Witness for peace: Chronicling the role of the Canadian churches in shaping public policy over the past 40 years

Tasneem Jamal

Paul C. Heidebrecht
and Jennifer Wiebe

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 2 Summer 2015

Canadian churches recently marked four decades of ecumenical coalition work for the pursuit of peace and justice. During that time, Canadian Christians across theological traditions have come together—speaking to, and arguably shaping, public policy discussions on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, Canadian military intervention and spending, the humanitarian impacts of landmines and cluster bombs, and the regulation of small arms. This ecumenical witness for peace is part of a rich history of activism.

Project Ploughshares: The ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament
One illustration of interchurch collaboration for peace in Canada is the work of Project Ploughshares. Established in 1976 as a project of The Canadian Council of Churches, Ploughshares emerged as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament. Ploughshares has developed a depth of expertise on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, conventional arms control, the non-weaponization of space, and the reduction of armed violence. Sought after by policymakers and civil society actors alike, Ploughshares research has served as a focal point over the years for broader church participation on the peacebuilding agenda.

As part of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, Canadian churches were at the forefront of shaping public policy debates on nonproliferation and disarmament. Across denominations, the indiscriminate effects of nuclear weapons created “nuclear pacifists.” In December of 1982 and 1983, Project Ploughshares led church leader delegations to meet directly with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to articulate an ecumenical perspective on nuclear disarmament. The delegation articulated an unqualified rejection of the moral validity of nuclear weapons and provided specific proposals aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals. This kind of church engagement, in the words of Canada’s current Governor General David Johnston, “helped to move the idea of a freeze on nuclear weapons from the margins to the mainstream” (Johnston 2011).

In 1985, Brian Mulroney’s government conducted a major foreign policy review. Parliament created a special Joint Committee on External Affairs and National Defence to gather input from Canadians on the values and objectives they believed to be important. After releasing a Green Paper to generate discussion, the Committee conducted dozens of public consultations across the country. The Canadian Council of Churches submitted a document with more than 60 policy recommendations regarding Canada’s role on the international stage. Two years later, the Canadian government tabled its defence White Paper. The churches again offered a response through the leadership of Project Ploughshares.

The government’s foreign and defence policy during these years was broadly criticized for building Canada’s national security around very limited (and self-interested) notions of economic competitiveness, solidarity with the United States, and a sense of “armed fortress security” (Lind & Mihevc 1994, p. 186) or protection from external military threats. At the heart of the churches’ response to this policy framework was the concept of “common security.” This concept—championed by Project Ploughshares throughout the 1980s—proposed that the path to greater peace and security was not best achieved through increased militarization, but by focusing collective energies on the root causes of insecurity such as political, environmental, and economic injustice. As security paradigms shifted substantially at the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s the concept of “human security” began to take hold within the policies and programs of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Church coalitions and other civil society actors were afforded funding channels for peacebuilding work as well as opportunities to engage the government through various annual and biannual consultations.

In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the churches were very active in calling for Canada to stay out of the war. They reached out to the public—creating relevant worship materials, supporting ecumenical prayer vigils, and even producing a half-page ad in The Globe and Mail with the words, “Say NO to war in Iraq; say YES to building peace.” They wrote letters to U.S. President George W. Bush and to Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

In January 2003, Project Ploughshares, The Canadian Council of Churches, and KAIROS wrote a joint statement to Prime Minister Chrétien entitled, “Prepare for Peace in Iraq.” This statement—officially endorsed by some 40,000 Canadians—outlined a rationale for why Canada should not participate in the “coalition of the willing.” In a chance encounter with Prime Minister Chrétien after the war started, an Evangelical Lutheran Bishop was told by the Prime Minister that the vocal testimony of Canadian churches played an influential role in the Cabinet’s decision to stay out of Iraq.

Government’s new policy agenda
Canada’s foreign and defence policy changed direction in notable ways with the election of a Conservative government in 2006. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has elevated the role, budget, and social prominence of the Canadian military. The recent posture of Canada on the world stage has left little room for projects such as United Nations peacekeeping operations or the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

Canada’s “principled approach to foreign policy” has meant that the government refuses to “go along in order to get along” (Baird 2012). The lexicon of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development has been wiped clean of language that was commonplace in the 1990s, including terms such as “human security,” “public diplomacy,” and “good governance” (Davis 2004).

When the Canadian government has a different policy agenda than the proponents of peacebuilding, those proponents face acute challenges. Further, the kind of consultation process that the Canadian government embarked on in the 1980s is now difficult to fathom. Substantive White Papers have been replaced by sparse ministerial announcements or press releases. The expertise provided by church coalitions has become a product without a market in Ottawa.

Citizens have a new attitude
A change in government isn’t the only significant contextual change that Canadian churches have faced in recent years. Churches no longer speak with the same authority in public policy debates. Canadian church membership and participation have declined significantly. Moreover, Canadians do not trust leaders and experts of any kind as much as they used to. With access to instant information, today’s citizens believe they can make up their own minds. It seems obvious that the attitude of Canadians to the political process has changed significantly since churches first began to collaborate on advocacy.

Where do we go from here?
The greater dissonance between the agendas of the Canadian churches and the federal government in recent years provides a compelling motivation for advocacy. More than ever, it is clear that advocacy is long-term work. Perhaps coalitions have the freedom to once again step back and focus on shaping a larger counter-narrative, viewing themselves as performing an “enlightenment” function in setting the agenda for future policy actions, rather than acting as insiders engaged in short-term problem-solving or tweaking of government policies (Weiss 1977). To borrow a phrase used by researchers in the field of policy influence, coalitions can embrace the role of being “norm entrepreneurs” (Clarke 2008).

Next, the centralization of power should not lead coalitions to overlook opportunities to have an impact on policies and actions that fall outside the limelight set by the government’s own priorities or the media.

Finally, the decline of deference to authority figures means that individual voices matter more than ever. This provides a clear rationale for increased attention to public engagement efforts as an initial and primary mode of advocacy. It also seems clear that, in a post-secular context, there is new space for people of faith. While Canadians may distrust religious leaders more, they are also more open to persuasive moral arguments informed by faith convictions.

The story of Canadian churches collaborating to amplify their peace witness merits both celebration and further analysis. Let us hope that this rich history of ecumenical collaboration provides inspiration for those seeking to keep faith with that tradition in a rapidly changing political world.

This article is derived from “Keeping the Faith? Tracing the struggle to amplify the peace witness of Canadian churches,” which can be found in The Ecumenist: A journal of theology, culture, and history, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter 2015, pp. 1-10. Paul Heidebrecht is Director of the MSCU Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo. Jennifer Wiebe is Director of the Ottawa office of Mennonite Central Committee.
This article is derived from “Keeping the Faith? Tracing the struggle to amplify the peace witness of Canadian churches,” which can be found in The Ecumenist: A journal of theology, culture, and history, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter 2015, pp. 1-10. Paul Heidebrecht is Director of the MSCU Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo. Jennifer Wiebe is Director of the Ottawa office of Mennonite Central Committee.



Baird, John.2012. Address by Minister Baird at Montreal Council on Foreign Relations Luncheon.Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, September 14.

Clarke, Warren. 2008. Transnational advocacy coalitions and human security initiatives: Explaining success and failure. Hertie School of Governance Working Papers, No. 35, July.

Davis, Jeff. 2009. Liberal era diplomatic language killed off. Embassy, July 1.

Johnston, David. 2011. Presentation of the 2010 Pearson Gold Medal. The Governor General of Canada, January 21.

Lind, Christopher and Joseph Mihevc. 1994.Eds. Coalitions for Justice: The Story of Canada’s Interchurch Coalitions, Novalis.

Weiss, Carol H. 1977. Research for policy’s sake: The enlightenment function of social research. Policy Analysis 3/4, pp. 533-34.

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