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Premier praises faith groups’ advocacy at forum

By Ryan Weston

More than 125 people gathered in the sanctuary of St. John, York Mills on May 9 to take part in a question and answer session on social justice and public policy with Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Premier Kathleen Wynne greets youth
Premier Kathleen Wynne greets youth as she arrives at St. John, York Mills. Photos by Michael Hudson

Presented by the FaithWorks and Outreach Committee at St. John’s, along with Voices for a Just Society, a north Toronto ecumenical social justice network, the evening offered a unique opportunity for parishioners and members of the wider community to engage directly with the premier on a number of key issues facing her government.

The Rev. Canon Drew MacDonald, incumbent of St. John’s, opened the gathering with a prayer and moderated the discussion throughout the evening. “The reason for this event is that we are celebrating our 200th anniversary here at St. John’s,” he said, adding that this was just one in a series of events to commemorate the long history of the parish.

Premier Wynne began her remarks by reflecting on a passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians (5:11): “Wherefore comfort yourselves together and edify one another, even as also ye do.”

“‘Edify’ is one of the Apostle Paul’s favourite words and metaphorical concepts, and translated to the modern context it means to build up,” she told the audience. “I started with this because, when I talk about the plan we put in place in Ontario, it is about building Ontario up. It is about building us up. Now that can mean bridges and hospitals, but it can also be taken metaphorically, that our plan is about building each other up. Because in a very basic sense, that’s what I think that we are here to do, and what all the faiths of the world ask of us.”

Premier Wynne speaks at St. John, York Mills
Premier Wynne speaks about the importance of faith communities in advocating for social justice.

Premier Wynne also highlighted the important role of faith communities in advocating for policy changes around social justice issues. “I think that there are many, many ways in which government has to work with communities,” she said. “Where social justice and poverty alleviation are concerned, the individual and non-government institutions, including faith groups, play critical roles.

“We have a responsibility to lead, a responsibility to be always finding ways to build a province that takes care of its most vulnerable and helps everyone to live with dignity and the independence that they deserve. And that work is not done,” she continued. “That’s why you’re here to push me and I so appreciate that. It’s very important.”

Following the premier’s remarks, the floor was opened for questions, which covered a diverse range of issues from social assistance reform to medically assisted death, and from seniors’ housing needs to funding for autism therapies.

The premier’s visit was not without some controversy. A small group gathered at the entrance to the church property with signs and leaflets challenging the Ontario government’s policy of ending the funding of Intensive Behavioural Intervention therapy for children with autism once they reach the age of five. Inside the sanctuary, representatives from Put Food in the Budget, a grassroots organization working to end poverty, presented the premier with a survey, held up a banner during her presentation, and then walked out in protest at the beginning of the question and answer session, encouraging others to join them.

An audience member asks a question of Premier Wynne.
An audience member asks a question of Premier Wynne.

Scott McDougall, a parishioner at St. John’s and one of the organizers of the premier’s visit, was still satisfied with the event and emphasized the importance of engaging with political representatives. “We have to reach out, not only to the premier but to opposition leaders, and let them have an opportunity to hear from grassroots people who are involved in social policy issues and can present alternatives to some of the problems they are facing,” he said.

“I was very pleased with the questions. We had good, thoughtful people,” he continued. “The main thing is to try to get straight answers, and to try to get politicians thinking out of the box. The premier would like to be the social justice premier. Show me. As somebody said, it’s time to walk the walk. They need to make structural changes and not take an incremental approach.”

St. John, York Mills plans to hold similar events with New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown in the coming months.