It’s a unique event in the life of a Roman Catholic parish when a Canadian university press publishes a monograph on one of its ministries. In fulfilling its mission over the past 30 years, the St. Joe’s Refugee Outreach Committee (ROC) has, of course, extended far beyond the boundaries of its home parish — helping to settle more than 200 refugees and immigrants seeking asylum and a new life in Canada. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I work in the leadership of St. Joseph’s Parish, as its executive director. Earlier this summer, when I had the chance to attend the University of Ottawa’s book launch of Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions — Refuge Through Activism at Ottawa’s St. Joe’s Parish, I purchased a copy of the book and committed myself to reviewing it. This succinct and accessible co-authored work is based heavily on oral interviews with 16 of the ROC’s past and present volunteers, as well as several refugees who were once the recipients of care and support. The book also relies on the ROC’s archive of meeting minutes, the Parish Bulletin and the Spirit newsletter, newspaper clippings and other media sources. One of the most important contributions of this book is how it has drawn on, and helped to preserve grassroots primary sources held by volunteers. These are the types of sources, accumulated by passionate community organizers, that are frequently neglected in published works. In time, they also risk being lost.
Co-authors Stéfanie Morris, Karina Juma, Meredith Terretta and Patti Tamara Lenard framed the ROC’s history within the broader context of private sponsorships –formally introduced into law in 1978 as part of Canada’s Immigration Act. Section 115 of the Act allowed charitable organizations and groups of five or more private Canadian citizens to select refugees abroad and commit to funding and coordinating the first year of their settlement in Canada. Faith communities have been the driving forces behind these private sponsorships. Not only were Christian and Jewish communities the most vocal advocates in lobbying the federal government to become more open to accepting refugees after World War II, but they were the first to step up, organize and raise the necessary funds to settle new families.
The connection between religious faith and refugee outreach appears throughout this book. Speaking with the authors, ROC volunteers said: “Christianity is our motivation, but we are not here to proselytize.” We learn of the trailblazing efforts of Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar, a practising Roman Catholic, in welcoming thousands of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ to the nation’s capital in 1979. Mayor Dewar launched Project 4000 as she felt that the federal government had been lacklustre in its efforts to settle Southeast Asian refugees. She believed that much more could be done. On July 12, 1979, Mayor Dewar spearheaded a rally in Lansdowne Park, which attracted more than 3,000 participants. The demonstration included a roster of high-profile religious leaders as keynote speakers, notably Catholic Archbishop Joseph-Aurèle Plourde, Anglican Bishop William Robinson and Rabbi Don Gerber of Temple Israel. Local media, including the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal, played an active role in building support for private sponsorships as well. The rally and the popularity of sponsorship among faith communities helped convince the new Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Joe Clark to augment the quota of refugees from 8,000 to 50,000. The government also signed agreements with 40 churches and faith-based organizations that would serve as partners in the private sponsorship programme. Between 1979 and 1982, the majority of Southeast Asian refugees to Canada (34,000 out of 60,000) were being privately sponsored — largely by faith communities.
It’s within this broader context that the book introduces the reader to St. Joseph’s Parish. Even before ROC was formally established in 1990, a student-led initiative called The Bridge of Friendship, organized under the aegis of the Archdiocese’s Catholic Centre for Immigrants, invited parishes to seek volunteers to engage in refugee support. That’s when Louise Lalonde, a member of the Catholic Secular Institute called the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and a parishioner of St. Joseph’s Parish, first became involved in refugee support. The initiative matched her with a Salvadoran family in Ottawa who she visited and supported weekly. Louise shared with the authors of this book her reflection on the reciprocity of this type of ministry. “While they appreciated my support during their process of integration into Canadian society, I was enriched by their culture and their example of generous hospitality.” Louise’s words reminded me of Henri Nouwen’s concept of the “wounded healer.”
Although The Bridge of Friendship was a short-term initiative of the late 1980’s, it helped open the door to more structured refugee outreach within the Archdiocese of Ottawa. In 1990, the Catholic Centre for Immigrants hired a part-time paid employee thanks to government funding. In tandem, Archbishop Marcel Gervais launched a fundraising campaign to raise $150,000 to privately sponsor 50 refugees from El Salvador. The funds were to be raised largely through Sunday offerings. The Archbishop invited parishes to establish refugee outreach committees. This is where the history of the St. Joe’s ROC truly begins. With the support of Father Gerry Morris — the Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish — and two other parishioners, Louise and her small team began a process of educating and sensitizing the mostly middle- class, white parishioners to the plight of people seeking asylum. She did this by inviting those with relevant lived experience to meet with parishioners. The ROC took off in October 1990, Louise became its first chair and a mission statement was adopted. The ROC’s first efforts focused on collecting donations of furniture and transporting these to the often bare homes of new refugees. This was an effort led entirely by parishioners, most notably Pierre and Margo Gauthier. The ROC established an efficient modus operandi called the Furniture Pick-Up and Delivery Service — an initiative that became a lasting hallmark of the ministry. In 1997 the initiative had grown exponentially — the ROC had transported 635 pieces of furniture deliveries that year.
While furnishing empty apartments was an essential support to new refugees, learning the English language was equally important in their successful integration. In collaboration with Holy Canadian Martyrs Parish, Church of the Ascension, Wesley United and Calvary Baptist, the ROC helped launch the English Conversation Group in 1994 — an ecumenical programme that exists to this day.
When the ROC started down the path of private sponsorships, it become a Constituent Group (CG), working with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, as the Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH). Here it’s worth noting, as the book does, that of the six SAHs operating in Ottawa, five are faith-based. The ROC soon met the challenges and frustrations, as well as the joys, that come with this work. Sometimes, innumerable volunteer hours are invested in a private sponsorship only to have it fall through months or years later. The first successful private sponsorship brought an Iranian couple to Canada — it was a partnership between the ROC and the Religious of the Sacred Heart in 2000. In the same year a second private sponsorship saw the ROC bring an Iranian woman deemed to be at risk to Canada. Many of these sponsorships were collaborative efforts — sometimes across denominational lines. In the case of this refugee, the ROC partnered with the First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa.
As the book traces how the ROC becomes more involved in sponsorships, the voices of former refugees are introduced to the reader. One of the more striking ones is that of Sheba — she fled Nigeria and the trauma of being trafficked in Europe. Sheba was just 15 years old when the ROC welcomed her in Canada in 2008. Arriving alone at the Ottawa airport and not knowing who would greet her, especially after being a victim of human trafficking, made this teenager frightened and anxious. Sheba had planned to run away if it turned out that the people who would meet her were young. ROC volunteer Margo Gauthier was the one waiting for her in the arrivals area. “Margo had a sign and had a parcel with my name…it actually gave me a sense of peace, knowing that there’s no way that these older people are going to treat me bad in any way,” Sheba shared. Speaking of Margo’s husband Pierre, she added: “Pierre has the biggest personality…I don’t know what Canada would have been like if I didn’t have people like [him.]” Echoing that concept of reciprocity already introduced by Louise, Pierre reflected: “I’ve got an adopted daughter who is twenty-eight years old…when you get involved with refugees, you end up creating a family of a kind.”
A truly extraordinary chapter in this book and in the life of the ROC occurred in 2005. Sarah, a refugee claimant from the Côte d’Ivoire, faced a deportation order after the Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) rejected her account of persecution and state-sanctioned violence. Sarah’s lawyer, David Morris, turned to the First Unitarian Congregation. The community had experience working with refugee claimants and even offered sanctuary to a refugee from Bangladesh who faced deportation. Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions provides a brief history of churches as sanctuaries, referencing the biblical roots of this practice and how secularization led to its decline. There are times when that which is lawful isn’t necessarily moral or just. That’s when churches, traditionally, have served as sanctuaries. Between 1983 and 2009, Canadian churches extended sanctuary to 288 refugee claimants who had been rejected by the Canadian government.
Going against the government’s decision and offering sanctuary to refugee claimants is a taxing experience for church communities. First Unitarian had successfully offered sanctuary to the Bangladeshi claimant but could not take on Sarah’s case. Given that Sarah was a Catholic, they connected with the ROC. When the request for St. Joseph’s to offer sanctuary to Sarah was raised within the ROC, a unique characteristic of the parish came up as a concern. St. Joe’s is the parish of choice for many federal civil servants, including within the ROC’s volunteer team. Could the parish and parishioners who are civil servants afford to oppose the government in this very visible way? Ultimately, the ROC agreed to proceed with sanctuary, as the hearing that led to the decision against Sarah’s claim wasn’t fair and just.
In June, days before Sarah’s deportation, she agreed to enter sanctuary. This meant that she would not be permitted to leave the church building at any time. St. Joseph’s Parish Pastoral Council had agreed to support sanctuary for Sarah, but it was determined that the church’s rectory, used as office space and to house two social services — the St. Joe’s Supper Table and the St. Joe’s Women’s Centre — wasn’t a suitable facility. St. Joseph’s Church is owned by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate — specifically by the Canadian province of this order, called OMI Lacombe Canada. St. Joseph’s sister church, Paroisse Sacré-Coeur, situated right across the street on Laurier Avenue East, is also owned by the Oblates — only by the French-speaking province known as Notre-Dame-du-Cap. Sacré-Coeur provided the space, while the volunteers of St. Joe’s provided meals, medical and legal assistance, as well as other support.
Sarah entered sanctuary on June 27, 2005. That day Pierre Gauthier phoned the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to inform them that Sarah would not comply with the deportation order now that church sanctuary had been offered. A huge team of volunteers from both Oblate parishes assisted while Sarah remained in sanctuary. The risk that Canadian authorities would attempt to forcibly remove her always existed, so she had to be accompanied twenty-four hours per day. At night, the Oblate priests in residence were responsible. By day, this fell on the shoulders of the Catholic laity. Media and political efforts to pressure the IRB to revisit its decision included a candlelight walk to Parliament, as well as prayer vigils and media interviews. Archbishop Gervais’ decision to visit Sarah in sanctuary in January 2006 lent the effort even more weight. Member of Parliament Mauril Bélanger also got involved. An advocate for Francophone rights, he learned that Sarah’s hearing had been conducted in English, when her mother tongue was French. As such, he filed a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Months later, it was determined that Sarah’s language rights had been violated. The potential for the reopening of the case was now on the horizon. However, in a particularly positive turn of events, Sarah was afforded a temporary residency permit. She left sanctuary on June 20, 2006.
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions offers a nuanced view of how different political players, experts and activists viewed the subject of sanctuary. Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration had explicitly called on churches to end the practice of sanctuary, arguing that it was a slippery slope and a “back door” to Canada. The degree to which sanctuary is civil disobedience, or perhaps something faith communities call “civil initiative,” and the legal or criminal liability to parishioners and parishes that “aid and abet” is also a discussion with divergent viewpoints. The authors make an effort to include the various voices and opinions.
The ROC always operated within the given political discourse of the time. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changes in government — from Mr. Martin’s Liberals to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives — to the more recent Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 all made it clear that ROC never operated in a vacuum. International developments and party politics changed the narrative around refugees — and the ROC had to find ways to assist and advocate within these changing environments. After the high-profile sanctuary case was resolved, the ROC engaged in advocacy work with other faith communities, calling for the establishment of a fair appeals process to IRB decisions. Pierre Gauthier enlisted the active involvement of many in this lobbying effort, including Lauchlin Chisholm, former IRB Chair Peter Showler and Joe Gunn — a St. Joe’s parishioner, the organizer of the walk to parliament, and a long-time activist in the world of faith community-led social justice. And later, he also authored the 2018 Novalis book Journeys to Justice — Reflections on Canadian Christian Activism. Joe Gunn offers one of the more memorable quotes in the book, in reference to how he was enlisted into this cause. “Bad luck. Pierre twists your arm and makes you come out to meetings,” he said. ROC advocacy included a presentation by Pierre to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in November 2006, calling for the establishment of the Refugee Appeals Division (RAD). The ROC also hosted talks and gatherings in order to further the cause and offer community education. Finally, in May 2007, Bill C-280, which codified what the ROC and others had been advocating for, passed a vote in the House of Commons. The ROC still had work to do, however, as Royal Assent and implementation of the bill faced opposition and hurdles. And when Parliament was dissolved in October 2008, C-280 — which had crawled through the bureaucratic and political obstacle course at snail’s pace for nearly two years since it was passed in the Commons — now fell by the wayside. In June 2010, the Conservative-supported Bill C-11 did call for the implementation of some reforms of the refugee appraisal process, including appeals. This appeals mechanism was introduced in 2012.
Returning to the theme of reciprocity in ministry, the book quotes the Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish from 2002 to 2010, Father Richard Kelly, OMI. He said that the Parish “learned that by praying for and working with refugees, we ourselves are assisted in becoming what we really want to become as caring members of the human family.” Like Henri Nouwen pointed out decades earlier: ministry transforms not only the person to whom we are ministering, but the minister as well.
Reading through the history of the ROC in Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions — some of which I had known from my work in the Parish, but nowhere nearly in this amount of detail — two things became clear to me. First, volunteering in this area is a baptism by fire in both patience and resilience. Secondly, the risk of burn-out among volunteers and the difficulty of recruiting new volunteers to take the reins are both severe challenges. After 2012, the ROC experienced the challenge of volunteer recruitment, especially as longstanding members decided to retire or took on a more advisory role. In 2013, an experienced employee of the Parish, Mary Murphy, took up the mantel of revitalising the ROC. Part of this effort included volunteer appreciation — something that can easily be neglected in the charitable sector. And an equally important initiative was outreach to recruit new members from younger demographics. While many new and younger people volunteered in the ROC for usually shorter periods of time, and new forms of outreach — such as to LGBTQ+ refugees from the Middle East — took shape, sustainability remained an on-going concern. It was the Syrian refugee crisis which would breath new energy into the ROC — and a new leadership, including parishioner John Weir and his wife Dorothy Collins, as well as Margie Cain and many others. A new working group was formed to assist in the integration of Syrian refugees in Ottawa, including the purchase of school supplies for Syrian children beginning school for the first time in Canada’s capital.
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Actions could be seen as essential reading for the NGO sector engaged in poverty relief, social justice and the integration of newcomers. It’s also a valuable account for any agency that relies on volunteer support and private donations from generous benefactors. Finally, the book raises some critical questions for policymakers and also the broader Canadian public. Most Catholic and mainline Protestant faith communities are ageing and dwindling. Some of the ones mentioned in this book no longer exist today, such as the historic St. Paul Eastern United Church. If that decline in church attendance and involvement continues on this trajectory, to what extent will secular community groups be able to organize to pick up the mantel — especially if they don’t have the foundation of an existing community, a physical property, assets and a unifying belief system or mission that lend themselves to both volunteerism and tithing? Will this mean that policymakers may be compelled to more fully consider and mitigate gaps and injustices in the system, relying less on volunteers from faith communities and civil society in general to step in? This book offers a valuable service in providing a microhistory of how one ministry in one parish played such an integral role in refugee support and advocacy. And it offers another service to the public by raising questions and indeed warnings to our elected officials and to society as a whole.