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Wearing peace buttons in this photo are Jaron Friesen and Kate Schellenberg, students at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. (MCC Photo by Alison Ralph)

Wearing peace buttons in this photo are Jaron Friesen and Kate Schellenberg, students at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. (MCC Photo by Alison Ralph)

After two decades, a modest message of peace endures

Amanda Thorsteinson
October 15, 2009

WINNIPEG, Man. – Nan Cressman is astonished at the success of the small, red Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) peace button she helped create 20 years ago in Ontario.

"I just thought they were a small addition to our usual peace work," says Cressman about the button which reads "To remember is to work for peace."

Yet the button – created 20 years ago as part of MCC's Peace Sunday initiative and pinned on clothing and bags around Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 – resonates so strongly with people that it has spread from churches in southern Ontario throughout Canada and beyond.

"I am thrilled that has happened," says Cressman. "I never dreamed they (the buttons) would travel that far."

On Nov. 11, Remembrance Day, Canadians traditionally pause and remember those who have died in military service. Many wear small red poppies distributed by the Royal Canadian Legion in schools, workplaces and public gathering places.

Two decades ago, a number of Mennonite churches in southern Ontario began expressing their discomfort with the emphasis such campaigns put on military service, including the expectation that people should wear a poppy.

The churches brought their concerns forward to Cressman, who, at the time, was in charge of the newly-created peace program at MCC Ontario. The need for an alternative to the poppy struck a chord with Cressman, who, along with her colleagues, began brainstorming another way that people of peace could show respect for all victims of war.

"While Remembrance Day acknowledges the suffering that happens during war, it also affirms that wars are necessary," says Esther Epp-Tiessen, MCC Canada's peace program coordinator. "Our faith teaches us to love our enemies, to seek the well-being of our neighbours, and to do so through peaceful, non-violent means."

The button's effect on Mennonite faith communities has been profound.

"The button has helped us to realize that we Mennonites have a message to share," says Epp-Tiessen.

"Historically, as conscientious objectors we did not proclaim peace loudly. The button has provided a way for Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in Canada to witness towards a peaceful alternative in the broader community."

However, the simple but profound message has found a place within a variety of cultures and contexts far beyond that of Mennonites in Canada.

In northern Uganda, some people whose lives have been torn apart by the bloody civil war waged by the Lord's Resistance Army wear the button as a daily reminder that the best way of honouring those who died is by working for peace.

The button has also moved into the ranks of Canada's parliamentary system.

On a plane ride around Remembrance Day in the late 1990s, Tom Snowdon, an MCC worker from Winnipeg, found himself seated next to Alexa McDonough who was the federal New Democrat leader at the time.

After thanking her for publically questioning Canada's support of militarism, McDonough commented on how much she appreciated the small red button he was wearing—which Snowdon promptly removed and gave to her.

For some, the button is controversial.

Although Tim Schmucker of MCC Ontario rejects violence as a means of resolving conflict, "at the same time I don’t want to minimize the sacrifice of the soldiers nor the pain of their permanent absence," he says.

The button originated at a time when Canada was not at war. In 1989, the Cold War was ending, and hopes for peaceful resolutions of similar conflicts were high.

Today, Canada is embroiled in a conflict that has killed more than a hundred Canadian soldiers, the largest number since the Korean War.

"Some people take offense at the peace buttons these days," says Epp-Tiessen.

"Questioning Canada's war effort is equated with being unpatriotic. However, our intention is not to undercut the sacrifice made by so many people.  But we want to remember all who suffer because of war, not just our own soldiers. And we want to challenge the idea that war is necessary."

Although Kate Schellenberg, 22, of Fredericton began wearing the button on Remembrance Day, she now wears it daily as a small reminder that it is important to strive for peace.

"For me, it is a reminder that peace is more than just an absence of war and violence. It is something that I, as a university student in a North American city, need to work towards in my day-to-day life."