The 1980s: A big appetite for faith-fed advocacy

The CJL (Committee for Justice and Liberty) Foundation came roaring out of the 1970s in overdrive. As an incorporated organization it was only 17 years old in 1980, and there had been full-time staff (Gerald Vandezande and John Olthuis) only since 1972. But some early successes had been deeply encouraging. In Alberta, there had been the beginning of public funding for independent schools. In the 1970s, CJL’s work for a moratorium on the MacKenzie Valley oil pipeline had established its reputation broadly as an advocacy group with excellent research and analysis, capable of daring tactical moves.

So at the beginning of the 1980s the young organization wanted to do everything. It wanted to expand, and to become visibly national. It wanted to be clearer about its particular public philosophy—hence the name change, in 1982, to Citizens for Public Justice. It wanted to have decisive local memberships able to respond swiftly to local issues. It wanted to break through the national deadlock on abortion. It wanted to be democratic and participatory. It wanted to replace Canadian consumerism with respect for the Creation and a spirit of prudent stewardship, and with a national conversion to the reality of Aboriginal rights. It wanted to do serious, biblically faithful big-picture analysis—think of Guidelines for Christian Political Service (1984), think of A Charter of Social Rights and Responsibilities (1985), think of the social policy guide/public funding proposal Changing Course (1987).

In Alberta in 1981, John Hiemstra, newly graduated from the Institute for Christian Studies, was appointed as the first staff member of a new CJL (soon to be CPJ) office in Calgary. It was a time of headlong development for Calgary as a city, and local controversy abounded over particular urban decisions—what to do with garbage, for example. There was always the great big oil issue (“Lots of our members worked in the oil industry, so there was intense debate on our energy stand,” Hiemstra recalls). There were Aboriginal rights issues: CPJ Alberta was an early champion of the reserve-less Lubicon Lake Cree. And there were the more traditionally moral issues, like gambling and abortion. All of them engaged the new Alberta office.

“One of the things I tried to do was to show that a public justice approach offers grounding for personal ethical choices as well as for political choices,” John Hiemstra now says. “We deliberately chose a mix of issues, to make that evident.” He recalls working especially hard on the abortion issue in the mid-80s. “We tried to think our way out of the pro-life/pro-choice bind. Both are important! But life is of ultimate importance. So we tried to show how government, within its own limits, can put in place public structures that promote healthy personal choices.”

In 1985, Kathy Vandergrift (now Director of Policy for World Vision Canada’s Ottawa bureau) began work as the sole staff member of another new Alberta CPJ office, this one in Edmonton. “The abortion issue was difficult,” she recalls. “There was disagreement within our core constituency over strategy, tactics and priorities. The more Evangelical base felt it was crucial to make an uncompromising principled stand. Others saw the options as more complex. It surely made fund-raising difficult, since we tended to offend both Left and Right.” There was, however, so much to do on Edmonton’s dynamic municipal stage that Vandergrift put priority attention on gritty local issues.

British Columbia was another site of CPJ’s expansion. In 1987, a two-person office opened, staffed by Eric Schilperoort and Craig Vance. Although the B.C. office did not last long—it closed in 1991—its brief life was intense. Margie Oevering Patrick remembers six months of exciting work for a small Aboriginal band, north of Prince George, whose land had been flooded by effects of the W.A.C Bennett dam. The Ingenika band had been moved to land that could not sustain them. People generally were unaware of the history of the band, of the promises that had been made to them, or of their need. Helped by a grant from the Law Foundation of British Columbia, Margie Patrick and lawyer Wally Braul worked on research, media, and government—and succeeded in getting new land and other restorative arrangements for the Ingenika.

Meanwhile at the national office in Toronto, staff and volunteers were burning up the track, working on manifold particular issues but also on documents setting out clearly the vision, mandate and methodology of Citizens for Public Justice.

Guidelines for Christian Political Service and Charter of Social Rights and Responsibilities, both published in the 80s, still function as official public expressions of what CPJ is all about. “Those statements were composed collaboratively,” recalls Gerald Vandezande. “Board, staff, and members as a whole were involved. John Olthuis and I felt there needed to be a clear framework guiding the research and the issues CPJ would take on. The Board also needed tools for evaluating whether or not we had done what we set out to do on a given issue. Beyond that, we needed statements in somewhat the same way churches need to produce confessional documents. They set out our understanding of how we will be biblically faithful and relevant as new challenges unfold in society,” Vandezande said.

Clear theory was only part of the picture. Vandezande, ever the ardent lobbyist, kept constantly in human touch with politicians, church leaders, journalists, and opinion leaders of all kinds in his drive to nudge the national consensus towards norms championed by CPJ, especially on abortion. Staff from across the country worked hard on implications of the abortion issue, often focussing on ways in which governments and citizens could make it easier for people to choose life. CPJ’s lobbying profoundly influenced the famous Bill C-36 which came so close to becoming abortion law in Canada. But many relationships were strained along that painful path. “On the abortion issue, to make a distinction between public policy and church teaching was very hard for some people,” Vandezande remembers gravely.

With equal passion, CPJ was involved with challenges on social policy and tax reform for the sake of poorer people in Canadian society. In the mid-80s, CPJ’s proposal for a national Social Development and Job Creation fund drew some intense media attention. In those same years, Paul Marshall, Jake Friesen, Kathy Vandergrift, Lyle McBurney and others were developing positions on topics ranging from criminal justice to child care and schools policy.

Meanwhile, John Olthuis was helping to forge a new Canadian history on First Nations rights. By 1980 Olthuis, a lawyer, was already accepting some First Nations as clients, famously including the Grassy Narrows band whose homeland had been devastated by mine-induced mercury pollution. Four years of work resulted in a ground-breaking compensation settlement in 1984. Olthuis was also deep into collaboration with leaders of the Dene Nation, whom he helped with the historic task of proposing the political recognition of their homeland within Canada—a work still in progress. “Direct involvement (with Dene leaders) helped CPJ to understand much more sharply what pluralism can really mean in a country like Canada,” says John Olthuis. “Georges Erasmus once said to me that what people in solidarity with First Nations can most usefully offer is to help create the space within which they can live our their values. That fits CPJ’s mandate.”

By 1986, Olthuis was beginning to see that his major contribution to public justice would be as a lawyer working directly for Aboriginal communities. In 1987 he reactivated his law society membership. By September 1988 he had left CPJ and was fully involved in legal work.

To keep up with CPJ’s hectic pace on policy formation, new commitments were made vis-à-vis communications. Catalyst moved up from four to ten issues annually. There were forays into radio, and Gerald Vandezande especially took television seriously, appearing regularly in series hosted by Brian Stiller and working in support of the Canadian Interfaith Network’s application for a national religious programming network (now Vision TV).

It all needed co-ordination, and by 1988, with John Olthuis moving into legal work and Gerald Vandezande experiencing serious medical problems, the Board needed to decide who should be responsible for the coherence of work as a whole. They settled on a young man recently graduated from the Institute for Christian Studies, with a strong background in the history and theology of faith-based advocacy work for justice. In June of 1988, Harry Kits became Co-ordinator/Executive Director of the national work of Citizens for Public Justice. Gerald Vandezande was by then National Public Affairs Director.

By the end of the 80s, it was becoming clear that CPJ’s expansion had reflected its voracious appetite for justice work better than it reflected its funding base. All four regional offices—including an Ontario one that opened only in 1989, with Jennifer Harris as staff—closed in 1991. Looking back, Kathy Vandergrift reflects: “Funding was the obvious problem, but I think that during the 80s, as a Board, we also had great difficulty with the transition from the two Toronto-based founders and pioneers (Vandezande and Olthuis) into a more broadly participatory mode. We lost a lot of good staff members over that period.”

Is faith-based public justice advocacy worth the tension, the hard uncertain work, the struggle for resources? John Hiemstra, now a professor of political studies at King’s University College in Edmonton and a Board member of the Public Justice Resource Centre, seemed surprised at the question. “I can’t underline enough how important it is to have some people helping communities of faith do this work,” he says. “It is hard work. It takes time and consistency, and the visible victories are usually small. But work for public justice teaches and inspires a whole community. It helps people build integrity into their entire lives, not just the more private parts of life. It integrates. I wish there were a lot more of this kind of work in all the faith communities!”

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