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Peter Gilmer is a min­is­ter and an anti-pover­ty advo­cate. He is one of two staff at the Regi­na Anti-Pover­ty Min­istry, a social jus­tice min­istry of the Unit­ed Church of Cana­da in Saskatchewan. Scott Neigh inter­views Gilmer about the ministry’s work for social jus­tice and against pover­ty, and about its fifty-year history.

Gilmer said, I moved towards a social jus­tice focus in life fair­ly ear­ly on, through a com­bi­na­tion of things, includ­ing some per­son­al expe­ri­ences, some grow­ing social analy­sis, and also through my faith tra­di­tion.” He cred­its some expe­ri­ences in ele­men­tary school and also the influ­ence of his par­ents, who had been chil­dren of the Great Depres­sion and strong advo­cates of social­ized med­ical care and social pro­grams. As well, his father was a Unit­ed Church min­is­ter who was strong­ly influ­enced by the social jus­tice-focused social gospel tra­di­tion and by his train­ing in the US in the 1950s among peers involved in civ­il rights issues. He said, Com­ing out of a faith per­spec­tive, my dad real­ly ingrained in me all of the prophet­ic calls for social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice with­in the scriptures.”

Gilmer him­self was active­ly engaged with such ques­tions of jus­tice as a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent and after. When he moved to Regi­na in 1990, he got involved with the Saskatchewan Coali­tion Against Racism, and served as its direc­tor from 1992 to 1995. At the begin­ning of 1996, he began his employ­ment with the Regi­na Anti-Pover­ty Ministry.

The min­istry got its start in 1971 under the name of the Regi­na Down­town Chap­lain­cy. At that point, it was a col­lab­o­ra­tion among a num­ber of dif­fer­ent denom­i­na­tions, and its approach to pover­ty large­ly fol­lowed a char­i­ty and, to a cer­tain extent, com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment model.

When Gilmer start­ed in 1996, the min­istry went through a reor­ga­ni­za­tion to for­mal­ly rec­og­nize some changes that had accu­mu­lat­ed grad­u­al­ly, and to enact oth­ers. For one thing, it became a project specif­i­cal­ly of the Unit­ed Church. And while it con­tin­ues to reserve seats on its gov­ern­ing board for Unit­ed Church mem­bers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of oth­er denom­i­na­tions, since that point it has also pri­or­i­tized the involve­ment of peo­ple with cur­rent lived expe­ri­ence of pover­ty, who gen­er­al­ly have con­sti­tut­ed at least a third of its board.

As well, the orga­ni­za­tion for­mal­ly changed its mod­el of min­istry to focus on advo­ca­cy, both indi­vid­ual and sys­temic, and pub­lic edu­ca­tion. These days, it is the indi­vid­ual case­work advo­ca­cy that takes the bulk of the time of the organization’s staff. They sup­port up to 2500 peo­ple per year in deal­ing most­ly with prob­lems with the province’s social assis­tance system.

The group’s pub­lic edu­ca­tion work occurs both inside the church and beyond it. They talk about eco­nom­ic jus­tice and about their orga­ni­za­tion to church ser­vices, com­mu­nion class­es, and church social jus­tice com­mit­tees in the Unit­ed Church and oth­er denom­i­na­tions, but also to unions, women’s shel­ters, high school and uni­ver­si­ty class­es, and much more. As well, they reg­u­lar­ly have place­ment stu­dents, who learn through their involve­ment in case­work advo­ca­cy. And they run a study cir­cle for peo­ple liv­ing in poverty.

Their sys­temic advo­ca­cy cov­ers a broad range, and gen­er­al­ly involves work­ing with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and with peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty to exert pres­sure on deci­sion mak­ers. At the moment, a par­tic­u­lar con­cern is the recent tran­si­tion in Saskatchewan from its tra­di­tion­al social safe­ty net to a new income sup­port pro­gram. Accord­ing to Gilmer, the new sys­tem has far few­er pro­vi­sions for address­ing spe­cial needs, and the basic rates have always been woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. He said that peo­ple who depend on social assis­tance, whether they’re [liv­ing] with sig­nif­i­cant and endur­ing dis­abil­i­ty or not, are liv­ing thou­sands of dol­lars a year below the offi­cial pover­ty line.”

Over the years, they have also been involved in cam­paigns to raise the min­i­mum wage and for afford­able hous­ing and child care, as well as in issues relat­ed to injus­tices in the tax sys­tem, racial jus­tice, and oth­er things. Their long-term vision involves a human rights approach to respond­ing to poverty.

Gilmer said that he has some­times heard the sug­ges­tion that there might be peo­ple uncom­fort­able with the faith-based char­ac­ter of the orga­ni­za­tion, and cer­tain­ly he acknowl­edges the involve­ment of Canada’s church­es, much like most of this country’s insti­tu­tions, in col­o­niza­tion and oth­er his­toric injus­tices. But he says that in prac­tice, the Regi­na Anti-Pover­ty Ministry’s rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed Church rarely seems to be a prob­lem, and is often a strength.

For one thing, faith moti­vates their indi­vid­ual com­mit­ments to jus­tice and in speak­ing in church con­texts they cer­tain­ly relate their work to the long pro­gres­sive prophet­ic tra­di­tion that we’re con­nect­ed to,” but they have nev­er pros­e­ly­tized as part of that work. And over the decades, they have devel­oped both a good rep­u­ta­tion and a sub­stan­tial rap­port with impact­ed com­mu­ni­ties in Regina.

Plus, he argues, the fact that the min­istry is inde­pen­dent and has nev­er depend­ed on, for instance, gov­ern­ment fund­ing means that they have sur­vived, when so many oth­er advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions that exist­ed in the 1970s and 1980s have long since had to close their doors.

Gilmer said, Our inde­pen­dence is some­thing that’s extreme­ly impor­tant to us. On the one hand, it means a lot of work doing fundrais­ing and focus­ing on try­ing to keep our doors open. But the upside has been that we don’t have to wor­ry about what gov­ern­ment or cor­po­rate inter­ests think about us, because ulti­mate­ly, they’re not pay­ing any of our bills.”