Social Justice: Is Talk Enough?

“The Gathering” is the newsletter of The Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican parish at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor Street in downtown Toronto. This article was published in the Harvest 2010 edition.

by Charles Klassen

I was at dinner with friends recently. As the waiter took our orders I realized we had again proved a point I’ve been making for so long. We took more time to study the restaurant’s menu than we spend otherwise thinking about human rights and social justice. That’s not only true for the group around the table that evening but is the case for a great many of us. As members of the Church of the Redeemer family, called to make a difference in the world, what do we already do and what more could we be doing?

One glimpse into why some may be reluctant to engage even in discussing justice issues can be seen in a recent issue in the media. The treatment of Afghan detainees has attracted a lot of media attention. The question of whether Canadian soldiers were complicit in the abuse and torture of the captured militants they turned over to local authorities and the difficulty our federal government has with full disclosure in response to that question has received much coverage. As counterpoint, a Globe & Mail reader from Woodbridge, Ontario offered his perspective in a letter published last year. The reader referenced a Globe editorial supporting “Canadian’s need to know”, and his letter asked but one question. “Does anyone really think the average Canadian family struggling to hang on to their jobs, put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads while otherwise going about their daily routine really care about Taliban prisoners in the hands of Afghan authorities half a world away? What a non-issue.” This letter speaks for many, where bread and butter issues override concern for the welfare of humankind, be it in Afghanistan, or Canada.

A cause célèbre of mine is the often questionable treatment of prisoners in Canada – federally, provincially and locally. Crown attorneys and criminal lawyers in Toronto’s Criminal Courts of Justice at Old City Hall and College Park go only as far publicly as defining Ontario’s penal system as “terrible”. Some Crowns use prolonged detention as leverage while some lawyers coax clients that a plea arrangement, after six to twelve months in pre-trial custody, trumps a trial that avoids a further year in jail but disregards any potential favourable outcome of a trial. Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, but Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (CSCS) concedes that it can’t always meet those standards let alone its own, referring specifically to overcrowding in its institutions. That is, however, only to what it will admit.

As bad as conditions are, our current federal government still did away with the two-for-one credit for time served before sentencing. For those acquitted, found not guilty, or whose charges are dropped after pre-trial detention, there is no talk of compensation. Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), our federal penal system, is a lumbering and complex bureaucracy that would make Sir Humphrey Appleby proud. CSC takes itself very seriously, and while paying lip service to its mandate, fends off criticisms from the Office of the Correctional Investigator that border on charges of moral and ethical corruption, and outright abuse. I could fill this issue of the Gathering with my observations of the CSC, but will only note here that for anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 per inmate per year, depending on how the figures are manipulated, we don’t get value for the dollars spent. No matter the jurisdiction though, the bottom line is the same. When one of us seriously offends the public order and is incarcerated in a provincial jail or federal prison, our penal systems teach inmates above all else that the society they’ve offended is not worthy of respect.

Here at our Lunch Program we offer supportive services along with breakfast and lunch, and safe harbour. Our staff and volunteers are augmented by many more from outside the church, and along with our community partners make us a model for outreach. With that in mind, it should be obvious though that something vital is missing from the broader conversation. Let’s drift for a moment into a Utopian dream of a new world dawning, muse upon the scents in the Garden of Eden, the peace of a Heaven on Earth. Let us ask ourselves the what if question. What if the men and women in our jails and prisons, the guests at our Lunch Program here at the church and at every meal program and drop-in, the lost on our streets and the lonely in their solitary rooms, were made whole? What if these men and women became productive, contributing members of society, and okay, let’s go so far as to say tax-payers and consumers and participants in public affairs? What difference might that make in our own lives? How much would it improve the conditions in our broken world?

Now let’s put both feet back on the ground. How about we dare to dream, but try only to make happen what is reasonably possible? What we have now in our jails, prisons and outreach programs is the sound of one shoe dropping. Even Bill Blair, the Chief of Toronto Police Services, said a number of months ago that we need to do more with the people in our jails to help them turn their lives around while we have the opportunity to do so. In spite of the contributions we make as individuals or as members of a group, where are the commitments of our provincial and federal governments to improve the lives of people to whom they are as accountable as they are to the fortunate rest of us?

Social services spending was cut years ago in this province, and the erosion has been a continuing feature in government policy ever since. None of us should forget Ontario’s “let them eat cake” moment, when David Tsubouchi, as Minister of Community & Social Services in the Mike Harris government at the time, suggested that we should negotiate the price of a dented can of tuna at the supermarket! Remember too that our lunch program and others like it were only a stopgap all those years ago, a temporary lifeline, until the economy turned around and social programs could be given some consideration. As time has passed, however, Queen’s Park has become comfortable letting charitable organizations like ours deal with what they leave in their wake.

Our federal government in the meantime showcases its propensity for medieval sensibilities. Canada is one of the few western countries without a national housing policy. Our human rights record is under scrutiny. The on-going draconian law and order agenda has failed in other jurisdictions, just as it will here. Our “war on drugs” brings misery to tens of thousands, puts billions into the wrong hands, and cost us hundreds of millions. Ottawa is a dragon nursery, giving politicians the opportunity to mount their chargers and ride off on crusade. They cannot win, but then the shining armour is intended only to impress. Rehabilitation, intervention, compassion, support, motivation, rebirth are anathema. But, make no mistake. Our prisoners are us. Our lunch program guests are us. Our drug addicts are us. We are all one. As members of the Church of the Redeemer family, we make a difference through the work that we already do. What more are we called to do?

Charles Klassen is a member of the 11:15 community and an advocate for prisoners’ rights.

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