Last month, my wife and I were invited to a pre-screening of the feature-length film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Ironically, we previewed this picture on the day that the incredible South African leader died. A moment of deep silence fell upon those in attendance before the movie began, leaving us with our own thoughts of his legacy.
The ensuing media coverage of Madiba's funeral was overwhelming – politicians seemed to compete for the most cloying explanations of their own support for Prisoner #46664 and his once-banned African National Congress.
But the media forgot the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in Canada. For years, citizens' groups, solidarity movements, trade unions and, yes, Canadian churches battled to end apartheid.
Canadian Church communities were engaged in anti-apartheid advocacy for more than a decade before Mandela's February 1990 release from prison.
Visionaries in the Christian churches established the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility (TCCR) in January 1975. TCCR's first staffperson, Renate Pratt, recounted the history in her 1997 book, In Good Faith: Canadian Churches Against Apartheid. TCCR argued no Canadian firms should invest in South Africa until the apartheid system was abolished.
By 1977, senior executives and clergy had formed a group called The Confederation of Church and Business People to defend investments in South Africa and the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Church actors of the era remember sustained pressure on their employers by powerful corporate interests.
When TCCR opposed "any arrangements which would strengthen South Africa's military preparedness," a letter from the chair of Massey-Ferguson, Conrad Black, replied: "I have not the slightest doubt that, were your recommendations to be followed by the international community and the white population of South Africa left without any modern means of self-defence, they, who almost alone have populated and developed that remarkable country, would be eliminated as an ethnic entity by the gruesome combination of subjection, massacre and expulsion."
Church representatives attended annual shareholder meetings of Canadian banks to raise concerns.
The president of the Catholic bishops, Archbishop Gilles Ouellet, wrote to the chair of the Bank of Montreal in May 1978: "The Catholic Church throughout the world has condemned apartheid in South Africa as a cruel offence against humanity." Canadian bank loans, he said, "serve to strengthen the structures of apartheid and prolong the day when justice will be realized for the black majority."
Small stickers which read, "No Loans to South Africa" were attached to cheques, even the United Church's staff pay cheques.
Jesuit Father Jim Webb recounted receiving a call from a New York banker, who complained that the churches were scaring Canadian banks from participating in consortium loans to South Africa. By early 1980, the Toronto Dominion became the first Canadian bank to announce an unconditional halt to new loans and to any renewal of loans to the South African state. Others followed.
In 1986 PM Brian Mulroney advocated sanctions if apartheid was not renounced. A 1988 editorial in the Toronto Star questioned government inaction, writing "(Foreign Minister Joe) Clark has seen the enemy and it is the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa and the Canadian Council of Churches."
In 1990 Development and Peace collected 120,000 signatures to petition Canada to maintain sanctions until apartheid was abolished.
The Rev. David Pfrimmer, dean of Waterloo's Lutheran Seminary, remembers how Mandela insisted on meeting with, and thanking, Canadian church activists when he visited Toronto in 1990.
Father Paul Hansen also attended that meeting, where "we referred to his release from prison as a resurrection."
This hard, often controversial, and at times confrontational work needs to be understood in order to inform and inspire new generations of Christians to act for justice and peace.
Today, groups like Development and Peace and KAIROS propose the Open for Justice campaign for an ombudsman to monitor Canadian mining companies. Some churches question investments in the Occupied Territories, or advocate divestment in fossil fuel companies as a strategy to fight climate change.
Do we and our churches invest in the long-term research, mobilization and leadership that once were effective, to face the new challenges of today?
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)