The 1990s: CPJ in the eye of several storms

Guest's picture

By any standard, the 1980s had been a gung-ho decade for Citizens for Public Justice. The growing team of Board and staff members had taken on new issues for research and action. They had opened offices in three provinces. They had gone all-out for change on concrete issues from the land rights of the Dene Nation to the recycling of city garbage. They had agreed on foundational documents, seized moments on radio and televison, and started Catalyst.

By 1990, the system was close to burnout. For its small size, it was accumulating fairly big-time debt. After an audit, Revenue Canada insisted on seeing CPJ’s work as advocacy rather than as education; and advocacy cannot be, for tax purposes, a “charitable” aim. The two human pillars on which the edifice had been leaning suddenly shifted ground: Gerald Vandezande underwent drastic bypass surgery and a slow recovery; John Olthuis took his passion for justice into professional work as a lawyer for First Nations clients.

“Yes, I suppose you could say it was a near-death experience for CPJ”, acknowledged Harry Kits as he recalled his first few years (from June 1988) as Coordinator/Executive Director of CPJ. “There was a moment when the entire Executive of the Board was burnt out, and resigned. That day I did wonder what I was doing here.”

But despair didn’t win, and solutions emerged.

A restructuring dealt with the Revenue Canada challenge. Research and public education can be “charitable” from a tax point of view; so that trusty workhorse, the CJL Foundation (later renamed PJRC: Public Justice Resource Centre) was assigned to that side of the work. Advocacy continued through a new incorporated institution which took the CPJ name, and which would not issue tax receipts. Problem solved.

The debt issue took longer, and involved difficult decisions like the closing of the provincial CPJ offices in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario. Fund-raising had to move closer to the front of the organization’s mind.

“We made a deliberate decision to invest in fund-raising staff in the mid-90s. That’s when we hired Bruce Voogd,” recalls Harry Kits. “Since that time we have had balanced budgets and have steadily reduced the debt. We have had increased income from foundations and from Roman Catholic religious orders. And our membership has become more diversified. Now we are about 60% Reformed, about 20% mainline Protestant or Catholic, and about 20% Evangelical in membership.”

In spite of real-life funding struggles, younger staff coming into CPJ/PJRC during the 90’s remember it as a time of comradeship and adventure.

“Working for CPJ—first in Edmonton, then in Toronto—was a great experience,” mused Lorraine Land, who began with CPJ in 1990. “Daily contact with all those people, coast to coast, who were trying to live and act and work in a more just way, felt like a continual exposure to the saints—even when they are sometimes very frustrating saints!”

At the time, CPJ was seeking to focus on fewer issues, but more deeply. Aboriginal issues stayed central, and Lorraine concentrated her work there. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was then in the midst of its hearings.

“We were very active in support of the vision of RCAP,” says Lorraine Land. “Its recommendations were not addressed only to government, but also to churches, business leaders, organizations. And there was plenty of resistance. It was soon clear that on the policy level, the government was not the least bit interested in RCAP—the longest, most extensive, most searching and costly public inquiry in the history of Canada.”

The print run of the massive RCAP report ran out within six months. The government published no second run, and declined even to post the report on the internet. Public interest waned. Increasingly, the courts seemed to be the only institution in Canada that would move Aboriginal rights forward. Sensing this, Lorraine followed John Olthuis into law as a profession, and left CPJ.

The first person invited to work for CPJ in the 90s with the title “researcher” was Tim Schouls, who now teaches politics in Vancouver’s Capilano College. As Tim geared up in his job, he read all the documents CPJ had produced and concluded that they fell into three main streams: environment, social policy, and pluralism. He wrote an essay on how these things fit together, and got ready to do good social philosophy.

Except that then the constitutional debates started. CPJ leaped into the fray, exultant that at last Canadians were talking about foundational issues.

“It was hard to remain a researcher,” Tim Schouls recalls. “The pull was to become an activist. Harry tried to protect thinking and reading time for us. But we kept getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.”

Not so strange. The whole Canadian population got overwhelmed—or bored—by the struggle over the constitution. Tim Schouls was leaving CPJ just as the Charlottetown Accord was going down to defeat. The word “constitution” became verboten in Canadian political life for—well, it still is verboten.

Stephanie Baker Collins succeeded Tim as CPJ’s researcher. “I felt like I was suddenly getting paid to do what I loved—research in the sense of thinking broadly about structures and patterns in public life in the light of our values and beliefs. The work had terrific range and variety, which was exhilarating—but of course the down side is that is also feels like the work is never done.”

Federally, the 90s were the federal debt-fighting years. “During my time at CPJ the social safety net began to be dismantled. CPJ had in its past criticized the net for not being adequate. Now we had to try to save what was left of it. When Paul Martin brought down that fateful 1995 budget, he said that he was tackling the spending side of the problem first, and as a second step he would deal with Canada’s inequitable tax system. Well, he never took that second step,” Stephanie observed.

The debt issue dominated public rhetoric. “We resisted all those mantras about hitting the wall, no other way, et cetera. But the debt was a genuine problem. Our approach was: yes to living within our means, no to making the poorest Canadians carry the brunt of paying it off.”

The poorest Canadians often turn out to be women and children, so CPJ joined others in campaigning for families pushed into poverty. Gerald Vandezande was a tireless coalition-builder on the issue. When Greg De Groot-Maggetti arrived at CPJ in 1998, he was drawn deeply into the struggle on behalf of families. They worked to connect church people with the big secular coalitions such as Campaign 2000. A two-year campaign “Invest in Canada’s Children”, in which CPJ was linked with the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, delivered more than 15,000 postcards to the federal government. CPJ appeared jointly with the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and the Canadian Islamic Congress with a brief to the Commons Finance Committee, underlining the interfaith appeal of this issue.

Refugees also felt colder winds after the 1995 budget. The so-called “head tax”, or right-of-landing fee, added $975 to all the other burdens the newly-arrived have to bear. An angry coalition against this head tax sprang into being, and Andrew Brouwer, the gentle thinker who came to CPJ just in time for the mid-90s battles over social policy, stormed into the coalition and did some of its most articulate work. The battle against the head tax took five years, and it was successful. “The diversity of the coalition was amazing. We had MPs from all parties helping us. But until the very day of the 2000 budget, we didn’t know we had won,” remembers Andrew.

In spite of all the staff activism, PJRC managed also to sponsor serious thinking, some of which turned into books. First was Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada, edited by Diane Engelstad and John Bird, published by Anansi. Then PJRC collaborated with University of Toronto Press to publish Mark Vander Vennen’s English translation of Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange’s Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care. As the decade closed came Gerald Vandezande’s Justice, Not Just Us: Faith perspectives and national priorities.

How did book-length thinking and closely reasoned briefs emerge through the heat and hurry of the 1990s?

Harry Kits thinks it’s a matter of being true to your method. “Research and advocacy are good, or weak, together”, he insists. “By research, I mean reading widely and interacting with a variety of players, not all of the same political stripe. We’re committed to the integration of social, economic and environmental dimensions of public policy, just as we’re committed to an ongoing dialogue with the faith-horizon we come from. So we can’t approach issues narrowly.

“I’m most pleased with our big-picture work can be translated into very specific advocacy recommendations having true political currency, while obviously emerging from a horizon of faith. When we think that way we can sometimes break through deadlocks and old left-right dilemmas. I think we did that on the abortion issue, and on the same-gender marriage issue when we recommended registered domestic partnerships. It’s a question of focus. Let your wide perspective find expression in specific, practical thinking that allows you to move into action as soon as the public moment strikes,” says the man who has steered the daily life of both CPJ and PJRC since 1988.

Janet Somerville was the pro term editor of the Catalyst in 2004

Guest Author

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.