When I came to Canada from the U.S. in 1969 I immersed myself in Canadian history and literature to learn about my new country. Fortunately my journey coincided with a rich time in Canadian literature.
History came alive through the FLQ crisis in 1970, soon after I arrived. Later I worked on Parliament Hill through the height of Western alienation and Quebec separatism, and I became active in the growing focus on Canada’s indigenous history.
At the same time I was drawn to the way the Dutch immigrants in the Reformed branch of Christianity lived out their faith in Canadian society. Joining what was called the Reformational movement, I learned from disciples of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. I admired the sacrifices that a small community made to establish a whole range of social structures such as Christian schools, a Christian Labour Union, a Committee for Justice and Liberty (now Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ)), Christian farmers organizations and publications like Christian Courier, Vanguard and others – all while establishing themselves as new immigrants. The sense of purpose and community spirit was invigorating.
In that project, however, I missed a strong sense of the history of Canada. Sometimes it seemed as if Reformational leaders thought Canada was so new it could be molded in the image of the Netherlands. A visit to the Netherlands confirmed my sense that the way the “pillars” worked in the society that shaped the Reformational movement was very different from the structural accommodations between the French, English and Indigenous people that shaped treaties, the compromises within Confederation, and federalism in Canada. Core Reformational principles, such as deep respect for every person created and called by God, care for creation and space for communities of belief, within a just social order, will need “made-in-Canada” approaches to contribute to Canadian society.
Another layer in this history has been on-going tensions within the Reformed family, particularly with the U.S. side, which is engaged in its own struggle. Pressure to become more like the growing evangelical branch of Christianity, with its focus on individual morality, gained momentum over a broader Kingdom vision of God’s work in the world. The tension drained energy and constrained the Canadian movement at critical points in its development.
Within Canada, Reformational thinkers found more open doors in Canada’s ecumenical network, which was rooted in Canada’s history. Strategic partnerships led to some of the strongest points of public witness, in spite of internal concerns about losing Reformed identity. The role of CPJ, led by John Olthuis, and ecumenical partners, was widely recognized as a critical factor in the decision to delay the Mackenzie Valley pipeline and allow indigenous peoples space and time to become full partners in northern development. It was a formative moment in Canadian history that still has many implications – too many to spell out here. Since then, the ecumenical network has gone through its own struggles as a result of declining church membership, complicity in the residential schools and fragmentation in the public strategies of faith and non-faith based groups.
Where are we now? In this 150th birthday year, many are talking about the experiment of Canada as a multinational state and what its future holds. The experiment should not have worked, says constitutional expert Dr. Peter Russell, but now Canada may be poised to be a global example of how differences can be accommodated without conflict and become instead an asset. Others fear lack of cohesion threatens sustainability as a small player in a time of global uncertainties.
Something similar might be said about the Reformational movement. Right now it seems to lack the focus needed to realize its potential to help develop a robust made-in-Canada pluralism. Something significant will be lost if it is absorbed into an evangelical or U.S. model of engagement in society. Can its descendants bring together the best of this heritage with a Canadian sensibility to help Canada deal with the challenges of religious and cultural diversity, creation care and a sustainable economy? Maybe the answer will be more clear by the 200th Anniversary.
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