Reflections of a Retiring Social Justice Activist: Public Trust and Engagement

Citizens for Public Justice has long been concerned with public trust. On March 11, 1976, Chief Justice Boris Laskin of the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Federal Court of Appeal and validated the intervention claim by The Committee for Justice and Liberty Foundation (CJL, the forerunner to CPJ). He declared that there was a “reasonable apprehension of bias” in allowing Mr. Crowe (who was associated with the Gas Arctic-Northwest Project), to act for the National Energy Board in hearings concerning the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. Chief Justice Laskin’s opinion both affirmed the work of the CJL Foundation and emphasized that there should “be no lack of impartiality of adjudicative bodies” such as the National Energy Board. Public trust, in the mind of Chief Justice Laskin, was paramount.

That focus contrasts sharply with the steady erosion that citizens around the world have experienced in public trust as study after study has confirmed.

It is a sad commentary that now in 2022, public accounting firms such as Deloitte have felt the need to issue directions to companies on the processes by which trust may be engendered or maintained.1 Academic papers, too, have found the need to discuss the hows and whys for governments to secure the trust of their constituent populations.2

For me, it is no mystery. Trust cannot be manufactured or cajoled. The demand for public trust is never quelled by propaganda or even hearings. Royal Commissions and consultation processes designed simply to allow input into public policy decisions are never enough.

Rather, if I feel safe as a child, if I am well fed, if I feel love and care, if I feel I can embrace the future with hope—all Maslow’s hierarchy of needs come to mind here—are these not the things that inspire trust?

Similarly, will a society not lose trust if its members do not experience the same confidence that their basic needs will be provided? If someone is afraid that they may disappear or be murdered with no recourse, if they fear that drinking water may lead to illness, if they cannot afford nutritious food for their child, if hunger lurks and healthcare is lacking, should they be expected to trust society or governments? If a refugee goes to an uncertain sleep at night fearful of bombs or intruders, if an immigrant’s education is not recognized as acceptable and hinders their chances to secure decent employment, if people of colour face racism or widespread discrimination in society, if I fear loneliness and poverty in old age, who will be surprised when the public expresses little faith in public institutions and even in one another?

The short, profound answer is that public trust is built by a society that weighs every decision by how it will affect the most vulnerable—and today that includes both people and nature.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s were often upheld by the stirring words of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke about the “arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.” But today as I and my grandchildren seek ways to avert climate catastrophe, who might blame us for consciously wondering which way that arc of history is really bending: towards justice or disaster?
CPJ needs to keep working to draw attention to the worst injustices in our society and to propose meaningful and effective solutions based on the research it conducts. We must continue the work of holding public officials and governments accountable through public campaigns to rally and mobilize citizens. Persistent dialogue with government officials and elected members is imperative as is the need to create partnerships and networks to increase visibility and provide public pressure to challenge injustice. These are essential tools to build a society where public trust is the child of justice achieved.

One of my mentors always reminds me that we stand on the shoulders of others; that the work of justice is multi-generational and, like cathedrals of old, never built in the lifetime of just one builder. When I worked on justice issues within the national Anglican Church, the late, much-respected Archbishop Ted Scott once told me “ultimately, we are always called more to be faithful than successful.” Those words always grated on me because I self-identified as a practical idealist and I wanted (and still want) to see meaningful progress and life-changing results. I still want to see campaigns and dialogues and boycotts, if needed, and marches, rallies and legal challenges to insist on accountability and progress toward justice. But I also recognize that activists must breathe in the truth that their God holds them, and all of creation, in the palm of a hand that never fails in its love and care. A God who challenges us to continue, to persevere, to change as we grow more aware of current challenges, and above all, to be steadfast purveyors of hope.

It is this gift of the audacity of hope that allowed The Committee for Justice and Liberty to join as an intervenor in the hearing before the Supreme Court; it is the same audacity of hope that permits CPJ to remain a faithful building block for public trust today. It is not just speaking truth to power that moves us forward; rather, it is the authenticity of the person herself or himself who communicates that truth which carries so much power—and that authenticity is to be shaped by steadfast faith and passion for social justice.

In the end, it is a society characterized by justice and equity that breeds public trust. And it is hope, grounded in faithful action, engagement, and love for one another that provides the catalyst for this change. That is what the future, like the past, invites and even pleads for us to do.

* David retired from his position at CPJ in April 2022 but doesn’t intend to retire from activism.

References

  1. D. Eggers, W., Chew, B., Knight, J., Krawiec, R. and Kelkar, M., 2022. Rebuilding trust in government. [online] Deloitte Insights. Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/public-sector/building-trust-in-government.html [Accessed 20 January 2022].
  2. Zhao D, Hu W. Determinants of public trust in government: empirical evidence from urban China. International Review of Administrative Sciences. 2017;83(2):358-377. doi:10.1177/0020852315582136

Author

  • Since 2010, David has worked with CPJ as the Coordinator of Finance and Administration. Prior to that, he was the Executive Director of the Pembina Institute, a member of the Economic Justice and Peace staff for the Anglican Church of Canada, and has served as a staff or board member for many ecumenical justice coalitions. He has worked on campaigns to end bank loans to the apartheid government of South Africa; fisheries issues on the East Coast; and climate agreements and corporate social responsibility issues, among others.

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