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Catholic Vancouver April 7, 2019

Abbotsford parish offers ‘Politics for Dummies’ civics lessons

By Agnieszka Ruck

Pro-lifers demonstrate at the B.C. Legislature buildings. The new Civic Affairs Committee at St. James Parish hopes to teach Catholics about political systems and how to have their voices heard. (BCC file photo)

Marc Vella won’t tell you who to vote for, but he will urge you to vote.

Vella has launched a Civic Affairs Committee at St. James Parish in Abbotsford that hopes to encourage more Catholics to get interested and engaged in local politics.

“I started to volunteer, as a lowly door knocker, in the 2015 election campaign,” said Vella.

That’s when he started to realize “Christians just aren’t really involved all that much” in politics.

“It’s no wonder that our country is going down a non-Christian path. It’s not that we’re fighting a battle and losing. We’re just not fighting.”

So, Vella started a conversation with pastor Father William Ashley and other members of St. James Parish about creating a non-partisan committee dedicated to educating Catholics about how the political machine works and how they can make a difference.

“We, mainly, as Christians, don’t get involved, and when we do get involved, we do it in an un-strategic way,” said Vella. “I think a huge factor is people are simply unaware” of the options available to them. “How many of us have voted in a nomination race?”

Catholic voices are “silenced,” in part because they don’t work strategically, or simply because they don’t bother speaking. For example, recently a local Catholic in the race to become a school trustee lost by only about two dozen votes. Vella wonders: How many Catholics could have voted for him? How many actually did?

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in 2015 he wouldn’t allow anyone with pro-life views to run for the Liberal party, Vella wonders what Catholic Liberals were doing. “They just let themselves be walked over,” he said. “I hope Catholics that are Liberals get more involved and push back at that.”

Opponents of Vella’s idea to mobilize Catholic voters might say it amounts to pushing an agenda. He calls it a basic right. “We have every right as citizens to try and influence government and reflect our points of view.”

But Vella won’t tell anyone what party to support. The Civic Affairs Committee is explicitly non-partisan. 

“We want people to be educated and influence whatever party they choose. Freedom is the hallmark of the way we operate.”

Vella said he’s gained practice in staying neutral while on the Conservative party’s National Policy Committee, a role that has charged him with keeping the policy-making process fair while keeping his own agenda out of the picture. “We have to make sure it’s a level playing field so every Conservative can have his say, and may the best idea win at the convention.”

He hopes Civic Affairs Committees will catch on and spread to more churches across the Lower Mainland. Already he is in touch with some interested Christian faith communities.

“Every church you can think of, Catholic or Protestant, has some kind of finance committee, parish council … The hope is eventually they will all have a Civic Affairs Committee (too),” said Vella. “It’s a key aspect of our lives. Why are we not talking about where the church and state rub up against each other?”

The Civic Affairs Committee at St. James officially launched with a public event April 9 titled “Politics for Dummies.” A kind of Civics 101 class, it featured speaker Warren Smith, a local lawyer who was instrumental in launching the Red Masses for members of the legal profession. Smith will help familiarize participants with the democratic process and ways to get involved.

Vella’s group has already created a 12-month plan that could easily be adopted by any church wishing to have a Civic Affairs Committee without starting from scratch. The plan includes a mission, vision, and suggested discussion topics.

“There is an old saying in poker: ‘If you’ve been playing the game for half an hour and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy,’” said Vella.

Catholics who step up and get involved in politics can become more active players at the table.

More information available at www.rcav.org/event/politics-for-dummies