Protesting for justice - a part of Quaker history and current practice.

Protesting for justice—a longstanding Quaker tradition. Pictured: Rally in support of a US war resister in front of the Federal Court, 2010.

We have a rich history starting way back in 1931. Members of three Quaker yearly meetings were led to create Canadian Friends Service Committee so they could have a shared place to engage in peace and justice work.

Friends’ participation in wartime and post-war relief and witness generated deep commitment to the peace and justice work CFSC came to stand for. During World War II, many  conscientious objectors, served through doing Quaker relief, reconstruction, and ambulance work. When they returned to Canada, many joined CFSC.

In 1947, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) received the Nobel Peace Prize for service work done during war. All of the Quaker Service Committees' work is honoured by the Prize and the ethics that garnered it continue to inform our work today.

Interested in hearing more about the history of our work from Friends who have first-hand knowledge and experience? Check out our Get to Know Thee, Friend series to hear stories of CFSC’s work and the Friends who have made it possible.

Peace work

From 1963 to 1976, CFSC operated a Friends Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island, south of Ottawa, providing imaginative peace and reconciliation programs for people seeking to imagine, dialogue about, and practice more peaceful ways of engaging in interpersonal and international disputes. Programs included training in nonviolence, French-English dialogue, conferences for diplomats and Quaker-UNESCO seminars organized by the Canadian Peace Research Institute.

Quakers have a long history of peace work

CFSC volunteers preparing medical aid packages to send to Vietnam

During the Vietnam War many war and draft resisters came to Canada from the United States. Some participated in Grindstone Island programs; some were assisted by Quaker Meetings, individual Friends, and families; and some settled in Canada and became Friends.

During the Vietnam War, CFSC responded to requests from Vietnamese hospitals by sending medical aid to Vietnam to be used by victims on all sides of the conflict in accordance with Friends’ tradition of relief work that cuts across the boundaries of war and conflict. Many American Friends knowingly contravened U.S. law by contributing to this work through Canadian Friends.

For some, the program was controversial, but for many it was a labour of love in war-time. It provided considerable aid to the sufferers and served as a witness against war.

In 2004, CFSC began welcoming a new wave of US war resisters, those fleeing the Iraq War. CFSC worked towards their ability to stay in Canada.

CFSC General Secretary Jane Orion Smith and Conscientious Objector to the Iraq war Kim Rivera, Toronto, 2012. Our history includes significant support for conscientious objectors to military service.

Former CFSC staff Jane Orion Smith and conscientious objector to the Iraq war Kim Rivera, Toronto, 2012

Our recent work has included support for locally-led grassroots peacebuilding efforts in many parts of the world, such as helping to train volunteer conflict mediation teams in Kinshasa, DR Congo, and funding trauma healing, gender-based violence reduction, and community building work in the Africa Great Lakes region. We have supported conscientious objection not only to military service, but also to military taxation.

Throughout the decades we have continued to develop and refine our understanding of peacebuilding and how Canada can contribute constructively to making our world more peaceful. We've called for a federal department with a focus on researching and developing effective peacebuilding strategies.

Friends have reflected deeply on wars and how people may be protected without killing, leading to our 2014 booklet The Four Elements of Peacebuilding: How to Protect Nonviolently (PDF). This and other work and research culminated in our 2019 book Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division. Today a major focus of our peace work is on offering grassroots peace education.

Development work

In the 1950s and 1960s, two Canadian Quaker families served at the Friends Rural Centre, Rasulia, India, supported by CFSC and Friends Service Council (now Quaker Peace and Social Witness) in London, UK.

By the 1970s the development work that Canadian Friends had done in Rasulia changed to financial support for a larger number of projects in collaboration with other development agencies, later including the Canadian International Development Agency (now within Global Affairs Canada).

CFSC maintains this tradition of supporting small but creative projects that promote human rights and peace.

Indigenous People's human rights

Photo credit UBCIC

Since the 1960s, CFSC has supported Indigenous community building initiatives, and urged governments to live up to their legal commitments to Indigenous peoples. Some of this work has also been done in collaboration with other churches through KAIROS.

In 1974, individual Friends at Yearly Meeting went to Kenora in Northern Ontario to attempt to support reconciliation in a confrontation over mercury contamination. A Quaker physician treated Indigenous people suffering from mercury poisoning and documented the problem.

In the 1990s and 2000s, CFSC worked with many Indigenous partners and human rights organizations to encourage governments to develop the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This work involved a great deal of coordination with partners and travel to meet with UN delegates from different countries. The UN adopted the Declaration in 2007. Several organizations, including CFSC, that worked together toward the adoption of the Declaration are now part of the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which seeks the full implementation of the UN Declaration in Canada. This focus has seen CFSC participating in UN meetings in New York and Geneva and doing a great deal of educational work about the Declaration, both for the general public and for key decision makers.

We have been involved in particular court cases such as intervening at the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark Tsilhqot’in Nation title case. We have also actively been involved with supporting Quakers to do the difficult work toward reconciliation.

Criminal Justice

criminal justice work of Quakers in Canada

Quaker Elizabeth Fry reading to the prisoners in Newgate, 1816. CC-BY British Museum

In the 17th century members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) experienced being imprisoned for their beliefs. The worldwide community of Quakers has worked on concerns related to criminal justice ever since. This has included founding organizations such as the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Alternatives to Violence Project, promoting restorative justice processes, and participating in the establishment of norms and standards at the United Nations.

In Canada, CFSC began work in justice issues following a 1972 call from British Friends to support abolishing the death penalty in the United Kingdom. From this call, Canadian Friends worked to campaign for the end of capital punishment in Canada until its abolishment in 1976. Canadian Friends then began to broaden their work in criminal justice to the wider prison system and eventually toward developing alternatives to prison. In 1978, Canadian Friends Service Committee took up this work with Friend Ruth Morris becoming a leading force on it in Canada and internationally.

In 1981, the Religious Society of Friends became the first religious body to endorse an end to prisons (PDF) while recognizing "a need for restraint of those few who are exhibiting dangerous behaviour" but calling for this restraint to be humane. The work of CFSC and Ruth Morris also led to the establishment in 1982 of the International Conference on Prison Abolition, now called the International Conference on Penal Abolition.

CFSC worked to encourage prison visiting, provide programs and supplies to prisoners, seek alternatives to prisons, raise awareness of the roots of crime and violence in society, and provide small grants to other organizations in support of prisoners and their families. In the 1990s, as one alternative to prisons, CFSC supported the establishment of the Alternatives to Violence Project in Canada (an experiential conflict transformation and healing program originally developed by Quakers working with inmates in the US and now used internationally).

CFSC has now reaffirmed Friends’ commitment to penal abolition and fostering just and compassionate ways of life as a long-term vision. Friends across Canada continue to work towards penal abolition through individual and collective work in prisons and criminal justice.

For more details see this two page history of CFSC's work in criminal justice.

Quaker International Affairs Program

CFSC’s book The Future Control of Food

In 2001 CFSC established a Quaker International Affairs Program in Ottawa, building on earlier work in facilitating dialogue in international affairs, such as the diplomats’ conferences held on Grindstone Island in the 1960s. This work happened in collaboration with the Quaker United Nations Offices based in Geneva and New York, bringing together diplomats, government officials, and international non-governmental organizations.

The program was closed a decade later, but many of its publications on intellectual property rights, food security, and traditional knowledge remain in use, trusted for their expertise and balance.

Further reading

A more detailed background on CFSC can be found in a 2011 issue of the magazine The Canadian Friend, which celebrated our 80th anniversary.

You can also read this brief summary of CFSC's history (PDF), written in 2007.