Bill Janzen retires from MCC

By Dennis Gruending

bill_janzen_250.jpgBill Janzen, the respected face and voice of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada office in Ottawa, is retiring at the end of July after 33 years. Janzen has been a quiet but significant presence, working with politicians of all stripes, with civil servants and with a variety of church and secular organizations on a range of issues, including refugee and immigration policy, war and peace, food and famine. Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s former minister of foreign affairs, said in an e-mail interview, “In the years I worked with Bill Janzen, he was always a source of good advice based upon a sound set of values which provided assistance for countless people around the world.” Bill Blaikie, the longest serving MP in the House of Commons and a United Church minister, says, “I always found Bill to be a voice of calm, reflective reason in the Ottawa tempest. He is one of the best examples I can think of for Christian witness and advocacy in the political process.”

Asked what he has found most satisfying about his work, Janzen points to a number of projects. “In the fall of 1978 a civil servant named Gord Barnett and I drafted and negotiated Canada’s first master agreement for the private sponsorship of refugees, although I should add that after it was signed I was less involved in the actual work with refugees.” The agreement was widely used to provide sponsorships for Indochinese boat people in 1979 and other refugees in subsequent years. Janzen also mentions his involvement with inter-church and secular coalitions, including Project Ploughshares, Kairos, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Social Action Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Janzen refers as well to a letter that he drafted on behalf of MCC Canada in 2002, urging then Prime Minister Chretien to stay the course in refusing Canadian support for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “People in Iraq and in the region are very worried, as are many in Canada,” the letter said. “The present situation is certainly not ideal but, in our view, a war would make things much worse. We pray that God will give you wisdom and courage as you deal with this and other issues that face our country and our world.”
Janzen says, “The ideas in that letter contributed to the broader inter-church voice on that issue and when Jean Chretien decided not to support that invasion, he said the voice of the faith community had been significant in his decision.”

Janzen mentions his advocacy in helping Low-German speaking Mennonites whose families had emigrated to Latin American to recover their Canadian citizenship. “This is a long and involved story but in 1976, after I submitted a substantial appeal, the government agreed to interpret one discretionary provision in the Citizenship Act in a broader way. In my opinion some 75,000 of those Mennonites, and an untold number of other people, now have Canadian citizenship as a result.”

About 80 friends and colleagues gathered at the Ottawa Mennonite Church in June to pay tribute to Janzen. One of those to speak was Bert Lobe, who has a long association with the international and North American work of the Mennonite Central Committee. Lobe grew up near Janzen’s home community of Blumenheim, a small Mennonite village north of Saskatoon. Lobe said that Janzen, one of 11 children, was a good athlete who excelled as a fastball pitcher and hockey player.

Janzen went on to post-secondary studies at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, where he received a PhD in political science. He turned his thesis into a book titled Limits on Liberty, which was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1990. In it he describes conflicts that occurred with Canadian governments when some Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors attempted to live communally and apart from the rest of society. A second book, Sam Martin Went to Prison, tells the story of Martin and other conscientious objectors who chose to go to jail rather than serving in the Canadian military during the Second World War. “Thanks for that book,” Lobe said to Janzen. “We still use it in our schools.”

The words most often used at the Ottawa event to acknowledge Janzen were integrity, trust, competence and respect for others. Lobe gave the final word to Janzen’s elderly parents, who still live at Blumenheim. “Just pat him on the shoulder,” his father Abram told Lobe, “and say well done.”  Janzen now plans to focus attention on writing that he has been too busy to complete.

2 thoughts on “Bill Janzen retires from MCC

  1. Bill Janzen will be surely missed in this his official capacity, which was also his vocation. That’s a happy coincidence which few enjoy.

    I have had the privilege of knowing and working with Bill over the past thirty years or so. My associations were always so enjoyable that this hardly seems like three decades!

    Bill is a man of high principle but also a natural peace and consensus-builder. His integrity and his outstanding personal qualities are legendary. Clearly, they are informed by his deep personal faith, beliefs and values.

    It was my privilege to have been able to attend Bill’s “retirement party” at the Ottawa Mennonite Church last month. This was truly a joyful and historic occasion celebrated in the presence of many friends, colleagues and admirers.

    Whilst all of Bill’s friends and colleagues will regret his retirement, for our own sakes but not for his, we know that we have not seen or heard the last of him. He will be keeping his hand in all of his cherished causes and, of course, writing about them.

    We pray that God will continue to bless Bill and his endeavours.

    Lawrence S. Cumming


  2. This is a very good piece. Bill Janzen is someone who has always commanded a great deal of respect and is it deserving. I have read and enjoyed your other other articles as well.



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