2011: To mark their 150th anniversary, the Sisters of Providence rented a bus to bring Sisters, Associates, staff, partners and special guests together for a vigil. A provincial election was underway. With a federal election campaign taking place, those attending the concluding event for the social justice vigil carried Vote for a Poverty-Free Canada signs.
This Vigil began 20 years ago…so what exactly do you remember about 1995?
- That was the year the DVD was released
- Dolly – the cloned sheep – was born
- The Atlanta Braves won the World Series and the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup
- O.J. Simpson’s murder trial declared him not guilty of killing his wife
- Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people (including 19 children) in his terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City
- Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, won the Oscar for best picture and
- Ottawa singer Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” was a huge seller
Politically, times were rather rough:
- Time magazine’s Man of the Year was Newt Gingrich for “his role in ending the four-decades-long Democratic majority in the House.” Newton Leroy Gingrich was a Georgia Republican, and architect of the “Contract with America”: that is, until he had to resign for ethics violations…
- And in June, Ontario got Michael Deane Harris as our 22nd Premier, along with his so-called “Common Sense Revolution.” One of his first major policy decisions in 1995 was to cut social assistance rates by almost 22%.
- No wonder 1995 was also the year that Tom Hanks, starring in the film Apollo 13, uttered the famous line, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Features of the new Conservative policies as they affected the poor in Ontario: 21.6% cut in what was then called “Family Benefits and General Welfare Assistance” in October 1995
- Workfare was implemented
- A lifetime ban on welfare collection for those convicted of welfare fraud was brought in
- Asset limits were cut drastically to be equal to one month’s assistance
- The minimum wage was frozen
Perhaps we should remember why the vigils were started: for me it all came down to 2 words – Kimberley Rogers.
Kimberley wrote in her court appeal: “I ran out of food this weekend. I am unable to sleep.”
Three months later, 40 years old and 8 months pregnant, Kimberley was found dead in the Sudbury, ON apartment where she had been confined under house arrest for taking student loans to help pay for her education while on welfare.
As Tom Hanks might have said in that 1995 movie: “Ontario – we have a problem.”
So across Ontario, vigils were started. Often, like here, they were silent, reflective events in front of City Hall – like the one we started in Ottawa, by the human rights monument on City Hall property.
What was unique in all the vigils, was that it was people of faith who sustained them. Working together, from many religious backgrounds, people of faith lasted in the struggle, throughout all the weather changes Canada kindly offers, when the going was tough.
Here in Kingston …
You gave life and vigour to many other events and social movements in your community and throughout Canada…you made common cause for the common good…we all owe you our sincere gratitude.
Reflection on these vigils across Ontario always comes down to the same question: we always need to ask, “Did any of this effort make a difference?” This is like asking a religious person if prayer makes a difference, or is it a waste of time?
Unequivocally, the answer is YES!
When you advocate, you’re telling the world who your God is. This is not some version of a God who shies away from what some call, “the political.” This is not a God who only cares about life after death. You’ve shown us a biblical God who cares, in a special way, today and always, for the widow, the orphan and the stranger….that is the poor among us. All of us who participated in these vigils, in whatever part of Ontario, feel a special bond to each other, and a resolve to not allow our communities to be ripped apart and the poor discarded and excluded…again.
The vigil’s main success, of course, was that it challenged and changed us. As we are in need of continuing conversion, it made us more attentive to those suffering in our own communities. Since it was public in nature, it prevented our suffering neighbours from feeling totally alone in their struggles.
So the vigil can live on…
In our memories…
In our renewed actions…
In our gratitude…
And from the bottom of my heart, thanks to all of you who participated.
Joe Gunn, the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice (cpj.ca), spoke at the September 17 closing of the silent vigil.