Brockville is a city of 22,000 people on the St. Lawrence River east of Kingston. Jim Riesberry helped launch the local chapter and served as its contact and chairperson for the past eight years. He recently handed off those responsibilities in order to focus on a new chapter campaign. Jim has a lifelong history of working for social justice. He is a retired Anglican clergyman who spent 28 years ministering in Kingston and Cochrane, Ontario.
What drew you to activism and to the Council of Canadians?
I became aware of the have-nots in Canada while studying to be a geologist at the University of Toronto and assisting my brother in his parish in downtown Toronto in the early 1950s. In 1969 my wife Barbara and I linked up with the Ecumenical Institute, a secular order that was trying to reform the church and assist communities to help themselves. Cardinal, Ontario was our first parish area and we created such things as a farmers’ market, Meals on Wheels and a downtown improvement program. We also held numerous all-candidates meetings for federal, provincial and municipal elections. It was a fun time.
Barbara and I continued our social justice work throughout the 1980s. When we came to Brockville in 1998, we met with Bob Panter and formed the Brockville Social Justice Coalition. In 2002 this group became a chapter of the Council of Canadians because we needed a source of information, challenge and leadership.
What has been the most important or inspirational thing you’ve done with the chapter?
Our chapter campaigned extensively to support the Romanow report on the future of public health care. We participated in one of the forums in Ottawa and gathered thousands of signatures on a petition. It was an exciting effort that 30 or 40 people took part in. Over the last 10 years we have presented to city council, participated in demonstrations in Ottawa, met annually with our MP, screened documentaries, and hosted Maude and the Unbottle It! tour, among other things. We don’t get to celebrate as many victories as we would like, but we have the joy of working with others across Canada and together being an influence.
The Brockville chapter has dozens of letters to the editor published in the local newspaper each year. Why do you think this is important?
My first letter to the editor was in opposition to capital punishment back in 1962. It was more than 30 years later before I wrote another. Our local newspaper has a right-wing bias and by sending letters to the editor I hope to reach those people who might not be exposed to progressive views. It is a chance to speak to the unconverted.
What’s next for you?
My health is a bit shaky so I have stepped down as chairperson and contact, but I will continue on as a chapter member. Our chapter has decided to prioritize fighting the root cause of so many issues that we all face: the neoliberal ideology that has led Canada and the world for the past 30 years. I am on a committee that is working on this.
Do you have any advice for other chapters?
I would advise other chairpersons to delegate more than I ever was able to. And I would ask other chapters to join us in exposing and eradicating the neoliberal ideology. While we need to deal with issues as they arise, it is important not to take on too many things. If you are like the man who hopped on his horse and rode off in all directions you will get nowhere.