The 1970s: Sinking roots in a Seventies Canada

As we celebrate CPJ’s 40th anniversary this year, here’s our latest chapter in the tale of CPJ’s work and witness over the years. It covers the 1970s. Back then, the organization was known as the CJL Foundation. Not until the 1980s did it become Citizens for Public Justice.

CJL BREATHED life into its support for pluralism – the right of different peoples to live out their lives according to their beliefs – through its support for Aboriginal rights in the 1970s. Bold work on the frontlines of Aboriginal support work led to new alliances, introducing many people to CJL for the first time.

A proposal in 1975 to build oil and gas pipelines through Aboriginal land in the Mackenzie Valley of the Northwest Territories sparked CJL’s involvement in native issues. CJL argued that the pipelines would not be needed at all if Canada had an energy policy based on the Biblical concept of stewardship, less wasteful and far more conservation-oriented. Stewardship, for CJL, meant taking seriously the idea that we are caretakers, not owners, of God’s earth and its resources. That’s why CJL challenged the wastefulness of Canadian energy policies and the assumption that our “standard of living” required more and more non-renewable energy sources.

But the development also threatened to have adverse impacts on the Dene people living in the region. While working with Aboriginal people, CJL met people who understood in their souls what living in harmony with the earth is all about.

History highlights

  • 1971: The Ontario-based Committee for Justice and Liberty and the western-based Christian Action Foundation merge under the CJL label, giving the organization national clout1973: John Olthuis joins Gerald Vandezande on the CJL staff
  • 1973: CJL holds its first political convention
  • 1974: CJL issues its first political service bulletin for the federal election
  • 1975: Appearing before the National Energy Board, CJL calls for a moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline
  • 1976: CJL and others win Supreme Court decision to disqualify the NEB chair, Marshall Crowe, on grounds of perceived conflict of interest
  • 1976: John Olthuis works with Hugh and Karmel McCullum on the book Moratorium
  • 1977: CJL deepens its analysis of social policy with its Peeling an Onion paper.
  • 1978: Gerald Vandezande begins hosting a weekly radio program called Viewsbeat.

CJL was the first group to call for a pipeline moratorium, a proposal that soon gathered steam, attracting attention for CJL. It became the major recommendation of the Berger Inquiry into the Mackenzie Pipeline.

The pipeline work “really put CJL on the map” recalls veteran member Bert Hielema, who joined in the early 1970s while living in St. Catharines, Ontario, and later joined the board. “It combined environmental costs with native concerns. It was a much bigger issue than just a political issue. That (environmental issues) is where CJL should go back to, in my view.”

Work on the pipeline issue encompassed a wide range of action: education of MPs, Cabinet ministers and the public about a just energy policy, stewardship of resources and justice for the Aboriginal people affected; work by research director John Olthuis with Hugh and Karmel McCullum of the Project North coalition on the book Moratorium; and appearances at National Energy Board hearings on the pipeline project.

“I was tremendously impressed with the quality of the work John (Olthuis) did,” says retired Archbishop Ted Scott, who gave testimony on CJL’s behalf at the hearings as Primate (leader) of the Anglican Church of Canada. “He did the best kind of work for challenging government and companies on the issues. He had always done research extremely carefully. The kind of questions the CJL people asked were the ones that needed to be asked for the well-being of the whole country.”

Perhaps inspired by the Dutch tradition of holding back the sea with well-constructed dikes, the small new organization led a court challenge that NEB Chair Marshall Crowe should not chair the NEB panel deciding on the pipeline due to “reasonable apprehension of bias,” because of Crowe’s past association with a firm linked to the consortium bidding for the pipeline license. The Supreme Court ruled in CJL’s favour. Media publicity helped spread the word about CJL.

It was a heady time, with CJL staff John Olthuis and Gerald Vandezande working flat-out, attending hearings in Ottawa, rubbing shoulders with a wide variety of people and organizations with similar concerns on Aboriginal and energy issues, and speaking out to people in church basements and other settings. Gerald’s inspirational speeches and boundless energy inspired many to join CJL.

The new movement also deepened the roots begun by its predecessor, the Christian Action Foundation, in western Canada. Wilma Bouma of New Westminster, B.C. was one of CJL’s pioneers in B.C. After hearing about CJL through her local Institute for Christian Studies chapter, she became involved in such activities as helping to coordinate Gerald Vandezande’s trips to B.C. “Back then, staff didn’t rent a car,” recalls Wilma. “You would get them (at the airport) and take them all over the place.”

Peter Cupido was among a group of Calgary members involved in making a submission to the Berger Inquiry. “We made headlines in the Calgary Herald,” he says. Peter also lined up interviews and speaking engagements by Gerald and John Olthuis to journalists, churches, Christian high schools and other audiences. Gerald soon became a popular speaker. “All I had to do was mention his name,” says Peter.

CJL’s effort to apply Christian principles to all areas of life attracted Kathy Vandergrift in the mid-1970s, then living in Edmonton. She went on to pour considerable energy into CJL, serving on the board and later as an Alberta staffperson. A workshop on the oil and gas industry led by John Olthuis was key. “He applied a depth of analysis with scriptural concepts integrated that I was attracted to,” she recalls. The work against the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline “didn’t necessarily make us popular in Alberta, but I think there was respect for our work.”

These efforts paid off. By 1974 membership had risen to about 1500 across Canada. Slowly and steadily, growth also broadened the organization’s membership beyond the original Christian Reformed constituency.

CJL’s unique perspective on Canadian society took shape in other ways. A notable example was the Peeling an Onion paper by John Olthuis, published in 1977. This far-reaching analysis delved into Canada’s energy policy by “peeling back” the facts involved in the different layers: wasteful energy use, the economic system fuelled by our energy policy, and finally, a distorted view of progress. “At the heart of Canada’s energy onion we found a non-biblical view of people and their normative relationship to God and neighbour in the creation,” concluded Olthuis. This analysis began to be applied to socio-economic policy at the end of the 1970s.

The organization took on other issues as well. The electoral reform known as proportional representation has become widely discussed in Canada recently. But CJL has supported it for decades, with a major paper by Gerald Vandezande in 1979.

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