Like It, 2.7, where he says “all men and women merely players: they all have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts."

          Both actors and leaders must be credible, a factor Shakespeare noted as the music in ourselves. In the Merchant of Venice 5:1, Duda cites, that the bard reveals that no man should be trusted who does not have “the music in himself”, or in other words, doesn’t ring true.

Both an actor and an executive, must learn to understand the ways in which they present their ideas, and to find new and innovative ways of clearly communicating, in order to break away from the pack, receive proper recognition, and make it to the top.

What inner factors did Prince Hal have that would make him a good model for a 21st Century leader? “He made himself one of the group,” Abbey said, unlike Macbeth, who stands alone. “Macbeth was a real loner. You have to go down a dark tunnel to play him. It permeates into my outside life. It isolates me. He’s a model of how not to lead.”

          So how did Abbey himself, make it to the top, and land the coveted role of Macbeth, at the tender age of 33? He is years younger than the actors who played Macbeth before him at the Festival.

What is there about this man that caused him to be chosen above more seasoned actors? Abbey has clearly transformed the role of Macbeth, and director John Wood, must have seen the freshness he would bring to the part.

Abbey softens Macbeth. He makes him human. He creates a character that people care about. He presents a talented, intense, insane creature who is more sick than evil -  more schizophrenic than manipulative – fragile, horrifying and wonderful.

This is a modern man – a feeling man –who is pressured to get to the top - forced to stand alone - having to let go of relationships to reach the pinnacle of power and success - surrounded by people who want to congratulate him or kill him, and he doesn’t know which. It is lonely at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, and Abbey conveys this brilliantly - an overwhelming sense of alienation, loneliness, of despair.

Abbey softens Macbeth into a schizophrenic wonderland of images and shadows, only he can see. He is the man next door, who has worked too hard, and made terrible decisions. He is the man who spent his whole life on the commuter train talking to himself, and never reaching his destination. He is the hollow man of T. S. Elliot - lost, disconnected, driven -  in a landscape where nothing is solid and secure.

This is a man living with fear, as a pulsating entity – that he has shaped into witches and ghosts. He becomes disheveled, like the wardrobe he wears, into tatters and wrinkles. No one has entered the character of fear, and darkness, and Macbeth, more deeply than this gentle man. He walks bravely, deeply into the heart of darkness.

“This play is like an hour glass,” Abbey said. “It starts with the sand up top, and grains keep pouring through. From the third scene on, it’s downhill all the way.”

Abbey off stage, is not like Macbeth. He resembles King Hal: intelligent, gregarious, great sense of humour, well-spoken. He knows when to be silent and when to speak. He listens well. He is well-liked by his fellow artists. He is gentle and kind, and has a certain sense of humility. He is the kind of guy you could trust, with a sincere interest in other people.

          “Follow your heart,” Abbey advises those considering acting as a profession. He loves to go into schools and bring his love of Shakespeare to the students. “You have to take the academia out of Shakespeare,” he said. “These plays are meant to be heard, not read. The best teachers have their students act out the roles.”        

 “I will always come back to Shakespeare. I may not always be performing Shakespeare, but I will always come back. The magic is in the words. These are epic stories, and they have the power to transform.”

          Do these epic stories have the power to transform the business world? The man with the mission believes they do.

          Macbeth is on at the Festival Theatre until October 30th. Graham Abbey will also play King Henry VIII in King Henry VIII (All is True) from August 14th to October 29th. For more information contact the Stratford Festival at www.stratfordfestival.ca or 1-800-567-1600.

Return to Articles List

Revitalizing City’s Cultural Core

Theatre is one way of drawing people to Cambridge’s downtown.

          How are live theatre companies born? Through years of artistic trial and error? Dreams? Lofty imaginings? Think again. Theatre Cambridge was the brainchild of two marketing executives from the Strategic Committee of Cambridge Tourism.

          “We were looking for other ways to bring people into town,” Ken Wright, a retired marketing executive for The Financial Post and Telemedia said. “I wasn’t so much committed to theatre. I was committed to the town,” he said.

          The Shaw and The Stratford Festivals have brought millions of dollars into their relative economies,” he said. “In Stratford, it’s a factor of 12,” he stated. “For every dollar spent in ticket sales, another $12 goes into the town.  Theatre Cambridge last year used a factor of 2. This year we’re hoping for 3 or 4.”

          And Niagara on the Lake’s commercial real estate now rents for $100 a square foot, the same rate as Toronto’s,” he said. Cambridge’s rate is currently only $25 pr $30 a square foot – a factor he is hoping Theatre Cambridge will improve.

          “There was a 200% increase in restaurant revenues in the downtown area during the two weeks that Theatre Cambridge ran last year,” he stated.

          The other half of the dynamic duo who founded the company, is the Director of Sales & Marketing for the Holiday Inn in Cambridge, Tiziana Fathers. The two have called Cambridge home for several decades, and have known each other for many years.

“We realized there was virtually nothing going on in theatre in the summer in the region,” she said. Initially we thought we could attract a professional theatre company, but then we realized we had to develop one.”

          “We did a lot of market research and presented it to The Cambridge Downtown Business Improvement Association,” Fathers said. The body decided Theatre Cambridge was a worthwhile venue and was the first to donate money targeted toward improving the downtown. The city followed.

          Very early on, the dynamic duo brought in Market Force Communications, a local marketing firm, to create an image and identity for the company. Fathers said she is thrilled with the outcome.

          Fathers and Wright approached George Joyce, a retired Cambridge high school drama teacher and part-time professional actor and director. He enthusiastically accepted the challenge of setting up a company, and brought in his friend from Toronto, fellow actor and director, Walter Young. They are currently the only year-round paid employees, in the role of co artistic directors.

          Originally the four formed the board, then a full board was brought in, and the four remained as a management group reporting to the board. Wright and Fathers are currently volunteer Presidents/Chairmen of the Board/General Managers.

          Preparations were in the making for last summer’s opening a year and a half before it happened. There was a year spent in strategic planning, and then six months in actual preparation for last year’s only show – “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in which Joyce played the lead role, and Young played a secondary role.

          “I thought it was important that Walter and I get our faces out there – so people could see we have some talent, Joyce said. “And I wanted to make a splash with a big show that would say there’s something important here.” The show used 19 actors to play 37 characters.

420 actors auditioned from all over North America.

          “And we wanted to hire some people from Waterloo County, so that we didn’t come across as a bunch of professionals from Toronto coming down to show the local yocals how to do it,” Joyce stated. “I’ve been connected to the community for 30 years.”

          Meanwhile Fathers and Wright were working the bar and concession, and introducing the shows, for every performance of the run. “We moved mountains last year. We were running literally on adrenaline. That’s what dreams are made of,” Fathers commented. “There was a resolve among the four of us that was unwavering.” Due to Herculean efforts, the shows were 92% sold.

In the summer of 2004, the season will expand to four plays: Barefoot in the Park,

Nunsense, Wrong for Each Other, and Over the River and Through the Woods – all reasonably light entertainment. “We’re not Shaw and we’re not Stratford but we’re not farce either. We’ve found a nice niche somewhere in between,” Fathers stated.

          “The mandate is loose,” Young said. “We haven’t been around long enough to see what the demographic is going to be like.” Each season will have a theme, with this summer’s being “Matters of the Heart”, he said.

          Young plans to take charge of the educational programs the company plans to launch in the near future – classes for kids, teenagers, and adults, playwriting workshops, and a reading series.

          After running for only two and a half weeks last year, the season will run from June 28th to August the 28th – for nine weeks. “Eventually we’d like to run from April to October,” Fathers said. The company is currently in search of an Assistant General Manager.

          They are now a member of ASTRO – the Association of Summer Theatres Round Ontario – an invitation only association that has a contact list exceeding 400,000.

          “We are looking to draw on the whole of southern Ontario, and to the border United States – Buffalo – Ohio,” Fathers commented. Seven bus tours have already been booked from Upper New York State. The company is offering shopping and show packages with an overnight at the Holiday Inn.

          On May 8th the company is holding a $100 a plate, silent and live auction fundraiser which will include jazz renditions of show tunes.

          The company plans to move from its current 228-seat theatre into a larger venue as soon as it can. “We have put in an offer to buy a building from the city – the old Woolco building that’s been vacant for a long time, with 67,000 square feet, and escalator – located right downtown. We’ll need to raise millions. It’s a long uphill struggle.”

          But challenge doesn’t scare the phenomenal fundraising team of Fathers and Wright.

“You get back what you put in. I can’t believe we did what we did. We’re making history.

That’s exciting!” Fathers enthusiastically proclaimed.

          You can reach Theatre Cambridge at 519-740-9820 or online at www.theatrecambridge.com.

Return to Articles List

Corporate Funds Set the Stage for Artistic Success

          What makes a live theatre company financially viable? Government grants? Individual gifts? Corporate Sponsorship? Often it is a combination of all three. But most people in the theatre would agree that the future of funding for live theatre in Canada lies in the corporate arena.

          Nobody knows that better than Theatre & Company, K-W’s 15-year-old amazing success story, that recently built its own performing arts facility in downtown Kitchener. Although KW has had an amateur theatre company for decades, and has seen university-based productions, this was KW’s first professional theatre company.

It was the brainchild of Producing Artistic Director Stuart Scadron-Wattles, a man with a background in fundraising for Cornell University.  More than 15 years ago, he convinced professional actors from all over North America to come to KW to build a theatrical base. At first, the ensemble players were not paid. Actors solicited support from friends and benefactors back home, who backed them in the same way as missionaries are supported in overseas missions. Only recently, have they begun to receive a salary for their full-time commitment to the theatre.

Why were the actors willing to work full-time on this project for nothing? It had to do with the nature of the theatre they were performing – a type of theatre Scadron-Wattles calls “Necessary Theatre”. All of the plays have a message. They’re not proselytizing but they all give their audiences something to think about – call it values education of the theatrical variety.

Plays such as “Einstein’s Gift” about the possible negative consequences of scientific invention, and “How I Learned to Drive” about childhood sexual abuse have been on recent playbills. This is theatre that makes you think.

 Although the actors' amazing contribution certainly helped the Head of the Fundraising Committee and Board Treasurer, Jim Wideman, to gain a good head start on the capital campaign, his team still had to raise 3.7 million in a time frame of eighteen months. With a dynamic spirit and an impressive marketing campaign, the group managed to bring in 4.2 million – 92% of which is already in the bank.

And 75% of that money came from Foundations and Corporations. The rest came from individual givers. In comparison, only 21% of the Stratford Festival’s Annual budget came from the corporate arena.

But what does a business gain by giving to the theatre? Martha Buchanan, the Stratford Festival’s Sponsorship Manager, said that she believes the Festival is “helping companies build their businesses. We both benefit from the relationship. The businesses are using the theatre for marketing purposes. We give members of our Star Program (companies who have donated more than $1,000), up to 50% savings for their employees to designated performances at Stratford.”

Karen Lehtovaara, Corporate Development Associate at the Shaw Festival, also believes that corporate sponsorship is often marketing driven. “Corporate sponsors receive advertising in our theatre, inserts in our bulletins, and signage, and discounts on tickets for their employees to selected shows.”     

          But although Theatre & Company offers many of the same perks, Jim Wideman does not think that companies give to the theatre because of the perks. “These issues (perks) are not that important. They’re a side benefit. It’s nice to be thanked, but that’s not why they give.”

Wideman said that he thinks corporate philanthropists “want to give something back to a community that’s been generous to them. That’s the core of philanthropy. Theatre & Company is so successful (at corporate fundraising) because it has launched a ‘face to face’ campaign.”

“People give money to people,” he said. “That’s why we are successful. And we lead by example. Nobody goes out and solicits money for Theatre & Company that hasn’t given their own. Nobody should go out and raise money unless they’ve given their own.”

          Wideman, a former General Manager of a K-W agricultural company for 25 years, and a current business owner, was in charge of contacting foundations and small corporations for the capital campaign. Jonathon Spaetzel, Board Chair, and President of Spaenaur Inc., contacted large corporations, often accompanied by Scadron-Wattles. Despite his business background, the Producing Artistic Director prefers not to see the company as primarily a business or a building, but instead as an artistic expression of a dream, and “a place where the imagination has free reign.”

          At the King Street Theatre Centre’s official opening in September of 2001, Scadron-Wattles said that “the theatre is not a building. The theatre is not a story of economic success, or downtown renewal, or cultural coming of age. The theatre is a place of the engaged imagination, a place where we physically come together and, on a good night, are enabled to explore the marvelous and terrible territory of our hearts.”

Jim Wideman has put a lot of his heart into raising the funds to make Scadron-Wattle’s dream come true. With Theatre & Company’s $800,000 annual budget, Wideman’s committee and the company’s fundraisers will have to come up with $330,000 this year. The rest will come from ticket sales.“In the long haul, that’s not sustainable,” he said. “But at least now we have the seating capacity to make it happen.”

“We need to see 80 to 85% of our revenue coming from ticket sales. Stratford and Shaw are in that area. Theatre & Company averages 55 to 60% of its revenue from ticket sales currently.”

          Now that the building has been built, has Wideman cut back on the campaign? Not on your life. He is hot at work on upping the theatre’s endowment from its current half a million to 2 million, so that Theatre & Company’s programs such as its acting school, playwriting workshops, and backstage programs can be expanded.

          The dream that Stuart Scardron-Wattles began 15 years ago is growing into full fruition with the support of the Waterloo Regions’ generous corporations, foundations, and individuals, and the hard work of fundraisers who believe in the personal approach and the “face” of corporate giving.

Return to Articles List

Leadership: Empowering Everyday People

THE MISSISSAUGA NEWS

Leadership: Empowering everyday people

Taking leadership to the community

Judith Robinson

Sep 16, 2004

We all need to be leaders, regardless of the roles we may be in, says Kitchener's Jim Clemmer. His sentiments seem to be catching on.

All over Canada, leadership programs are springing up that are based on empowering, not just educated executives, but everyday, ordinary people. The Community Leadership Program began in Philadelphia in 1960, and came to Canada in 1991, first settling in Vancouver.

There are now 18 programs in Canada, each one averaging 25 to 30 participants, every program year. The six programs running in Ontario are: Hamilton/Burlington, Windsor-Essex, Waterloo Region, Peel Region, Thunder Bay, and Ottawa. Dryden and Whistler, B.C., have programs in the developmental stage. Internationally, there are about 1,500 programs.

The annual programs last for nine months. They start with a three-day intensive training session, continue with monthly Community Learning Days, and end with a three-day workshop or retreat. Although the content differs slightly from region to region, there is a universal emphasis on identifying personal values and strengths, studying current leadership practices, and building community awareness.

Not only are corporate employees taking part in this grassroots leadership movement, the not-for-profit, government, and social sectors are jumping on the bandwagon as well. More than 500 people are participating annually in community leadership programs across Canada. They come from labour, business, government, not-for-profit, volunteer and academic sectors, and are being developed to serve as board members and volunteers, to work on governmental task forces and commissions, or even to run for public office.

"We are creating a community leadership network for the region," says Anne Lavender, executive director of Leadership Waterloo Region, "so that the entire community will have a voice." Lavender's marketing material for the program states that "everyone is called to personal leadership...leadership is not 'a place'...leadership is about how we see things. It is moving from the inside out, from self-awareness to external action."

"The seven regional mayors and the regional chair of Waterloo Region, the chief medical officer, the police chief, the heads of the local school boards, all come in and introduce the participants to their areas of expertise, and explain how they all work together," she said. All of the trainers are volunteers.

Of the 46 applicants who applied for the September 2004 session, 32 have been accepted from the three sectors of business, government and the not-for-profit sector, she stated.

Leadership based on experience

Clemmer has more to say on leadership, based on his own experiences. "Before I can lead others, I need to lead myself with self-discipline, self-awareness, self-motivation and self-initiative," Clemmer stated. The best selling author, facilitator and keynote speaker said that "you can't build an organization different from yourself. You can't take someone somewhere you haven't been yourself."

Over the past 25 years Clemmer has delivered over 2,000 keynote speeches, and conducted workshops and retreats internationally, training people to take control of their attitudes, values and choices. He believes that "the deepest and most lasting leadership comes from the inside out. It's authentic. It's real. It's genuine."

Clemmer knows what he is talking about. A high school drop-out who eventually became the general manager of Culligan Water Conditioning, Clemmer learned from practical experience how to exercise personal discipline and time-management - a system he calls "Practical Leadership".

Apart from a few university courses, Clemmer has never had academic training. He learned from doing.

"That's the story of a lot of successful entrepreneurs," he said. "They got restless. They had to get out there and get going. Leadership is an action. It's about making things happen."

Business clients all over the globe

Clemmer has made a lot of things happen - five best-selling books, two workbooks filled with self-assessment exercises, and applications that he uses in his international workshops and retreats for senior managers. He has a solid ongoing relationship with major business clients all over the globe.

He is the owner and operator of The Clemmer Group - a thriving business consulting firm, based in Kitchener, with six full-time employees and six associates.

Clemmer's work is very popular and it's 98 per cent internal. He only gives two to three public workshops a year. "Our vision, value, and purpose, are at the centre of our being," Clemmer wrote in his book Growing The Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career and Family Success.

"They are also the wellspring from which our energy flows... our work becomes a contribution to making this team, this organization, and this world just a little better because we passed this way. That's when what we do becomes a meaningful expression of who we are."

Phil Johnson, a Mississauga-based leadership and business consultant, believes that "group training sessions are far less effective without mentoring. A person may come away from a workshop feeling empowered, but when they re-enter their workplace, they often go right back to their old patterns, if they don't have one-on-one support."

Johnson, and his business partner, Chris Cuciurean of Oakville, each mentor up to 15 individuals one and a half hours per week.

Their fee is $3,000 per quarter - soon to go up to $5,000. They say it can take up to three years for the mentoring process to be complete. Their business is doing well enough for them to consider employing more mentors.

Leadership from Within's target market is employees over 40 from small to medium-sized businesses.

"The only requirement we have of someone who works with us, is that they be willing to change," Johnson stated. "The people at the top of the corporate ladder are the most broken - they have the highest walls built up. They are usually the most resistant to change."

Although most participants come from the professional or business arenas, volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds are encouraged to apply.

For more information about Community Leadership Programs visit the web site at www.leadershipcanada.org.

For more information on Jim Clemmer's workshops, retreats, or books, or to receive his monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at www.clemmer.net

Return to Articles List  

Writing Sample - Mandate Magazine - February 2004

Offering Sanctuary

United Churches in Montreal are challenging
an unjust system to protect the lives of refugee families

 by Judy Robinson

“We have the right to live as human beings,” says twenty-year-old Marcela Vega, a refugee from Colombia whose family has been living in St. Andrew’s-Norwood United Church in Montreal since July 17. “We will find death in Colombia. We will be tortured,” Vega continues. It was those fears that prompted the family to seek sanctuary in the church they had been attending for two years, after they were informed Canada had rejected their application for refuge and was about to deport them back to Colombia.

“It’s emotionally taking its toll on the family and the congregation,” says the Rev. Rosemary Lambie-Bromby, Congregational Officer for Montreal Presbytery. “We’re trying to create as many celebrations as we can to make life bearable for them. We had 70 people for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Celebration is something the Vega family has not had much of in recent years. In the spring of 2001, Alvaro Vega, a professor of finance at the University of Bogota, was abducted by army-backed paramilitary and tortured, after he spoke out publicly about human rights. He escaped, was hospitalized, recovered, and returned to work for three months before the harassment and threats began again. He left the country and made his way via the United States to Canada where he, his wife, Mireya, and daughter, Marcela, claimed refugee status. But the claim was denied and the family was notified they were to be deported back to Colombia in mid-July 2003.

The United Church of Canada argues that Canada should implement an immediate moratorium on the deportation of refugees to Colombia, whether directly or via United States channels, because of the highly violent human rights crisis taking place in the South American country. Meanwhile, the congregation of St. Andrew’s-Norwood, with the assistance of Lambie-Bromby, has pledged to continue supporting the Vegas until they are legally accepted into Canada as “protected persons.” They all believe offering and taking sanctuary is justified when the law does not offer adequate protection.

An ancient tradition

Sanctuary is a safe place, a place of protection and security. Since ancient times pilgrims, sojourners, or even fugitives, have sought “holy” or sacred places such as churches or monasteries, where the laws of the state did not have dominion, and they could be safe from oppressive forces.

“Up to now we have not intervened in a place of worship,” states Robert Gervais, spokesperson for Citizenship & Immigration in Quebec. “We are waiting for them [the refugee families] to leave the churches, and when they do they will be subject to the law.”

“[Citizenship and Immigration Canada] Minister Coderre may view this as civil disobedience, but it really is obedience to a higher authority,” asserts Heather Macdonald, United Church staff person for refugees. “The action of granting sanctuary is in essence our responding to God’s call to love and seek justice, to love mercy.”

Lambie-Bromby agrees. “This is where we have to stand up,” she says. “This is what Jesus was talking about: ‘love your neighbour,’ love each other, and care for each other. That’s what it’s all about.”

“They’re part of us”

St. Andrew’s-Norwood is not the only United Church in the Montreal area prepared to offer sanctuary. Two years ago, Union United took in a family from Zimbabwe that had been ordered deported. Three days later, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on deportations to Zimbabwe, in view of the generalized risk to all people travelling there.

Several months later, the congregation offered sanctuary to a Muslim family from Algeria. “The government was telling Canadians it wasn’t safe to travel to Algeria but they were going to send this family back,” explains the Rev. Darryl Gray, the minister of Union United. After 11 days in the church, the federal and provincial governments decided to open a 90-day “window of opportunity,” during which people who were about to be deported back to Algeria were given a chance to have their cases reviewed. Refugee advocates such as Janet Dench, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, believe media coverage of Union United’s offer of sanctuary may have played a part in the government’s decision. Concurs Heather Macdonald, “Darryl knows how to work with the media. He knows how to get attention.”

Union United Church is now offering sanctuary to a third family. Menen Ayele and her children arrived from Ethiopia in 2001, after she had been jailed and tortured for her activities in the All Amhara People’s Organization, a political group calling for democratic reforms. Shortly after her release from prison, Ayele’s husband was disappeared and she fled to Canada. A Canadian doctor has since found that Ayele suffered psychological trauma as a result of her experience in jail. Yet the Immigration and Refugee Board concluded that her claim to have been tortured in Ethiopia was not plausible, and rejected her application for refugee status. Ayele and her three children Bethel, Meron, and Beruk, aged six, 12, and 13, moved into Union United Church, where they are now being cared for by members of the congregation.

The Ayeles attend church services and Sunday school. They often share common meals with members of the congregation. “They have been very good to my children,” says Ayele. “They're part of us,” responds Union United board member Gwen Husband.

But not everyone is so welcoming. “There's a post 9-11 phobia of everyone who’s not like us,” comments Gray, a follower of Martin Luther King Jr.’s social gospel, who came to Canada from South Carolina and joined the United Church to do the work to which he felt called. “People are saying to me, ‘What are you keeping those people for? Don’t you know about bin Laden?’ And I tell them, ‘Don’t you know about Jesus?’ People are seeing terrorists everywhere. But we have a moral responsibility to do what’s right.”

Flawed system endangers lives

The United Church believes serious errors in the refugee determination process resulted in the rejection of the Vega and Ayele claims for refugee status. In June 2002, new legislation reduced the number of decision makers on the Immigration and Refugee Board panels that hear refugee claims. Under tremendous stress, claimants now appear before a single decision maker. That change caused “a serious problem,” says Macdonald, who worked for two years as a refugee liaison officer with Canada Immigration in the early 1980s but left because she identified with the church’s stance on refugees and migrants. “A refugee had a much greater chance of being accepted when there was a second opinion,” states Macdonald. “A single decision maker is not appropriate for what could be a life-or-death decision.”

Worse yet, there is no way to catch or correct an error, since an appeal mechanism, promised by the government in June 2002, has yet to be implemented. “We are being asked to balance management efficiencies against justice,” says Macdonald. “The delay in the implementation of the appeal is…being excused as a resources problem.”

International organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have criticized Canada for failing to fulfill its international legal obligations to provide refused refugee claimants with a merits-based review. Macdonald encourages congregations to “stand for justice” and write letters to Immigration Minister Denis Coderre (a sample can be found at www.united-church.ca/jpc/migration) asking for immediate implementation of a meaningful appeal process. In its absence, some continue to see sanctuary as a faithful response, even though helping families contravene the Immigration Act carries a potential punishment of two years imprisonment or a $50,000 fine.

“I would never counsel a congregation to make the decision to give sanctuary to a refugee family,” says Macdonald. “It is an act of civil disobedience and as Canadians, we rightly revere the rule of law. But there are times we need to improve and correct the law. I would say…can you afford to help? If [congregation] have worked through the issue judiciously and faithfully, the question sometimes evolves into, ‘Can they afford not to help?’”

An uncertain future

St. Andrew’s-Norwood has been contributing $300 a month toward the Vega family’s mounting legal bills. “They are thinking of leaving the country and applying to be immigrants,” says Lambie-Bromby. “Normally you have to leave the country for a year to apply but their lawyer is filing a petition to the United Nations Committee against Torture, in the hope that he can speed up the process. Because Alvaro was a university professor, there may be good grounds for him to be admitted as an immigrant.”

Marcela Vega cannot say enough about the support offered by members of the congregation, many of whom are Spanish-speaking and take turns looking after the needs of the family. “It’s wonderful what they have done for us,” says Vega. “They’ve been so good to us.”

Meanwhile, at Union United, Menen Ayele has a heartfelt plea: “Please ask your government to let us stay. Our hope is with you people.”

—Judy Robinson is a freelancer writer in Burlington, Ontario

Return to Articles List  

Playwright      |      Journalist      |      Teacher

copyright 2004 @ Judith I. Robinson
site designed and maintained by Rocky Broad River Enterprises