I’ll never stop being a justice advocate’

Published March 1, 2008

Ellie Johnson and Nina Burnham, native elder and former member of the Partners in Mission national committee.

When Ellie Johnson was growing up in Winnipeg after the Second World War, a book about a doctor who was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, missionary and theologian sparked the prairie girl’s imagination, foreshadowing a career that would take her around the world in the fields of Christian education and mission.

Ms. Johnson, who is 65, retires this month after 21 years with the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto, including 14 years as director of the partnerships department.

“When I was around 14 years old, I read a biography of Albert Schweitzer and I realized I wanted to go to Africa. I wanted to be a missionary,” said Ms. Johnson in an interview.

However, her concept of being a missionary at the time was less a desire to spread the Gospel than “a real curiosity about other cultures,” she said, “I wanted to understand different ways of looking at life. It was a theme in my life from that time onward.”

In her Anglican church work, she has played a leadership role in the evolving concept of Christian mission. Formerly a paternalistic form of evangelism from European colonizers to indigenous cultures both abroad and in Canada, mission has evolved in the past four decades into a two-way concept of partnership.

“The thing that changed me most profoundly was realizing what happened to aboriginal people in this country when Europeans came, seeing the depth and breadth of the devastation, but also the surprising resilience those peoples had, to resist that,” she said.

As partnerships director, Ms. Johnson leads a staff of eight with a budget of $2 million that disburses about $1.1 million in grants to overseas partners such as the World Student Christian Federation:Africa, based in Nairobi, and in membership on international church bodies such as the World Council of Churches.

Partnerships also co-ordinates the Volunteers in Mission program that places Canadians with partners for a period of time and a program that places theological students abroad for three months. The eco-justice arm of the department co-ordinates work in peace-building and environmental and social justice. The department used to include indigenous ministries, but that area became a separate department last year. However, partnerships manages grants from a “healing fund” that supports programs aimed at helping aboriginals cope with the legacy of the now-defunct residential schools system.

Since 2005, Ms. Johnson has also served as the church’s representative to the federal government concerning the schools, which have been the subject of abuse allegations, numerous lawsuits and an agreement with Ottawa that capped the church’s liability. “Our goal and mission as a church is to work for healing and reconciliation,” she told the Global Episcopal Mission Conference of the U.S. Episcopal Church in Cincinnati in 2000. “We would probably all agree that mission is about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. … I believe that good news needs to speak to the particular context in which people are living,” she said.

“This job has been so exciting,” said Ms. Johnson, whose work has often taken her abroad to conferences and working groups such as MISSIO, the Mission Commission of the Anglican Communion, where she was one of only two women and three laypeople. It is now known as the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism.

Archbishop Michael Peers, who was primate (national archbishop) during many of the years Ms. Johnson was at the national office, described her as “pure gold” and a person whose “fault” was a tendency to overwork. “Ellie’s impact beyond Canada was considerable,” he said, especially concerning the residential schools issue. “She maintained an integrity (with native people) on the one hand without simply throwing the church to the wolves,” he said. “She gained an enormous reputation in worldwide Anglicanism for what she knew and the way she connected with people,” he said.

It would surprise some who are familiar with Ms. Johnson’s elegant, soft-spoken style to know that she describes herself as being “a jock” in high school. “I played basketball, badminton, track and field. I might have played ice hockey if it had been available,” she recalled.

Besides sports, she was interested in teaching and earned a bachelor of education degree with a minor in physical education at McGill University in 1962. Her interest in foreign cultures emerged when she earned a master of arts degree in anthropology in 1964 at McGill. Marriage to British agricultural development specialist Tim Johnson, whom she met when they were graduate students doing field work in Trinidad, took her to Kenya, then Michigan, where she earned her doctorate in anthropology at Michigan State University.

Her husband’s work and her doctoral research took them to Nigeria, where she studied the itinerant women who control the country’s internal market system. “I loved it. I went around to all these markets and got to know them and got to learn Creole English,” she said. The Johnsons had three daughters over this period of time. “Let’s see, the first baby was born in Kenya, the second in Michigan and the third in England on the way to Nigeria,” she recalled.

“We had a very adventurous life,” she said. Her ability to adapt and thrive in new and different situations served her well: the adventure continued in Latin America as the family moved to Honduras where Ms. Johnson taught high school for five years.

The couple was back in Africa in the early 1980s when they decided to raise their family in England or Canada. The University of New Brunswick in Fredericton offered Mr. Johnson a post-doctoral fellowship in horticultural research and Ms. Johnson had a dream that she would be doing church work. “It was very odd. In the dream, I realized the churches in Canada hire lay people to do program work,” she recalled.

She had been raised in a United church family, but the United church office in Fredericton, which had no openings, “pointed me” to the Anglican church and she became director of Christian education at Christ Church parish for five years.

However, she said, “I missed the international work.” In the late 1980s, the Anglican church’s national office in Toronto was adding positions and she joined General Synod, initially as co-ordinator of mission education. “We were engaging Canadian Anglicans in theological and social reflection on mission. What are we called as Christians to do in the world and how are we relating to other parts of the Anglican Communion?” she said.

At about the same time, the Johnsons’ marriage ended. Ms. Johnson is in close touch with her three daughters, two of whom live in Ontario and one in Montreal, and three grandchildren. Ms. Johnson said she has no particular immediate plans for retirement.

“I’ll never stop being a justice advocate. I’ll never lose interest in other cultures and the rest of the world. I won’t set aside concern about aboriginal issues. The anti-racism work we’ve done, I’m completely passionate about. I’m sure I’ll continue to work on some of those things. It’ll be fun to figure it out,” she mused.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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