Part II: The early years of CUSJ

(Continued from Part 1: The Pre-history of CUSJ)

With this background, the Social Action Committee of South Peel got together with some First Church of Toronto activists to discuss their frustration and possible action. The upshot of this discussion was a meeting for the Greater Toronto Area Unitarians, on Sunday 24th March 1996.

To the astonishment and delight of the organisers, there was standing room only at the meeting, the initial tenor of which can be summed up in one word: FRUSTRATION. All the GTA congregations were well represented at the meeting, as well as some from those within driving distance. In the context of the political environment of the day and the action of some other churches there was one question raised repeatedly at the meeting: where are the Unitarians?

In no time there was a consensus. Within two hours CUSJ was born and a steering committee was formed. Seventy people had signed up to join the new organisation to be dedicated to raising the level of Unitarian participation and action on social justice matters, and to raise our all but invisible public profile on the issues of the day.

The new steering committee elected Doug Rutherford of Toronto First as its chair and set to work with great energy. We produced a statement of purpose, since revised, and had it approved by a number of congregations.

From the beginning we started to work on letters to politicians, both Provincial and Federal on such issues as taxation, the tension between reduction of the deficit and the maintenance of social programs, etc. Many of these letters were written by, and spoke only for, individuals, but a few went out under our organisation’s name. And of course we started work on a newsletter.

Associations were formed with other social justice organisations and in particular with ISARC. ISARC is a highly effective group of experienced religious and lay professionals, committed to social justice and drawn from many faiths, and denominations and social justice groups. It is an Ontario based organisation which has lobbied assiduously, and at senior government levels, on behalf of the poor and underprivileged against many provincial government policies.

Until CUSJ joined this group, as you have heard, there was no Unitarian representation. Since we joined two years or more we have been represented at ISARC by Jeff Brown, the minister of the South Peel congregation. Consequently, Unitarians are now listed in ISARC pronouncements books etc. (I believe we were once listed as the Unitarian Peace Council. However, our name was there.) It is a simple statement of fact that this diverse Ontario group was almost invariably, if not always, unanimous in its reaction to provincial government initiatives in the social policy field. Their unanimity and some local experience have convinced me that multi-faith action can be very effective in getting results and may well be very appropriate to small groups such as ours.

From the beginning CUSJ worked on letters, usually signed by an individual but sometimes by the chair on behalf of the committee. Among some of the other early activities to name a few were:

  1. Presentation by our chair, Doug Rutherford, to a legislative committee against the (Toronto) amalgamation bill. This was covered on the Ontario Legislative channel with the Unitarian name clearly displayed on the screen.
  2. Another presentation to a similar committee by Wey Robinson, now of Hamilton, against the “new speak” titled, Tenants Protection Act, an act which, as expected, has made its contribution to homelessness.
  3. General participation in vigils, protest rallies, and large meetings of allied groups.

While early work tended to be concerned with Ontario policies we were not enamoured with Federal actions either. We were not in sympathy with the total obsession with the deficit and the massive cuts to the Canada Assistance Plan and social programs. These ended the Federal Government’s participation in a national housing strategy, and I need not elaborate on the consequences of that.

(Thinking back on this time, I recall Mr Martin’s saying that he would balance the budget come Hell or High Water. Well, true to his word Mr Martin has balanced the budget and Hell has come to untold numbers of our poorest and most vulnerable fellow citizens. In addition, great frustration has come to all the lower levels of government onto which he downloaded responsibilities.)

At this stage the fledgling committee was much more concerned with action rather than administration and rejected the idea of drafting a constitution as a diversion we did not immediately need. Thus we continued with our letter writing etc. and formed affiliations with other groups with which we shared objectives. These were Citizens for Public Justice, Metro Network for Social Justice and the National Anti-Poverty Organisation. We have made financial contributions to all of these groups.

Part III: CUSJ goes national