Faith In Action

The Canadian Churches' Ecumenical Coalitions for Social Justice

By Murray MacAdam
February 1995

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The federal government cut defence spending for its 1994-95 budget from $12.2 billion in the previous year, to $11.9 billion. The Defence Department forecasts a 1998-99 military budget about 10-15 percent lower (after inflation) than the 1993-94 budget. After years of increases, why was the defence budget cut?

One reason is the massive federal deficit and the need to cut federal spending overall. Another is the end of the Cold War. But another reason is pressure from Canada's peace movement, which includes groups such as Project Ploughshares, based in Waterloo, Ontario.

"We did a lot of pushing on the defence budget," says Ploughshares researcher Bill Robinson. "I think it's fair to say we contributed to the cutting of the defence budget".

Backed by Canada's major churches, by 12,000 individual supporters and by 40 local groups across the country, Project Ploughshares campaigned for reductions in military spending, including elimination of the controversial military helicopter project which dogged the previous Conservative government. It championed an alternative security vision for Canada and the world – one which acknowledges that vast gaps between rich and poor, and environmental degradation, help breed the insecurity and conflict that leads to war.

Plant closures lead to unemployment for several thousand workers in the city of Kingston, Ontario.

Some concerned local residents attend a workshop called "The Global Economy and Its Impact on Our Community", sponsored by the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice (ECEJ).

Standing before a large blank piece of paper, ECEJ staffperson Dennis Howlett asked those present about the city of Kingston, the local economy and free trade. The pictures which Howlett sketches on the wall as people talk portray the story of how free trade and high interest rates had affected the city. The group saw a need to create meaningful jobs to meet Kingston's needs, which would mean attracting investment to small businesses and cooperatives that could serve the community. Some of those present go on to join the Kingston Coalition for Social Justice, a group formed to fight NAFTA, and which allies itself with the Action Canada Network (a coalition of labour unions, social organizations and community groups in Canada). "We as workers and citizens can do something together to gain some control over our lives," says group member, Keith Anderson.

The people of Chile awaken on September 11, 1973, to a state of siege as their democratically-elected government is overthrown by a military junta. As 17 years of tyranny begin, a growing number of Chileans are forced to flee the country.

In Edmonton, Calgary and other Canadian cities, people form welcome committees and ecumenical committees to receive Chilean refugees and urge our government to call on Chile to respect human rights. The newly-formed Interchurch Committee on Chile, working with these local committees, helps resettle several thousand Chilean refugees and provides aid in reunifying families and with refugee appeals.

Canada's churches soon realize that massive human rights violations are taking place in other Latin American countries besides Chile. A letter from Central American Christians to North American Christians in 1976 says: "Friends and fellow Christians, it is time that you realize that our continent is becoming one gigantic prison and, in some regions, one vast cemetery... human rights, fundamental to the Gospel, are becoming a dead letter..."

This urgent message helps spark formation of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. In the years ahead, it will carry out many actions to defend the basic human rights of people throughout Latin America, and will bring the story of their hopes and struggles to Canadian Christians.

Three snapshots of action. Many more could be given to illustrate what some call the Canadian Churches' best kept secret: the ecumenical coalitions working on social justice issues.

Sponsored by the major Canadian churches and working in areas ranging from international development, refugees and human rights issues abroad, to native concerns and poverty in Canada, the coalitions are a remarkable example of faith in action, faith which has made mission real for thousands of Canadians.

Some of the coalitions deal with poverty, development and human rights issues in the Third World: the Inter-Church Fund for International Development, Ten Days for World Development, the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, the Canada-Asia Working Group and the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. Others with an international focus include the Canada-China Programme and the Inter-Church Committee on Refugees. Many work on Canadian corporate, economic or public policy issues: the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice, the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility, Project Plough-shares, PLURA and the Aboriginal Rights Coalition.

These coalitions are now about 20 years old, making this a good time to reflect on this work over the past two decades, work which has made significant contributions both to church life and to social action movements.

Birth of the Coalitions
The coalitions were not created all at once, but arose in response to particular issues facing Canadian society and the response of Canadian churches to these issues. By and large, they were formed during the 1970s. The oldest one, GATT-Fly (now known as the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice) was formed in 1973, while the most recent coalition, the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, began in 1982.

Several trends from that era helped birth them. One was a revitalized, dynamic sense of mission. Canadian church personnel who went to Third World countries saw firsthand the impact of extreme poverty and the violation of human rights. Their experience led them to question the global economy and Canada's role in it. Some of the first organizers of the ecumenical coalitions were people who had worked overseas.

Winds of change were blowing through the churches in other ways during the 1970s. In the aftermath of Vatican II (1962-65), action for justice received increasing emphasis within the Catholic Church, with concepts such as liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor becoming more widely known. The understanding grew that acting for justice is part of our Christian faith. The Catholic Church began to work closely with other Christian churches on various social issues.

Within Canada in general, a strong belief in the possibility of change pervaded society during the 1970s. "You could be hopeful," recalls Dennis Howlett, a 20-year veteran of coalition work. "Things were booming. There was a liberal optimism in that era which is not the case now".

Looking Back
The ecumenical coalitions have played a vital role in giving substance to the churches' concern for justice. Before their formation, church leaders would make general pronouncements on a given issue, such as unemployment. But action to back up that concern was often lacking.

The coalitions have provided a vehicle through which Canadian Christians could take action on a wide variety of topics. To take one example, the Inter-Church Committee on World Development (generally known as Ten Days for World Development) was formed to promote the idea that real development in Third World countries demands justice more than charity. The root causes of poverty need to be addressed. More than 200 local Ten Days committees across Canada carry out study and action programs each year on issues such as Canada's aid policy and the global debt crisis. As former Ten Days staffperson Jeanne Moffat wrote in the book, Coalitions for Justice, "Ten Days for World Development is the story of thousands of people across Canada".

Through the coalitions, mission has become more "real" for thousands of Canadian Christians. Links were forged between people in Canada and people abroad to push for change. Third World visitors brought to Canada through educational and action programs sponsored by Ten Days, the Canada-Asia Working Group, the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa and other coalitions have been effective in putting a human face on distant countries for Canadians.

The coalitions have reflected new ways of being church, and of seeing God in the struggles of the poor. Theologian Michel Beaudin notes in "Coalitions for Justice" that "the Good News... must become a 'good reality'. Without a struggle for the transformation of the world, there can be no preaching of the Gospel..." An integral part of our faith as Canadian Christians is to work to fulfill the Gospel promise that "all may have life, and have it abundantly". The coalitions have embodied a Christian commitment to helping people who have been denied dignity and justice. That offer to help has been given in a new way, a way based on partnership as much as possible, instead of the traditional charity approach.

The coalitions have worked hard to enable poor and oppressed peoples to speak for themselves and to help shape the decisions affecting their lives – whether the people involved are low-income or native Canadians, advocates for human rights in Central America, or poor farmers in Africa.

Those efforts to give a voice to the voiceless can be seen in the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. It worked for years with Guatemalan human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu, helping her gain access to the United Nations and to meet ambassadors so she could give firsthand accounts of the brutal repression taking place in Guatemala. Later Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize.

A dramatic example of ICCHRLA's work to walk with the people of Latin America occurred in 1987 when the committee's executive director, Bill Fairbairn, accompanied Carmen Gloria Quintana to a UN Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva. She had been set on fire by the Chilean military during the Pinochet dictatorship. "She was so strong," says Fairbairn. "You could have heard a pin drop when she spoke". Many ambassadors were moved to tears as she spoke of the suffering and repression inflicted on the people of Chile. Her testimony was so powerful that it helped lead to the United States withdrawing their resolution which claimed that the human rights situation in Chile was improving.

Other coalitions such as the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa are also respected for their research and advocacy work at international forums such as the United Nations. The model of ecumenical cooperation which our coalitions represent is admired by churches in other countries.

Within Canada, one little-known example of the partnership approach embodied by the coalitions is PLURA, an association of church and low-income groups working together to empower low-income self-help groups as they struggle against root causes of poverty. (The name PLURA comes from the first initial of the five funding churches: Presbyterian, Lutheran, United, Roman Catholic and Anglican). Each year PLURA funds about 150 self-help projects, ranging from organizing efforts among Irish moss harvesters in Prince Edward Island to a social housing group in British Columbia for people with mental disabilities. There are no paid staff; funding decisions are made by volunteer committees made up of church representatives and low-income people.

At the same time, the coalitions have provided a way by which concerned citizens can work together to have an impact. Henriette Thompson of Halton Hills, Ontario, a 14-year volunteer with Ten Days for World Development, notes that this can counter the despair that many people feel when assessing their potential for affecting major issues. When even a small group works together to write letters to Ottawa, lobby their Minister of Parliament and do other specific actions, "there is a sense that mountains can be moved," she says.

Behind the scenes, the coalitions have often had an impact unknown to most people. The expertise that they've developed has led many church leaders to rely on them when planning statements and actions on major issues.

Many Canadians, and certainly most Catholics, heard about the Catholic bishops forceful statement, "Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis" in 1983, but few were aware that staff from GATT-Fly had major input in developing the statement. And in some cases, the coalitions have helped to change government and corporate policies. One of the most well-known examples was the impact of Project North (now the Aboriginal Rights Coalition) in halting the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project in the mid-1970s.

Looking Ahead
Yet while the coalitions have engaged an activist core within the churches, many churchgoers and local parishes know little or nothing about their work. The major coalition participants overall have been a small core of paid researchers, staff from the churches, and a sprinkling of volunteers from the various churches. Project Ploughshares and Ten Days for World Development have been the exceptions, in terms of involving fairly large numbers of supporters across the country. Part of the problem rests on the fact that most of the coalitions, except for Project Ploughshares and Ten Days, do not have either the mandates or the staff resources to involve local parishes in their work.

Another challenge facing the coalitions is how to maintain support from churches which themselves face funding crises and cutbacks from both the recession and from shrinking memberships. This financial squeeze, and a more conservative climate overall, means that work for social change faces an uphill battle. Within the Catholic Church, at an institutional level, the closure of social action offices has dismayed social justice supporters across the country. The era which gave birth to the ecumenical coalitions seems a long way off.

As the church and society changes, so too will the coalitions. Meanwhile, the issues which sparked the creation of the coalitions remain as urgent today as they were 20 years ago. Some, such as the impact of the debt and the cost of environmental degradation, speak to us today with an urgency which was not as apparent in the 1970s. Millions of impoverished farmers, fishermen, unemployed workers and others lack the basic necessities of life. The ecumenical coalitions represent a lifeline to these neighbours, forging links through which we can stand with them as they struggle for justice. "If we're going to remain true to the Gospel, we can't give up this work," says Bill Fairbairn of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. Amen!

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