Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 21, 2005
Hunger for Justice charts a life
Edmonton-born man now Development and Peace's new executive director
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Michael Casey, who has just taken over as executive director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), says the post-Vatican II activism in the Catholic Church during the 1960s stoked his passion for social justice.
That passion, coupled with a life-long love of travel, led him first to work in the co-operative movement in Canada's North and then later to apply that experience in Asia and the Philippines.
In January, when CCODP mobilized to help tsunami victims, Casey and his family moved to Montreal to take the position that brings him full circle - running a Catholic organization after years in a non-religious NGO, deeply aware of how his Catholic roots nourished the values he has brought to bear in his life-long work with the poor and powerless.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Casey was one of eight children in a devout Catholic home in Assumption Parish in an era of ferment and change for the Church.
He remembers the introduction of folk Masses with guitars in an effort to make worship more relevant and young priests coming back from the mission field talking about liberation theology.
He also credits the religious formation that made helping others a priority.
By the time Casey attended the University of Alberta, the Vietnam War was on. Draft-dodging professors held teach-ins. He studied political science and economics.
"I got caught up in change, in looking at the world more globally and with more concern for Third World issues," he said in an interview when visiting Ottawa recently.
While Casey was getting his education, his father, who was in the grocery business, was organizing a buying service for Catholic institutions so they could get better discounts. This buying service grew so that it served not only Edmonton, but also dioceses in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, providing goods for residential schools and missions throughout the region.
Casey said his father was always coming back with "neat stories of frontier life." Missionaries began to come down from the North to have supper and stay overnight with the Casey family. "I used to sit up and just talk with them. They were either French or Belgian and had drifted to the Arctic in the 1950s and led a life of dogsleds and igloos," Casey said. "Many were getting involved in the beginning of the aboriginal rights movement."
Priests, inspired by Father Moses Coady's Antigonish movement, began to organize co-operatives.
The stories of these priests inspired Casey, because they were living out "such interesting stories that you read about in Jack London novels."
After university, Casey thought about going overseas with CUSO, but the Canadian Arctic Cooperative Federation was forming and it had direct links with the organization his dad built to supply northern dioceses, so he signed up.
Residential schools were closing, and the Church was at the forefront of helping finance cooperatives to compete with the Hudson's Bay stores.
Casey said the churches provided financing, loaned spare buildings for the stores, and the organization his father had built supplied them.
"The movement really took off in the 1970s," Casey said.
The cooperatives were officially supplied by the government, but the Church remained a major player in fostering aboriginal pride and the quest for rights, Casey said.
While in the North, he worked for Father Andre Goussaert, who had been one of those priests who served in the Arctic during the 1950s and had become active in the cooperative movement.
In 1990, when Goussaert retired, and Casey was in his 30s feeling "as old as Methuselah," he decided to accept a posting with the Canadian Cooperative Association's (CCA) international division in the Philippines.
It's there that he met his wife, a Philippina who specializes in empowering women, and began his international work in using co-operative principles to empower the poor.
Casey says poverty is about not having options or choices and "has nothing to do with money. "Poverty alleviation is about empowering, enabling people to have and to make choices," he said.
For millions around the globe, that experience of being broke without choices or options is something they live with every day "with no possibility of that ever changing."
In addition to showing people how they can band together to remove external barriers, he's worked at tearing down internal barriers like deep-seated fatalism, self-loathing and a sense that "if someone kicks them they deserve it."
He's seen many "good development interventions" where mobilizing a small group of people has a life changing effect, where they discover leadership potential and a sense "we can beat this."
Casey spent 14 years with the CCA, and worked throughout Asia on projects in Vietnam, China, India and Indonesia.
Casey was working in the Philippines and "enjoying the climate" when "out of the blue" he received an email from his old mentor Goussaert, who was now on the board of Development and Peace.
Goussaert suggested he apply for the opening of executive director. The board had been searching since March 2004 and, despite receiving dozens of applications, hadn't found the right person.
As the new executive director, Casey said his focus will include the domestic side of the organization, in raising the consciousness of Canadians in their "solidarity with the poor."
Casey says he has great respect for the traditions of the CCODP, and plans to get to know as much about those traditions as he can, meeting people face to face and understanding the realities they face so he can best serve them as a leader.
"I got caught up in change, in looking at the world more globally and with more concern for Third World issues."
- Michael Casey
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