AGM 2013: Reaching for Right Relationships: CPJ at 50

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It was a beautiful, spring evening, when friends and supporters of Citizens for Public Justice gathered this past week for the Annual General Meeting and to celebrate 50 years of public justice. We were back where it all began, in Edmonton, Alberta. On the campus of The King’s University College, we were graced by the presence of CPJ co-founders John Olthuis and Jim Visser. Mark Huyser-Wierenga, the son of another co-founder, Andrew Wierenga, convened the evening.

Following the business of the AGM, including the successful election of four new Board members, the atmosphere for an evening of celebration was set by the warm, rich folk music of Justine Vandergrift (niece to Kathy Vandergrift) and the colleague she referred to as “Tony Fiddle.”

The crowd swelled from 50 to over 120 in anticipation of reflections from John Olthuis and former staff member Lorraine Land, who now sits on the CPJ Board. In addition to the Board, staff, and special guests who had flown in from across the country, many in attendance had trekked in from well beyond the borders of the metro Edmonton area – Lacombe, Boyle, Drayton Valley, and Picture Butte (a good five hours to the south).

Olthius drew us in with an engaging and entertaining look at Canada and the World in 1963, the year of CPJ’s founding: the title of Prime Minister was passed from Diefenbaker to Pearson, the Beatlemania album was released in Canada, and the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup.

Clearly, it was a different time.

Yet the predominant political ideology that Olthuis described seemed eerily familiar. That is, a reckless trust in unfettered economic growth, the trickle-down theory, and a belief that we can worry about the impacts later. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The small, ragtag group of young men that came together to create the Christian Action Foundation (which later became CPJ) could have been accused of being idealists, but they were steadfast in their faith, and in their conviction that as Christians they were called to witness for public justice.

Building on the rich and varied history of CPJ, Olthuis said, we continue to be called to work for reconciliation. Reconciliation of peoples: dominant culture with First Nations, newcomers, and others on the edges of society. And reconciliation of the economic, social, and environmental realities that define our current time and place. Now, as then, Olthuis believes that it is possible, as he put it, “to drown in the ambience of love.”

Board member Lorraine Land believes this too, but she says we now face new challenges that must be addressed:

  1. An undemocratic political process exemplified by the use of budget bills to amend wide-ranging laws without any parliamentary scrutiny.
  2. The elimination of scientific and statistical data sources à la long-form census.
  3. The silencing of dissent both within government through the muzzling of MPs and political staff, and among civil society through politically-motivated funding cuts.

Land reflected on CPJ’s past successes: the moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, funding for refugees attending Canadian universities, and more recently the publication of book Living Justice, and the Poverty Trends Scorecard report series. In doing so, she highlighted the passion and dedication of CPJ staff and supporters alike that enabled these projects to go forward. We must not lose faith, we must hold on to hope, if we are to overcome the current challenges, Lorraine told the crowd.

The anniversary celebration in Edmonton confirmed for me – a current CPJ staff member – that we stand on the shoulders of the great men and women who came before us. To meet the likes of John Olthuis and Jim Visser, to again hear the stories of CPJ’s inception and strong presence in the West, and to feel the depth of the passion and support for CPJ and our work was energizing, inspiring, and also very humbling. Only time will tell which of our current efforts will hold a similar place in CPJ history, and – more importantly – have a lasting impact on the common good. It is, however, abundantly clear here and now that the compassion and love that has always driven Citizens for Public Justice is strong and it is deep.

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