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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

05/24/2017

How do you celebrate an important anniversary?

Often we join friends and loved ones to remember the good times and the tough times. We stop our busy lives to express gratitude, deep gratitude, for having been able to belong to each other. Without pausing to reflect and hold up these memories we miss the chance to go deeper into the meaning of our lives. We can easily lose the sacramental depth of an unexamined life — but anniversaries offer an opportunity to recall, relate, celebrate and recommit.

The Catholic Church in Canada celebrates an important anniversary in 2017, the 50th year of Development and Peace — CARITAS Canada. This organization, established by the bishops and still guided by them, raises funds for international development, educates Canadians as to the causes of poverty, and has succeeded in changing our very conception of how Lent should be observed.

Every Catholic should send a love letter to Development and Peace to mark this momentous occasion of faithfulness — and the promise of ongoing challenge.

A wonderful new book, Jubilee: 50 Years of Solidarity (recently published by Novalis), recently brought home to me the many contributions of this international solidarity movement. Short stories of key historical moments are highlighted in sections on organizing “The Movement,” “Partnership” (both with organizations in the Global South as well as in Canada), “Advocacy” (which highlights many of the Fall Action campaigns that engaged our parishes), and “Renewal” toward the future. Throughout the coffee-table formatted volume we find many photographs of the original leaders who created the agency, overseas projects that captured our imagination, visitors from the regions where Development and Peace works, and Canadians involved in development education, fundraising and engagement with our government. We read about larger-than-life Romeo Maione (D&P’s first executive director and longtime Prairie Messenger columnist) from 1967, and then see a photo of his granddaughter, Katie, accompanied by my own son, Ben, marching in a 2014 climate change rally!

Why celebrate Development and Peace?

Saskatchewan’s Gertrude Rompré writes an entry saying that “Prairie D&P members are more disciples than they are activists.” No other organization has been so immersed in the tradition of Catholic Social Thought, and done so much to promote these teachings and their implications in Canada. The bishops started D&P in 1967 as a response to Populorum Progressio, the first entire encyclical devoted to international development. It began by stating, “Today the principal fact that we must all recognize is that the social question has become worldwide” (PP#3).

In 1987, in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II deepened our understanding of the concept of solidarity, suggesting it was much more than the name of a trade union in his native Poland. Solidarity is “undoubtedly a Christian virtue” (#40). And today, Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí' promotes an “integral ecology” (#137) that melds social and ecological justice. One can watch the analysis of Development and Peace deepening over the decades, in parallel to Catholic social thought’s new understandings.

Overseas partners were always the main concern of the organization, and many of them have stated their appreciation for D&P’s constant accompaniment in their development work. Nelson Mandela wrote to D&P three months after his release from prison, stating his appreciation for the organization’s “genuine demonstration of support for our struggle.” D&P staffer Marthe Lapierre was asked by Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu to accompany her to receive her Nobel Peace Prize, and Bishop Carlos Belo of Timor-Leste invited Asia Program Officer Jess Agustin to accompany him to Norway in 1996 to receive that same honour.

Remember the many fall action campaigns of D&P? Mailing Christmas cards to innocent political prisoners in South Africa (1978) and the Philippines (1982); targeting sweatshops of Nike and Levi’s in 1995-1996 (when almost 240,000 postcards were sent to these companies, they were moved to disclose the factories they subcontracted); the Jubilee debt campaign (by 2012, Canada wrote off more than one billion dollars worth of debts owed by 15 low-income countries); the years of calling Canadian mining companies to account (2006 - 2010) by calling for an independent ombudsman (when D&P members visited more than 100 MPs.) “For D&P, education is not just to inform or create awareness. Education means to develop the will and ability to transform oneself and society.”

Not all the stories in Jubilee: 50 Years of Solidarity are so positive, of course. The book recalls D&P’s 2000 fall campaign that criticized Export Development Canada’s financing of mega-projects like the Urra Dam in Colombia, which threatened the livelihoods of the Embera Katio people. Their spokesperson, Kimy Pernia, twice came to Canada to raise our awareness of their struggle against this project. I shared a room with Kimy during his 2001 speaking tour that included an appearance before a Parliamentary Committee. Less than three months later, however, Kimy was “disappeared” by Colombian paramilitaries.

Struggles have also been encountered with some Canadian bishops. A few dioceses will not allow the annual collection. Traditional and conservative Catholics have attempted to discredit D&P partners, epitomized in the 2011 accusations that a Mexican Jesuit priest and D&P solidarity visitor was pro-abortion. In 2012, the bishops cancelled the fall action campaign, deemed by them to be “too politically sensitive” (after the Conservative government administered a drastic cut in aid funding.)

Nonetheless, throughout the ups and downs of this 50-year history, D&P has helped the Canadian church move beyond merely doling out the necessities of life to others. In his foreword to the book, the president of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Tagle of Manila, reminded D&P of the greater demand of our faith: “The church must also allow herself to be evangelized by the poor.” No group tries harder to do just that. Which is why D&P is a love letter to the Canadian church

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.