Part 1: The Pre-history of CUSJ

Editor’s note: In February 13, 2000, Norman McLeod, a founding member of CUSJ, gave a talk to the Unitarian fellowship of Peterborough on the history of CUSJ to that time. Since the history of CUSJ had not yet been officially recorded, the JUSTnews’s editorial board offered to publish the talk. Here is the first of three Parts, this one describing why and how CUSJ began.

– By Norman A. McLeod

UU activism at a nadir

Canadian UUs, with some justification, have always perceived themselves to be in the forefront of the fight for social justice. The degree to which this perception is valid is sometimes open to question in my view. Our enthusiasm for social justice causes, while having a solid underlying base, seems to ebb and flow with the times. In 1996 when CUSJ was formed it seemed to many of us that we were in an ebbing mode.

Many older Unitarians looked back with nostalgia to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when social action was strong in our denomination, as it has been throughout our history. In the Toronto area, some felt that by 1996 the level of our denominational involvement had become quite weak.

Over time, one of the indicators was felt to be the low level of coverage of social action issues in the Canadian Unitarian. Efforts to correct this saw the birth of Social Action Network News, which was sent out across Canada. Regrettably, this endeavour, though promising, was short-lived and thus social action seemed to languish again denominationally. Note that I am not ascribing this viewpoint to Unitarians in general, but the sentiment was unmistakably there.

The Common Sense revolution spur

This diminished sense of social justice concern was still evident with the implementation of the Ontario Government’s Common Sense Revolution, which to many of us was revolting indeed. These Common Sense Revolution policies, (a brilliant populist title by the way), had begun to activate the faith community in general. The Catholic Bishops had published an open letter criticizing the policies of the government, which they saw as damaging to society. Other denominations and social justice groups were on the public record opposing policies like the 22% welfare cut. Key church leaders spoke out in strong opposition and got a lot of press.
Many Unitarians who know about CUSJ, believe or assume that some Ontario Government policies triggered the formation of CUSJ. Now, I am not one inclined to give too much credit to the Ontario Conservative Government. However, I give it full credit for the assistance it provided in the founding of CUSJ. Their policies were of immense help as were those of the Federal Liberal Government whose policies stimulated membership across Canada.

I would like to underline, however, that in the minds of those who were the catalysts in forming CUSJ, regressive policies were not the only concern. They were concerned that the Unitarians had lost their traditional dedication to social action and this seemed at least as serious as particular external factors. We seemed to be losing our voice and becoming less relevant, even within the faith community. It was felt that we should be making our views known for what they were worth, and be stimulating Unitarians to express themselves as individuals, too. We simply were not doing that in any effective way.

ISARC led the way

In the meantime ISARC, (Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition) a very strong interfaith group, made a strong protest to a legislative committee on Ontario Bill 26 in Dec ’95. This was the all-encompassing bill that got the revolution really underway. Their submission concluded with the words:

“The conviction of our faith value tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish. From the perspective of the faith community, we have already gone close enough to the dissolution of a people. We urge this government and this committee to refrain from any more incursions into what makes us a people, a community, and what unravels our life together.

We ask this government and this committee to begin a change of heart with a decision to delay this Bill 26 and to ask the people whose life is at stake. There can be no more basic exercise of our democratic society. There can be no greater obligation of government than to work with its citizens to build a society free of poverty, hunger and homelessness.”

This presentation was signed by representatives of the United Church of Canada, Citizens for Public Justice, Presbyterian Church of Canada, Toronto Diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada, Chief Rabbi, Holy Blossom Temple, Buddhist Communities of Greater Toronto, Mennonite Central Committee –Ontario. Unitarians are not listed.

Part II: The early years