Gerald Vandezande, co-founder of Citizens for Public Justice, passed away July 16 in Ottawa.

Gerald Vandezande was a social justice pioneer

  • July 20, 2011

Witnessing the courage of Christians helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War inspired Canadian social justice pioneer Gerald Vandezande's faith and anti-poverty work.

A co-founder and the first director of the Ottawa-based Citizens for Public Justice, Mr. Vandezande passed away peacefully at his home on July 16. His funeral was held on July 21 at Pine Hills Visitation Centre in Toronto.

For four decades, Mr. Vandezande worked in public policy development and political advocacy. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2001. His ordepioner citation described him as a “powerful and respected voice for social justice.”

Long-time friend Mark Vander Vennen recalls one of his last conversations with Mr. Vandezande who reminisced about his early influences.

“(The war experience) had a big impact on him. He saw first-hand some extremely courageous things done in resistance to the Nazis by Christians in the name of the Gospel,” said Vander Vennen, executive director of the non-profit Shalem Mental Health Network. “That had a life-long impact on him, including the defense and hiding of Jews.”

Vander Vennen said Mr. Vandezande spoke of the people he admired most during his years in Holland: The pastors, professors, politicians and theologians who were part of the anti-Nazi resistance movement.

“There was a strong tradition of Christian democracy in Holland that Gerald was deeply inspired by and engaged with in his life,” he recalled.

Born in Holland to Annie and Gerald, the 77-year-old father of two, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of two never forgot the memory of Canadian troops liberating Holland, said Joe Gunn, current executive director of Citizens for Public Justice.

Gunn remembers Mr. Vandezande as “larger than a life” and “a kind fellow who left a real impression.”

In the book Justice, Not Just Us, Mr. Vandezande defended the rights of low-income Canadians during a time of economic uncertainty and concern about the deficit in 1999 and 2000. He did likewise in a number of opinion pieces for The Catholic Register.

That was part of Mr. Vandezande's legacy, Vander Vennen said.

“He was a real pioneer in multi-faith approaches to advocating for social justice. He vigourously opposed the marginalization of faith from the public square.”

Mr. Vandezande also spoke at a convention of Catholic teachers because he “believed in the rights of Christian schools,” Gunn said. He also advocated for other faith-based schools.

Mr. Vandezande had a strong prayer life and on the Saturday morning that he died, his wife was getting ready for their daily morning prayer which began with watching the televised Catholic Mass, Gunn said.

Although not a Catholic, Mr. Vandezande found the homilies and readings useful in his prayer life, Gunn said. A member of the Christian Reformed Church, he strongly believed in ecumenism and working with other faith groups.

Mr. Vandezande's legacy is also his anti-poverty work, Gunn said. He was a member of the June Callwood campaign against child poverty and Campaign 2000 which sought to end poverty in Canada

A good friend of Tommy Douglas and other influential politicians from all political parties, Vandezande believed in a non-partisan approach to social justice, said Vander Vennen, an approach reflected in his philosophy on faith.

“It's very much the idea that a lot of Christian-based, biblical values speak to many people, even those who are not of any particular faith, and you can appeal to people's value system to have better public policy,” Gunn said. “Once you have people get together and reflect on those basic values, you can make change happen.”

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