The 2000s: A Decade of Change

The turn of the millennium was accompanied by many other changes for CPJ and Canada. It saw new ideas about security. There were many different political scenes, including a minority government. Then there was the economic recession that shook the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The new millennium brought amazing new staff members and structural changes that re-invigorated the future of CPJ.

The decade got off to a good start. In 2001 CPJ was awarded with a certificate of appreciation by the Somali-Canadian Advocacy Network for their work in supporting refugees. That same year Gerald Vandezande received the Order of Canada and in 2006 an honorary doctorate in Christian studies from the Institute for Christian Studies. The beginning of the decade saw Ahmed Hashi, Refugee Issues Coordinator, leave CPJ as he was appointed as Somali Ambassador to the UN in 2001. Change was in the air and CPJ continued forward with a positive mindset.

Refugee issues were one of the main priorities of the 2000s. CPJ celebrated a victory when the federal government announced there would be an amendment to the Canadian Student Financial Assistance Act to make protected persons, including convention refugees, eligible for Canada student loans. This was an issue that CPJ had been doing research, public education and advocacy on since the 1990s.

“Student loans was a big victory, it had been building and building and building.” said Harry Kits, Executive Director at the time. But this was only the beginning.

The tragic September 11 attacks in 2001 had shaken the country. The result was an increase in security and a new war on terror. This meant a changing scene for refugees and for Canada altogether. A new federal government under Paul Martin saw increased border control and the perceived threat of terrorism brought refugees under a lot of suspicion.

CPJ was determined to counteract negative attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. In 2005 they launched the Welcome the Stranger: Becoming Neighbours campaign. This initiative aimed to create a more welcoming climate to newcomers by having CPJ members circulate petitions and pledge to do their part to personally welcome them. The campaign wrapped up in 2006, with local meetings held with 100 MPs. In total, 18 MPs presented petitions in the House of Commons.

In 2006, CPJ held its annual meeting, as it did every year, but this one was different. Immigration Minister Monte Solberg was scheduled to speak, but his speech was interrupted by protests from a non-CPJ affiliated group, and he had to be escorted from the building. This was the third protest of its kind since he had become minister, but the first in a church. The event got a lot of media attention and despite the initial worry about the negative results of the disruption, it did help shed more light on the issues around refugees and immigration.

CPJ staff were also hard at work on another issue: child poverty. Greg DeGroot-Maggetti, Socio-economic Issues Coordinator, dove into this issue, undertaking research and analysis, writing briefs for the federal government, hosting workshops, and speaking to CPJ members, youth, and politicians.

In 2000, a vigil for child poverty held in Toronto drew 500 people. This led to subsequently 100 more vigils across Canada, 50 of which CPJ was involved in organizing. The vigils served as a reminder that ten years earlier the House of Commons had made a unanimous promise to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000 and that they had failed to deliver. Throughout the decade much of CPJ’s work revolved around educating Canadians about the issues, holding the government accountable to this promise and putting pressure on them to do more.

In 2002, Canada’s housing ministers made an agreement to build more affordable housing, and the federal government came through on its offer of $680 million over 5 years. This was a glimmer of hope on the issue of poverty.

In the years to come, CPJ staff provided recommendations and met with many MPs and committees to ensure that child poverty issues would be a key element in the federal budget. However the government failed each year to include the proposed measures.

All this led to many initiatives including a National Day of Action on poverty in 2007, the Envisioning Canada Without Poverty campaign in 2008, and finally the launch of the Dignity for All campaign in 2009. CPJ joined up with Canada Without Poverty (formerly known as the National Anti-Poverty Organization) to launch this initiative that aimed to eradicate poverty in Canada. The work was inspired by two non-CPJ reports. The first was the 2009 report to the Senate, In from the Margins, which talked about poverty, homelessness and housing. The second was the 2010 report to the House of Commons, Federal Poverty Reduction Plan: Working in Partnership towards Reducing Poverty in Canada, which outlined a poverty reduction plan. The campaign advocates for a federal anti-poverty act and continues to work to make poverty history in Canada by 2020.

Towards the end of the decade there was also more action being taken in regards to the environment. This drew on CPJ’s work on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline issue in the 1970s.

In 2008 the debate around excavating the oil sands took centre stage. This endeavour had the potential to lead to global economic development but it also had many risks. One of the biggest concerns was the threat to Alberta farmland as corporations were buying the land outside Edmonton to build industrial complexes. This also fostered concerns about the long-term environmental implications.

For CPJ it raised the question of how an issue of such a global proportion could be approached with public justice. John Hiemstra, a political science professor who was a CPJ policy analyst at the time, determined that though CPJ should always be looking for new approaches, a public justice lens can allow it to peel away some of the layers surrounding this debate.

The increased interest surrounding the issue of the environment created a framework for CPJ in the coming years and the next decade would see more focus on climate change and environmental issues.

The new millennium also included structural changes for CPJ. In 2004 they celebrated their 40th anniversary with events all across Canada.

Then came the biggest change of all. In 2007 CPJ moved its office from Toronto to their current home in Ottawa, allowing them to be right in the middle of all the national action. With this move there were inevitable staff changes; biggest of all was the change of leadership. Harry Kits, who had been with CPJ for 20 years, stepped down, feeling fulfilled in all his work after guiding CPJ to this new chapter. He made way for the new Executive Director, Joe Gunn, to join CPJ in 2008.

“It was a great team throughout the 2000s, all the way to the move,” Harry said. But the transition was smooth and a new team was developed. “Joe really helped make that happen [in Ottawa].”

As a direct result of moving to the capital cirty, CPJ garnered more media attention during the 2008 federal election, and in 2009 staff interacted with 45 MPs and made presentations to multiple committees.

Leading up to the move, CPJ had launched its first ever major gifts campaign. The premise of this campaign was to put public justice “front and centre” and expand their work in Ottawa. The campaign was successful, raising $1 million in pledges and gifts. These funds were used to upgrade technology, hire new staff and, among other things, introduce a new public justice internship program.

“There was always a lot of interest in engaging in our work,” Harry said of starting the program. He had always been wanting a long term position to get young people involved.

The one-year internship, which continues today, provides university graduates with an opportunity to do policy work and analysis. When it was introduced in 2008, the goal was to expand CPJ’s work.

Despite the inevitable challenges associated with a big move and the changing politics of Canada, the work had to continue. What really helped CPJ survive was the great team and their commitment to the mission.

“It’s the only way to live your faith. It’s a privilege to have a job doing things you believe in,” Joe shared. “To have the support of a membership that wants those things to go forward, what could be better?”

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