Margaret Rao, President of CUSJ, tells Canadian Unitarians why it is more important than ever to have a social justice organization that is free to speak truth to power on social issues. (Delivered to First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, 2015 03 22
Good morning everyone! My name is Margaret Rao and I am the current President of Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice, otherwise known as CUSJ. It’s been twenty years since I first walked through the doors of this sanctuary with the expressed wish of joining the Choir. Two decades down the road, (where does the time go?) I’m still in the Choir and it’s never sounded better. I feel blessed to have such inspired and committed leaders as Dallas and Shawn in these challenging and rapidly changing times. It was the music & words from the pulpit plus making people connections here, that drew me happily into the Unitarian fold.
But what keeps me here is the work for justice, especially now that I have taken on the rather serious mantle of President of the one and only national social justice arm of the Unitarian movement in Canada. Before retiring, the greater part of my career was spent teaching English as a Second Language to new Canadians. In my last teaching years, more and more people were arriving as refugees from repressive regimes. The ESL classroom was a welcoming place and a safe haven for anyone who walked through its doors. The students shared a common goal of learning English in the hopes of becoming a Canadian citizen one day. We listened to one other and shared our stories, but most of all, we cared for one another and recognized our common humanity beneath surface differences. We also made time for song and laughter and tried not to take ourselves too seriously. My ESL class was a micro ‘world community’, a living testament to my newly found faith’s stated ‘goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.’
But sadly, twenty years ago the political landscape began to change dramatically in Ontario. The government of the day began slashing our cherished public programs in the name of balanced budgets. Education and the environment, health care and social housing were particularly hard hit. Downloading of services from the federal to the provincial to the municipalities began in earnest. Outsourcing of jobs, in the private as well as the public sector, resulted in many good jobs and needed services, being lost. Scandals and tragic loss of lives and livelihoods followed in its wake.
It was for these very reasons that CUSJ came into being on a cold January night in 1996. The first meeting with 79 members from congregations in the Greater Toronto Area, took place right here at Toronto First. Longtime member, Doug Rutherford, was the first elected President and our very own wise elder, Eryl Court became CUSJ’s first Secretary. We have now come full circle and I stand before you, the second chosen President of CUSJ from Toronto First. I reluctantly accepted the nomination last year when our beloved and brilliant threeterm President, the Reverend Frances Deverell, announced she was stepping down.
On the upside, maybe a reluctant President is just what’s needed at this critical juncture in our history. If, as a result, of today’s reflection, one or two, or even a few of you, decide to step out of your comfort zone, to join the ranks of Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice, it will have been well worth my stepping into the President’s Chair. The truth of the matter is, once you commit yourself to the journey for justice, there is no turning back. And I wouldn’t have it any other way! With a fall federal election in the works and international climate negotiations set to resume in Paris in December, we all have our work cut out for us. I will be voting with my values this year and ‘Standing on the Side of Love and Justice’ – CUSJ’s motto, expanding on the highly successful ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ campaign south of the border. It’s going to take all the justice-seekers and lovers of this one and only planet we can muster, for the battle ahead is a battle for our very survival in this fragile ecosystem we are fast destroying.
The struggle for justice in the 21st century is a global struggle, against a top down, corporate, increasingly militarized, thus dehumanizing, fossil-fuelled, consumptiondriven, thus unsustainable system, which puts power and profit ahead of people and the health of the planet. The good news is, there are hundreds upon thousands of civil society organizations and people of good will, locally and globally, that take into account the 4-fold bottom line; namely people, the planet and peace before profit.
It was heartening to see so many Canadians take to the streets in last week’s national day of action against the hastily-written, Anti-Civil Liberties, so-called ‘Anti –Terror Bill,’ C- 51. I refuse to live in an either/or, evil versus good, us versus them, world. My Canada includes Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab to court and the niqab to a citizenship ceremony. The only veil I fear is the veil of secrecy in which the current government wraps itself, in the name of national security. ‘Systems change, not climate change’ was one of the banners raised on the streets of Toronto, and CUSJ’s flaming chalice banner attracted Unitarians from as near as the Neighbourhood Congregation and as far away as Vancouver.
There is change in the air and faith-based hope springs eternal. The role of CUSJ has become even more vital now that the CUC, our national denomination, is being audited by the CRA, Canada’s Revenue Agency, for questionable political activities. As a non-charity, CUSJ has the freedom to challenge government policies and legislation that undermine Canada’s sacred, social contract and our very democracy. At this year’s livestreamed AGM in Ottawa, keynote speaker, Bruce Campbell, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, (one of the 54 progressive leaning charities currently being audited), will address the issue of democracy and dissent. Check out the video of his presentation here!
All this to say, we are a volunteer organization and rely largely on individual members’ support to do the work we do. Of course, we are grateful for your monetary support, but what we would really appreciate is your active support online and in the streets. Sign up to be a member here: There are sample letters and petitions to be signed and regular calls to action. I, for one, will be voting for positive change this year. How will you choose to cast your vote and spend the rest of your one and only precious life? See our Action and Issue Pages to follow the issues and see how to get involved.