Sr. Norma McDonald and Janelle Delorme, at front from left with flowers, received the Catholic Foundation of Manitoba’s Caritas Award last month. Photo courtesy Janelle Delorme

Social justice just a way of life

  • May 26, 2023

Janelle Delorme was practically born into social justice activism. At 12 she participated in her first ThinkFast with the Development and Peace club at her school.

Through high school and university Delorme was an active member of Canada’s Catholic international solidarity organization, and travelled to Brazil as part of Development and Peace’s 2012 delegation to Rio+20 — a United Nations conference on the environment that was a watershed moment, permanently linking environmental stewardship with humanitarian and just development in poor countries.

As she was finishing up her Master’s in community health science at the University of Manitoba in 2014, Delorme was offered a job as Development and Peace animator for Manitoba and Thunder Bay.

“I’ve grown up in D&P,” she told The Catholic Register.

But her life in Development and Peace-Caritas Canada also led Delorme to a more definite and public attachment to her Indigenous identity as a Red River Metís. Today she is a Drum Carrier, a great honour in many Indigenous cultures, which bestows responsibility for the heartbeat of the land. She hosts the French-language podcast “Chronique RéconciliACTION.” She is a Kairos Blanket Exercise facilitator, who has taken the interactive demonstration of the Indigenous-European history in Canada to parishes and schools throughout Manitoba. When the first reports of alleged unmarked graves emerged from Kamloops in 2021, she organized a group to tie 215 orange ribbons along the walkway of the St. Boniface Cathedral.

The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba last month awarded Delorme its annual Caritas Award, alongside the woman who urged her to join in on that first ThinkFast when she was 12 — Sr. Norma McDonald.

At 40, Delorme is moving on from Development and Peace, taking up a new position in healthcare. But she holds up McDonald’s example of how to engage young people in the Church.

McDonald’s invitation to Delorme didn’t end with one event. McDonald was always coming up with things for Delorme to do — activities, campaigns, protests and more. When Development and Peace was trying to draw attention to labour conditions in factories that produce Nike shoes and Levis jeans, McDonald had Delorme and her classmates make paper shoes. But the teacher made sure that some kids didn’t have scissors and others had scissors that didn’t work. All kinds of tiny frustrations built into the exercise taught Delorme and her friends that life isn’t fair if you’re a poor kid in a poor country working in a sweatshop.

“It was the realization that there were kids at the other end of the world, our age, who were in warehouses basically, sweatshops, that were making our shoes, our jeans,” said Delorme.

That school days’ memory still forms part of Delorme’s sense of social justice.

As a young delegate to Rio+20, Delorme encountered other Indigenous people from Brazil and around the world.

“I felt that there was an unexplained connection with all the Indigenous folks that I met from around the world,” she said. “The same struggles that are happening here in Canada are the struggles in other parts of the world. Indigenous communities everywhere are at the forefront of protecting the land, protecting the community.”

Seeing the parallels and the differences changed her perspective.

“My worlds were colliding,” she said.

In her work as a Development and Peace animator, Delorme has tried to put McDonald’s techniques for engaging young people into action. She encourages youth to lead. For Development and Peace workshops, she gets university and high school students to host. The white-haired parish Development and Peace members are only too happy to attend an event that has the energy and hope of younger people.

“We might not find the young folks necessarily in the pews, but there are young folks that actually do care,” Delorme said. “There are young folks who want to participate in one way or another.”

Delorme encouraged exactly that sort of participation in her friendship with current Development and Peace-Caritas Canada president Brenda Akaraza. When Delorme urged Akaraza to stand for a vacant spot on Development and Peace’s national council, Akaraza “didn’t think the board was ready for someone who didn’t agree with the status quo.”

Delorme reminded Akaraza of the difference between waiting for the status quo to change and changing the status quo.

“One thing I learn from Janelle when we talk about social justice is making space for all the voices,” said Akaraza. “It’s something that I have been trying to put into practice with Development and Peace — how to make space at the table for the voices we don’t expect, the voices that can challenge us, the voices that help us address the right questions.”

No longer a Development and Peace employee, Delorme remains a Share Year-Round member.

“I will remain in contact and active with D&P here, locally,” she said. “It’s still one of the organizations that I care for so much.”

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