The spirit and presence of Gerald Vandezande was undeniable as CPJ’s board and staff received two opposition Members of Parliament for a recent discussion on how best to translate our prophetic voice on key public justice issues into policy impact.
NDP MP Paul Dewar and Liberal MP John McKay graciously shared their perspectives on the current political climate and the role of religion in political engagement and advocacy. What follows is a brief synthesis of the conversation.
Question 1: How do faith-based groups have impact?
Creating change is tough. It requires long-term dedication, multi-sectoral collaboration, a perspective that speaks to the values of Canadians, and resonance with the government agenda.
The campaign that led to the 2011 second-reading passage of the “Medicines for All” bill (C-393) – which ultimately failed as a result of the election call – provides an example of how faith-based organizations can effectively work with others to advance an issue based on values. Conservative MPs supported this bill because they were hearing from both their constituents and their faith communities.
There are many opportunities to engage with MPs and Senators through issue-based caucuses and committees, which may be helpful in advancing discussion.
Question 2: To what extent does a faith perspective inform Canadian politics?
There isn’t a single faith perspective, or even a single Christian perspective that informs Canadian politics. It appears that a part of Prime Minister Harper’s success has been through leaving large ethical issues somewhat unresolved or unaddressed.
The weakening of the progressive voice of faith communities, either through institutions becoming more centralized and conservative, or through the cutting of justice staff as a cost-saving measure has created a difficult situation. The failure of faith communities to “speak truth to power” harms us all.
Question 3: Is ecumenical and inter-faith work effective?
Yes! There is often a lot of distance between faith leaders (particularly at the local level), but they usually have a great deal in common. Conversations that begin on one issue often lead to other, equally fruitful discussions.
On-the-ground, community-based work lends legitimacy to advocacy on larger issues. Many efforts can be enhanced by working together. Innovation comes through collaboration.
Question 4: What approaches should we avoid?
What is done and how it is done are both important. CPJ has done a good job conducting research and effectively identifying issues.
People wanting to spark change are encouraged to be creative, demonstrate humility and grace, be well-informed about the issue at hand, learn the appropriate language, present well, and point to other jurisdictions where similar proposals have worked.
The use of religious language is potentially problematic. While CPJ shouldn’t shy away from its convictions, it is important to know the audience, know the relevant language of the issue in question, and to be authentic.
Question 5: How do we keep people engaged in politics?
Current political scandals make this very difficult. There is a high degree of cynicism towards politicians and politics. Defeating the current cynicism requires that new energy and new people enter the political realm.
Political reform is also necessary, not only in the Senate, but also in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the House of Commons. The New Zealand model of mixed-member proportional representation (where two-thirds of MPs are elected in a first-past-the-post system, and the final third is elected by party) could serve Canada well. Under this model, acrimony is virtually eliminated and coalitions must work together.
Question 6: Do we need to frame all our arguments in terms of Canadian economic development?
Yes and no. Articulating concerns in language that government officials and big business can understand goes a long way. Reclaiming the language of “sustainable development” and “investments in a sustainable economy” may also work.
In the end, there is clearly no “silver bullet” when it comes to policy impact. Still, both board and staff found the insights from Mr. Dewar and Mr. McKay informative and instructive. As we look to the future, we will certainly keep their suggestions in mind, but ultimately, while we will continue to strategize for success, we will remember that we are first and foremost called to faithfulness.