Stephen HarperOTTAWA - As the Conservative Party celebrates its fifth anniversary in power, it is recognizing a major reason for the success: a swing in the Catholic and the ethnic vote away from the Liberals.

It’s quite a change. It wasn’t so long ago that the Liberals could count on the Catholic and ethnic vote overwhelmingly going its way. In fact, a 2005 study by André Blais of the Canadian Political Science Association found that in the preceding 40 years, Catholics in English Canada were 18 per cent more likely than non-Catholics to vote Liberal.

But that changed when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were elected in 2006 to a minority government, and returned two years later.

Justice council shows bite taken by Tories’ new prison policy

Prison graphicBuilding on an October letter from Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is trying to galvanize opposition to Conservative justice and corrections policies by showing how much it’s going to cost to jail people for longer periods.

The council, which includes the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops among 11 national churches, sent its own letter to Harper just before Christmas. It repeats Gordon’s argument against tough-on-crime legislation.

“Your policy is applying a costly prison response to people involved in the courts who are non-violent offenders, or to repeat offenders who are mentally ill and/or addicted, the majority of whom are not classified as high risk. These offenders are disproportionately poor, ill-equipped to learn, from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups,” said the letter.

Canadian social change is court driven

OTTAWA - Whether it is marriage, conscience rights, parental rights to educate their children or hot-button issues like prostitution, the real battles are taking place in the courts rather than in Parliament, say those on the front lines.

Catholic Civil Rights League president Phil Horgan said that changes to social policy are no longer coming from the legislative framework where politicians persuade their fellow citizens in elections and then get the support of other legislators to pass changes into law.

When the state does enter into areas of social policy — like Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture course and the recent related prohibition on religious instruction, prayers or songs in day cares run by religious groups — it has become almost impossible to combat that kind of secularism in legislatures.

Canada’s bishops invite young people to a life of chastity

OTTAWA - Canada’s Catholic bishops have issued a countercultural message to young people inviting them to lead lives of chastity.

“Today, chastity is often mistakenly associated with being old-fashioned, with a fear of passion or with sexual inhibition,” said the eight-page pastoral letter to young people on chastity issued Jan. 27 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Episcopal Commission for Doctrine. “But in reality it is much more than simply the absence of sexual relations.

“Chastity calls for purity of mind as well as body,” the document stresses. “If we are not working to develop a pure heart or a pure mind, then our bodily actions will reflect this. If we have no control over our desires or passions, then we cannot be trusted in either the big or the small things.”

Canadian students rally at American pro-life march

Students from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ont., joined an estimated 400,000 American pro-lifers at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24.

Organized by the pro-life group at the Catholic liberal arts college, 20 students and three staff members attended the march and with the opening prayer vigil Mass held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“We walked, prayed the Rosary, prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet and sang chants,” said second-year student Kathleen Dunn, president of the school’s pro-life group. “It was really amazing to be a part of it.”

Social spending an investment in future, Catholic Charities says

Rose of Sharon TORONTO - When Ontario Finance Minster Dwight Duncan receives the pre-budget submission from Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, he’s not going to be surprised by the spending priorities of the 28 agencies Catholic Charities funds. But Catholic Charities hopes to catch Duncan’s attention with their reasons for increased social spending.

Catholic Charities agencies serve Toronto communities by supporting teenaged mothers, helping the deaf, caring for young people with developmental disabilities, providing day care and counselling couples and families in crisis. They want Duncan to put money in service of the poor. They’re asking for:

  •  a $100 a month healthy food supplement to welfare payments to try to reduce reliance on food banks for 375,000 people every month who visit an Ontario food bank;

  •  raising the Ontario Child Benefit for low-income families to $1,500 by 2013. The $1,100 OCB is scheduled to rise to $1,310 by 2013;

Long-time employee investigated in $500,000 St. John’s theft

ST. JOHN’S, Nfld. - The trusted friend and colleague who saved Archbishop Martin Currie’s life two years ago is being investigated in the theft of more than $500,000 from the archdiocese of St. John’s.

The archdiocese has laid a complaint with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary over cheques Bill Power wrote to himself. An employee of the archdiocese for 38 years, Power was the comptroller and business manager for the archdiocese who also managed the business of the Catholic cemeteries.

Canadian Catholics respond to flooded areas

As mud and water claim lives and homes around the world, Catholics in Canada are exploring ways they might help.

Floods have claimed 680 lives in Brazil and left 21,500 homeless in the worst natural disaster to hit South America’s largest country in 40 years. In Australia floods have killed 30 people, 20,000 have been forced out of their homes and 60 towns submerged in the western state of Queensland. Colombia was hit with mudslides just before Christmas that killed 301 people, injured 292, destroyed more than 5,000 homes, damaged over 300,000 homes and flooded 1.32 million hectares of farm land.

Socially responsible investing goes mainstream

In the 20th century big business was strictly business.  

But in the 21st century companies can’t stay in business if they’re ignoring the environment, hushing talk of human and labour rights or not returning calls from shareholders who want to know what the board is doing and why.

Socially responsible investors are no longer on the fringe of the investment world. Where 10 years ago talk of ethical investing drew smirks and rolling eyeballs, today it’s a top-line concern of boards, CEOs and CFOs.

“The huge difference (compared to 10 years ago) is that we’ve seen acceptance in the mainstream,” said Michael Jantzi, CEO and founder of Jantzi Sustainalytics.

On the environment, social issues and governance, corporations now see non-financial issues, once considered “externalities,” central to running a successful business in the long term, said Jantzi, who established Canada’s socially responsible investing (SRI) stock index — the Jantzi Social Index — in 2000.

“We’re only going to see an increased level of interest in these issues,” he said.

Particularly on the environment, corporations now regard the risks as anything but external, said Social Investment Organization executive director Eugene Ellmen.

“The BP disaster really was a wake-up call. It was a wake-up call for the mainstream industry,” said Ellmen.

SRI investors knew BP was running risks in the Gulf of Mexico long before it happened and avoided the stock. Investors who ignored the environmental risks paid the price.

The investment industry in Canada is not the world leader in sustainable, socially responsible investment.

With 13 separate jurisdictions and regulators at the federal level opting for voluntary codes of conduct and optional enforcement, the global investment industry is setting the tone.

Two international covenants have become central pillars in the world of ESG (environment, social and governance) investing. The Carbon Disclosure Project includes 534 institutional investors around the world representing $64 trillion in assets. The corporations and investment funds that subscribe to the London-based CDP are committed to researching and publishing the amount of carbon their business operations release into the atmosphere.

Four-hundred-and-eighty-five investment managers, 220 asset owners and 168 professional service partners with $22 trillion in assets under management have signed the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment. The stock market meltdown of fall 2008 didn’t drive the big investors away from ESG. The largest number of UNPRI signatories came on board after the crisis.

In Canada, the big public pension funds are leading the way. The Caisse de dépot et placement du Quebec, OPSEU Pension Trust, British Columbia Municipal Pension Plan and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board are all signatories to the UNPRI.

“On the Canadian scene specifically, I think we’ve got some great leadership here in the pension community,” said Jantzi.

When the big pension funds call up asking about future environmental liabilities, Canada’s publicly traded companies respond.

“Institutional investors are continuing to press for more disclosure on environmental, social and governance issues,” said Jantzi. “And the companies are having to respond.”

Canadian markets will be led more by global trends than local regulation, according to Jantzi.

“On a global scale, Canadian financial markets just don’t have a huge amount of heft,” he said.

Canadian regulators, particularly the Ontario Securities Commission, are beginning to set conditions that will make SRI standard practice. The OSC may soon require publicly traded companies to “say-on-pay.” The SRI community has long demanded that boards reveal how much CEOs and other senior management make — and disclose what incentives are built into their compensation.

Even without enforceable say-on-pay rules, ESG Services, working for Ethical Funds and its parent NEI Investments, has been researching how oil sands company CEOs are paid, and whether their pay is tied to reductions in environmental liabilities.

They’ve found that the oil sands bosses get paid even if nobody knows how much it will cost shareholders to clean up vast tailing ponds or compensate native communities for downstream health outcomes.

For private investors — people who typically buy mutual funds at tax time — the chance to influence corporate Canada on the environment, social issues and governance has expanded exponentially in a decade. Where once persistence was required to persuade a financial advisor to sell an SRI mutual fund, now all the big banks offer socially responsible funds.

There’s also been a series of buy-outs of smaller SRI mutual fund companies that have made the funds more easily available. Where Ethical Funds were once only available at some credit unions they’re now sold through Desjardins Bank and the independent brokers that deal with Northwest and Ethical Investments (NEI). Acuity mutual funds are now similarly available through the much larger distribution network of AGF Management Limited.

“It puts the socially responsible mutual fund companies on more equal footing,” said Jantzi. “A lot of those advantages haven’t fully kicked in yet.”

While the funds are more available, it doesn’t mean that they’ve been impressing investors with great results.

“The industry has been somewhat disappointed,” said Ellmen.

The JSI has struggled to keep pace with conventional stock indices since the 2008 meltdown.

“I don’t put too much stock in short-term results,” said Jantzi. “The financial sector continues to struggle and we’re heavily weighted in the financial stocks.”

Holding considerable bank and insurance stocks means holding less in oil or gold mining — the resource sectors that have kept Canadian stock exchanges afloat the past two years.

“It’s a social index. It’s weighted differently, as you would expect. Over a shorter period of time you will see things struggle,” said Jantzi.

Even with disappointing recent results, Canadians continue to be interested in ESG factors in their investments. Social Investment Organization polling suggest 70 per cent of Canadian investors want more information about socially responsible investing, said Ellmen. With between two and three per cent of Canada’s pool of mutual fund money invested in SRI funds, there’s “huge room for growth,” he said.

Catholic, United Church committee work on marriage statement

OTTAWA - A joint committee from the Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada are in the draft stages of a shared statement on marriage, despite being on opposing sides of the marriage debate.

The draft is the result of six years of focused dialogue on marriage and it could be another two years before it is made public. It will be a joint statement but not a consensus document, said Julien Hammond, an Edmonton archdiocese ecumenical officer who has participated in the dialogue on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

“The readers will be surprised the dialoguers have so much agreement,” he said.

Hospital boards evolve, not always for the better


When Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews appointed a supervisor to run Windsor’s Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital Jan. 5, the government-appointed new man took charge of the hospital’s board — including responsibility for the hospital’s Catholic mission and identity.

The previous board chair was dismissed 10 days before Christmas by Catholic Health International, which owns the hospital. That followed a provincial investigation last summer that highlighted an “alarming lack of respect between medical leaders, senior management and the board of directors.”

The dismissed board chair would not comment on whether the board was getting the job done at the Windsor hospital. Read More