Joe Gunn

Joe Gunn

October 7, 2013
EVAN BOUDREAU
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Citizens for Public Justice is celebrating half a century of advocating Christian values to Parliament on issues of national importance.

"It is important to mark the dedication of people that have been involved in the organization for a long, long time," said Joe Gunn, the organization's first Catholic executive director.

"There aren't very many organizations - I would say that CPJ would be the oldest among Christian ecumenical organizations in the country - that have been working on issues of social justice . . . for this period of time.

"Even while some of the ways in which we work have changed, and even though some of the kind of faces of people that participate in CPJ have changed, the values really remain pretty constant."

Founded in 1963 by the late Gerald Vandezande, CPJ's members now represent a cross-section of mainstream Christian faiths.

In its earlier years, CPJ existed primarily on the backs of parishioners from the Christian Reformed Church who immigrated to Canada following the Second World War. Since then the organization's members, currently standing at about 1,300 strong, have diversified with Catholics now representing the second largest proportion of that group.

That diversity has given CPJ a more powerful voice when addressing the federal government, said Gunn.

"When the churches work together you not only have like-minded people working together, it is easier to work," he said. "There is a certain strength in numbers. You gain impact which is important . . . in social justice work."

Gunn said it is CPJ's attempt to tackle social justice issues - such as human rights, reduction of debt and poverty and the ecology - by advocating to the federal government for changes that reflect Christian values which has attracted this diversity.

ISSUES, FAITHS

Not only has the range of its members' faith background expanded, so too has the scope of issues which CPJ tackles. While the organization continues to focus on those of national importance, Gunn sees many current issues such as climate change as having global impacts.

"There are no more issues that are just local anymore," said Gunn. "The world is somehow smaller and indeed the kind of issues that CPJ has mostly been involved in have been issues of national importance in Canada. More and more these issues are no longer categorized as just local or just Canadian."

Gerald Vandezande

Gerald Vandezande

Over the years, CPJ has influenced the federal government's decision on the Mackenzie Pipeline, established the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative for global debt reduction and called for budgets which reflect Christian values by better supporting the socially disadvantaged. To aid its work on Parliament Hill the organization uprooted from Toronto in 2007 and moved the entire operation to Ottawa.

"The reason that they moved to Ottawa in 2007 was to be to be able to be more directly involved every day with the federal government," said Gunn, who took over as executive director the following year.

Father Bill Ryan of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice remembers working with CPJ and Vandezande when they were in Toronto.

CPJ CATALYST

"I see CPJ as a catalyst," Ryan said. "What they have been doing more than other groups is they worked directly with federal members of Parliament. It is lobbying in a sense, but with Vandezande it was very much person-to-person; he wanted to get to know the members of Parliament personally.

"They were bringing their own inspiration on how faith leads to justice and you can't separate them."

For Gunn, despite the many changes to CPJ's physical presence, it is the consistency of the key belief that faith leads to justice that ensured the organization's existence by creating a loyal and dedicated membership.

"What keeps people here is a sense that they're doing something that is good and right that comes out of their deepest held Christian values," said Gunn.

"For the people that come in here as staff and as volunteers to work together and see a deepening of their faith through this social justice ministry that they are carrying out is a real privilege."