Gerald Vandezande – biography

Born on a snowy Christmas Day in 1933, in Ymuiden, the Netherlands, Gerald Vandezande lived his life reading and sharing the Gospel with others. Gerry, as he liked to be known, believed that as Christians it was our duty to integrate the teachings of the Bible into all aspects of our life. Gerry came to Canada in 1950, at the age of 17. After completing night school classes where he studied cost accounting, he moved to Sarnia, Ontario where he worked for the Bank of Montreal. It was in Sarnia that Gerry met the woman who would become his life companion, Wynne. The two settled down, Gerry taking a job as a cost accountant for the Ethyl Corporation. Life as a cost accountant, however, was not to be Gerry’s calling.

In the spring of 1959, with Wynne by his side, Gerry drove to Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the hope of translating his passion for Christ and social justice into a life in the ministry. After talking with Professor H. Evan Runner at Calvin College and Seminary, Gerry realized his passion would be of greater use in the area of social advocacy.

The man who inspired many was influenced by a number of people who came to shape his own life’s work.  Growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, Gerry was touched by the risks taken by ordinary citizens, including his parents, in harbouring and caring for Jews and others fleeing from persecution. The positive gospel messages he heard preached during and after the Second World War taught Gerry how to engage citizens in their neighbours’ struggles and what it meant to be a good neighbour. Though the Scriptures helped Gerry understand what it means to live a meaningful life, he also learned from those who had suffered in the struggle to bring about social justice. Leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, “heroes of faith” as Gerry called them, remained powerful influences in his life.

Throughout his career Gerry shared his public justice message with a wide variety of audiences and always encouraged discussion and debate. Plurality, in both politics and opinion, was important to him. Gerry believed that in order to develop sound public justice positions, it was imperative to listen to what others had to say, especially when there was disagreement. According to Gerry, good policy and strategies for change came from listening to and learning from one another’s insights. He felt that as social beings it fell on everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, to exercise their social responsibilities and, when a need is seen or heard about, create public policies that meet that need. Justice is not “just us.” As a result much of Gerry’s advocacy work stretched across both party and religious lines.

Over the course of his career Gerry wore many hats. One of the first hats he donned was with the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC)(1961 to 1972). Not one to shy away from a challenge, Gerry and CLAC initially faced opposition from the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) which refused to recognize the union because it believed that a union based on Christian social principles would discriminate against non-Christians. Though CLAC demonstrated that it did not discriminate, the OLRB still refused to budge. Undeterred, Gerry and CLAC took the matter to the Supreme Court of Ontario where they ultimately triumphed and gained certification for CLAC. Not one to slow down, Gerry was instrumental in getting similar rulings passed in British Columbia and Alberta.

In 1961, Gerry lent his voice and expertise to the Committee for Justice and Liberty (CJL), an organization which he co-founded and which eventually became the parent of Citizens for Public Justice. The organization focused much of its attention on defending minority rights in education and labour. In 1963, the date we celebrate as CPJ’s birthday, CJL was officially incorporated as the CJL Foundation. In 1975, Gerry and the CJL became involved in native issues after oil companies proposed to build an oil and gas pipeline through Aboriginal land in the Mackenzie Valley. Joining forces with other social advocacy groups under the banner “No Pipeline Now,” Gerry and his colleague John Olthuis appeared before Justice Thomas Berger and recommended that a moratorium be placed on the pipeline project. This recommendation became the major recommendation of the Berger Inquiry and led to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project being shelved.

Gerry retired in 1998 from his post as national public affairs director of Citizens for Public Justice. As a social advocate he spoke in front of numerous parliamentary and legislative committees and met with various Members of Parliament, provincial premiers and city mayors to discuss social justice issues. In addition to his work on the political stage, Gerry also hosted his own radio commentary and interview program and made 200 guest appearances on the EFC TV program Cross Currents. He was a member of the general council of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a member of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) and served as government coordinator for the Ontario Multi-Faith Coalition for Equity in Education (OMCEE). Gerry was a prolific writer authoring Christians in Crisis: Toward Responsible Citizenship (1983), Let Justice Flow! Taking Healing Steps in a Wounded World (1994), Political Action in an Era of Budget Cuts: What Faith Communities Can Do About Poverty (1996) and Justice, Not Just Us: Faith Perspectives and National Priorities (1999). He also authored a number of articles for publications like the Christian Courier, Catholic New Times, Anglican Journal, Catholic Registrar, ChristianWeek, Toronto Star and of course CPJ’s Catalyst. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the Institute of Christian Studies, and in 2005, the Arthur Kroeger College Award in Ethics in Public Affairs. In 2001, Gerry Vandezande was named to the Order of Canada – a fitting tribute for a man who dedicated his life to his family, his wife Wynne and daughters Karen and Janice, to Christ and always to seeking public justice for all Canadians.

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