Joe Gunn’s Catholic roots go back to his working class family in Scarborough, Ont. Photo from Deborah Gyapong

Joe Gunn ready for next step in social justice with Oblate Centre

By 
  • January 18, 2019

OTTAWA – After 10 years at the helm of Citizens for Public Justice, Joe Gunn, 64, is leaving Feb. 11 to head up the new Oblate Centre at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

The move brings Gunn’s four-decade career in social justice full circle, back to its Catholic roots. 

“We will work on issues identified of concern to the Oblates: poverty in Canada, issues of environment, mining, especially Canadian mining in the global south and with the Oblates ongoing concern with aboriginal reconciliation,” Gunn said of the program that will be funded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate provinces in Canada.

“A huge thanks to CPJ after this decade with them. Thanks really to God and to everyone who has been so good to me.”

In his last weeks with CPJ, Gunn was on a book tour promoting Journeys to Justice: Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism, a series of interviews with some of the movers and shakers over the last several decades that Gunn conducted with the CPJ’s blessing.

The project and his recent work helped him to take a long view of social change in Canada and the good that Church leaders have accomplished — in everything from Canada’s health care system to her refugee sponsorship program.

“I think what CPJ offers is, for people who know that deep changes take a long and dedicated time in coming, a way to stay faithful to the best of Christian traditions and work together on these big Christian concerns,” he said.

The areas where he believes CPJ helped “move the ball forward” could be seen as relatively small successes. It tried to get the government to end travel loans for refugees, but instead were successful in getting it to drop the interest charges on the loans.

CPJ also worked with anti-poverty NGOs on urging the government to adopt a national anti-poverty reduction plan. A bill calling for one is at second reading.  

“It’s an effort that took a decade of hard work,” he said. “We rarely see the massive breakthrough that people want to see, but we start with building hope and ways for people to move forward.”

CPJ’s Lenten campaign urging the government to be responsible on climate change started with a few congregations but has grown to include 100 in Catholic, Mennonite, Anglican and Christian Reformed churches, he said. It is going into many Catholic schools as well, he said.

“You’re perhaps touching people in ways you never know about,” he said. “That’s our hope, and to give people a sense of doing something a bit bigger.”

Gunn joined CPJ as executive director in 2008 after an 11-year stint as director of social affairs for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

“Most of the members were Christian Reformed people,” he said of the think tank founded by Gerald Vandezande 55 years ago. 

Gunn believed it was time for CPJ to be “thinking more broadly.”

“For me, it was trying to find ways this organization — that had been around for a long time — to find various structures of ecumenical movements to have some impact by getting lots of people involved,” he said. 

Ten years later, the CPJ board and staff has a broader range of Christian religions, including two Catholic representatives, three people of colour, an Aboriginal person and three 30 or under.

Each member brings networks from their own faith tradition so CPJ’s work reaches out to wider networks, Gunn said.

Replacing Gunn at CPJ is Willard Metzer, who worked at World Vision Canada and more recently as executive director of the Mennonite Church Canada.

“He’ll help CPJ grow and develop in some new ways,” said Gunn. 

“It takes a lot of energy and creativity and building relationships,” he said.  “Sometimes we’re good at initiating things, but not as good at knowing when it’s time to move on, and bring in some new ideas.

“I’m leaving in a little trepidation,” he admitted. “I’m hoping it will be a good piece of work with the Oblates going forward.”

CPJ chair James Dekker lauded Gunn’s “stellar work” when his departure was announced in September. 

“We have seen the reach of CPJ’s witness to government deepen and broaden and achieved a stable financial footing,” he said. “Thanks to Joe and our wonderfully qualified staff …. CPJ has gained respect among Members of Parliament from all parties for our policy advocacy in poverty eradication, ecological justice and refugee rights.”

Gunn’s Catholic roots go back to his working class family in Scarborough, Ont. His father and uncles were all factory workers and he worked in a factory during summers and weekends. In the 1970s, he became involved in the Catholic Youth Movement and joined the Youth Corps Movement of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

In 1975, he was offered his first full-time job as the animator of the social action office in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Churches at that time had been helping Chilean refugees come to Canada after the 1973 coup. Gunn went to Regina and began “reaching out to Chilean refugee families” who had been “dropped in the freezing prairies.” 

His familiarity with Mexico and Chilean refugees helped when Gunn was sent to be an observer on the borders of various Central American countries as war broke out. Then the NGOs decided there needed to be a more permanent presence in the region.

Gunn ended up spending seven years in Central America, visiting all the countries where there were refugees, sending back information so programs could be developed to help refugees fleeing conflict in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

He recalled visiting a camp in the jungles of Mexico that had not yet been visited by the UN.  He had three children he was trying to fly out to receive medical attention and one died in his arms. 

The experience taught him the people doing the best work in these camps were workers who came from Catholic dioceses in Mexico. 

“My experience, despite her shadow history, there has always been ways through working in the Church to make me better and have a better impact on social change.”

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