This is the third online reflection posted in honour of CPJ’s 50th anniversary.
Even as an eager young social issues researcher for the United Church of Canada, in 1979, there was a limit to what I could read – and my boss seemed to subscribe to every social justice publication on the planet. The stack of magazines, research reports, and publications he received sometimes threatened to topple over onto his desk.
But I always made time for one of them. It intrigued me. This publication cut past superficial coverage of political issues into the heart of the matter: what are our lives for? Instead of tallying “progress” by ever-rising material wealth, what does genuine progress in our society actually look like? Why should Christians care about justice for Canada’s First Nations? No one else seemed to.
As someone whose faith had almost died out as a teenager and had only recently been revived, the Committee for Justice and Liberty’s the Catalyst publication encouraged me to realize that the Christian social justice movement was more diverse than I realized. I was fascinated by the long Dutch names sprinkled throughout the publication. Who were these people? Why hadn’t I heard about them before?
True, I wasn’t in agreement with everything I read in the Catalyst, especially not with its anti-abortion articles and what I perceived as hostility to the mainstream labour movement. Overall, however, I sensed that CJL’s supporters were on the same wavelength as I was. We believed that the Good News of Jesus Christ should radiate outwards from our souls and the walls of our churches to permeate all of our lives, as individuals and a society. What a difference that promised!
As the months passed, I steadily drew closer to CJL, later renamed Citizens for Public Justice. When the job of the Catalyst editor came up in 1984, I applied with gusto – and was thrilled to be hired.
I was thrust into a work environment unlike any I’d ever experienced as a young journalist, where I could write about issues I cared about deeply, such as the threats to God’s creation and the need to weave care for everyone, including the poor, into economic decision-making. These were radical notions 30 years ago.
I quickly discovered that justice work can be a long, difficult slog. That was especially true around Aboriginal rights, a key concern for CPJ, made manifest through the work of veteran CPJ senior staffer John Olthuis, a lawyer whose work with marginalized First Nations people was truly inspirational.
John’s critical role in negotiating a major compensation agreement with the Grassy Narrows band in northwestern Ontario was a highlight of my time at CPJ. The health and lives of many band members had been torn apart by mercury pollution, and John helped win a compensation agreement for victims, as well as fund job creation and economic development programs.
“I can’t find the words to express how much I appreciate John’s work,” band chief Arnold Pelly told me, his voice cracking with emotion. “His work is outstanding. You can’t find too many people around with the patience to go through what John has gone through.”
Another highlight came during 1986 with a radical take on the tithe concept. What if the government redirected ten per cent of the money it spends toward help for the poor? John Olthuis’s brainwave moved from a random concept to a detailed proposal fleshed out with help from other CPJ staff, including Gerald Vandezande, Kathy Vandergrift, and John Hiemstra. The proposal hit the front page of the Toronto Star, while winning other secular and Christian media coverage, as well as support from Christian leaders.
An interview with the late Ted Scott, one of Canada’s leading Christian social justice advocates, was another highlight. I’ve often thought of the cogent remarks made by Archbishop Scott. “My father used to say that one problem with many members of the church is they have just enough faith so it continually gets in their road, but not enough to set them free,” he said. “So they’re living in that war situation. There is in the minds of many people tension between being successful in the eyes of the world and being faithful in the gospel situation. Once a person has made a basic commitment to the Christian faith, success and faithfulness become identical.” How true.
I left CPJ in 1987 to work for the Anglican Church, but returned in 2000 for another stint as the Catalyst editor. I was heartened to discover that the organization had taken major strides to becoming a truly ecumenical organization, with a much more diverse membership base. It was another milestone for which we can thank God, and CPJ’s committed staff and supporters.