Are most of the religiously committed people you know staunchly conservative in their political outlook, and traditionalist in their moral values?
A new book by three academics, Religion and Canadian Party Politics (David Rayside, Jerald Sabin and Paul Thomas, UBC Press, 2017), argues that “religious conservatives . . . have been most successful at political mobilization in recent decades, and it is they who have most influenced policy debates between or within Canadian parties.” The authors focus on abortion debates, LGBTQ2 policies, and school curricula in anything relating to sex.
Yet, in my own lifetime, I’ve come to know people of faith who stopped the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, played key roles in ending apartheid, organized the private sponsorship of refugees, advocated for medicare, and called for an end to poverty. The devotion of Christians to selfless and tireless labour for social justice across Canada has helped model my own journey in the quest for public justice.
There is much we need to know, learn from, and be thankful for, in this ennobling history. But this history is relatively unknown to both Canadian academics as well as younger generations.
Next month, Citizens for Public Justice will release a new book that tells 10 stories of social justice struggles where Christians, most often working ecumenically, changed Canadian society for the better. This 175-page volume is entitled Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism. It will be published by Novalis, and is available to order in advance at www.cpj.ca/Journeys
What can be discovered in these pages?
February 2018 marked 28 years since Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town, after 27 years of confinement. Did you know, as Mandela did, that Canadian churches played a determining role in helping to end racist rule in South Africa? The churches challenged Canadian corporations, and especially the Canadian banks, to end their investment in that country and adopt socially responsible policies. (I remember giving my first homily against the sin of apartheid in Regina’s Sunset United Church in February 1979.) The Canadian churches and representatives of Catholic congregations of men and women spearheaded corporate responsibility work in an organization they created, called The Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility.
For this generation Sept. 11 is known as the date of the terrorist attack on New York City’s Twin Towers. For an earlier generation, Sept. 11 was the date in 1973 of the CIA-inspired coup d’état in Chile of another “terrorist,” General Augusto Pinochet, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Three days later, a telegram from the president of the Catholic bishops, the United Church moderator, and the Anglican primate, called upon Ottawa to immediately bring people to Canada to save their lives.
A Canadian ecumenical delegation that included Scarboro Missions priest Buddy Smith and François Lapierre (who was later appointed bishop of St. Hyacinthe, Que.) travelled to Chile, interviewed persons in prison who had been tortured and others who were in hiding from the regime. Under well-orchestrated pressure, many of these Chileans were brought to Canada by early 1974.
On the topic of refugees, many parishes have now helped sponsor Syrian or other families to come to Canada. Did you know that the first master agreement to facilitate refugee resettlement was negotiated with Ottawa by Saskatchewan’s own Bill Janzen of the Mennonite Central Committee? This agreement brought “boat people” from Indochina to Canada in 1979, and within weeks was duplicated by other churches, including many Catholic dioceses.
As Canada approached the Jubilee Year 2000, a remarkable coalition of Christian organizations created the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative (CEJI). Their main advocacy push was to cancel the onerous foreign debts of countries of the Global South — collecting almost a half-million signatures on petitions at Sunday church services. Canadian politicians not only held intense policy briefings with church reps, but Finance Minister Paul Martin often remarked that he could not go to mass without hearing about how the government needed to address the debt question. CEJI went on to campaign on climate change, Aboriginal land rights and child poverty. This coalition provided a template for the eventual creation of KAIROS — Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, in 2001.
In 2000 the Catholic aid agency Development and Peace supported the World March of Women, as did the Canadian bishops, the Catholic Women’s League and the Canadian Religious Conference. Social conservatives organized to loudly protest the very presence of Christians in coalitions with Canadian women’s groups that supported reproductive rights and abortion. These four Catholic groups maintained their unity in support of women’s rights without ever supporting abortion. The controversy illuminated how difficult it is (to this day) to debate gender and life issues respectfully in the church. I wonder if we’ve learned how careful work in coalitions can take place even among organizations that don’t agree on every issue, just as we can live fraternally in neighbourhoods where not everyone shares our political beliefs.
It stings when all church folks get characterized as traditional, conservative and antiquated specimens — as if that’s the whole picture. Our churches are not museums for quaint, but irrelevant, thoughts. Rather, they can be spaces for prayerful reflection, discussion and dialogue toward values clarification. They can be communities that challenge us all to move toward helpful change — using our analyses as light bulbs — rather than rocks thrown against each other.
Journeys to Justice holds up 10 stories of how this was done. But the most inspiring parts of the book are the final reflections of young female church activists who point ways forward for faith communities to act tomorrow. The journey is never over.
Gunn is the author of the forthcoming book, Journeys to Justice, and serves as the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.