Living in Halifax for six months – my husband, Peter Sinnema, and I are fortunate to be on sabbatical from our university jobs in Edmonton – makes it easy for me to remember my time on the CPJ board when much of our focus was on refugee issues. (In 2005 CPJ launched the “Welcome the Stranger Project” that was the next step after the 1999 “Getting Landed Project”.) One reason I have been reminiscing about CPJ is that in our (temporary) church community at All Nations Christian Reformed Church, we have been going through the book of Exodus and looking anew at the story of how God releases people from captivity.
But CPJ is on my mind for another reason. Although I grew up in southwestern Manitoba, Halifax holds a place in my family’s stories of where we came from and God’s presence in our lives. My mum landed at Halifax’s Pier 21 as a small child in December 1948, coming from a country devastated by the Nazis. My father came through Pier 21 as a young immigrant in the 50s when Holland was still recovering from the ravages of World War II. Since Halifax was the port through which many immigrants and refugees entered Canada (and through which most soldiers, and later peacekeepers, both left and returned to Canada), it has a similar place in the stories of many immigrant Canadians of my parents’ generation.
This story is relevant to the 50th anniversary of CPJ and my involvement with it. I was raised in a family (and Christian community) that understood the immigrant experience: the destruction and dislocation, both physical and emotional, wreaked by war upon people; the anxiety and disorientation of “getting landed” and trying to make a new life in a new country; the gratitude for a new home with safety, freedom, and welcoming citizens. Citizens for Public Justice was founded by such a group of immigrants who wanted to contribute to “the common good” that they found in Canada: as new citizens, they felt called to witness to this experience of God’s faithfulness.
As one of our guiding documents, Public Justice: What Does It Mean for Citizens, Governments, and CPJ? puts it, “God’s love reaches into daily lives through human action, not as an abstraction.” Through its advocacy for refugees, CPJ has sometimes been a way for God’s love to reach into to the daily lives of our neighbours. But in the past 50 years, as CPJ has expanded beyond its original founding community, it has also been a means for other communities to express their response to God’s call to public justice. I remember a conversation I had with Maria Páez Victor when she first joined the board about how vital it was to offer new Canadians a way to participate politically as Christians.
Since we’ve been here in Halifax, my daughter and I have visited the museum at Pier 21 several times. I tell her the stories about our family – stories that were told to me – and we notice that these stories are related to the Exodus story that we’ve been listening to in our church these past months. We talk about how people who have been set free themselves should respond; we talk about what it might mean “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” These conversations remind me of another line from our guiding document: “The justice-oriented exercise of citizenship is particularly powerful because citizens are commonly expected to pursue benefits for themselves or particular special interests rather than justice for others.”
Fifty years ago, Citizens for Public Justice came about as the extraordinarily hopeful act of new Canadians eager to contribute to their new country. Today CPJ continues to be an ongoing expression of hope. Our vision for public justice – the way we organize ourselves to live together as communities and as a nation – comes out of our collective experience of God’s love for ourselves and for the entire creation. These last fifty years have taught us that we have every reason to be hopeful.