This article first appeared in the May issue of the Anglican Journal. It is inaugural piece in our series on Anglicans in public life.
For the Rev. Canon Reginald Stackhouse, public service is part of the Christian vocation. A former priest in two west-end Toronto parishes and former principal of Wycliffe College, Stackhouse has a long list of elected and appointed public offices on his resumé: two terms as a Conservative MP, a commissioner on both the Canadian and the Ontario Human Rights commissions, member of the board of regents of Toronto’s Centennial College and a member of public library and school boards.
For Stackhouse, now 87 and retired, public service is part of the vocation of being a Christian. He points to Romans 13:1, which urges Christians to acknowledge the powers that be as existing by the will of God. “Government is part of God’s creation,” he says. “Whether you’re appointed or elected, you’re able to use the power of government to achieve things not possible as an outsider.”
Having seen in the 1960s what people can accomplish in the collective setting of library and school boards, Stackhouse first ran for federal office in 1972 for the Conservative Party of Robert Stanfield-whom he describes as “an Anglican for official purposes.” Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were then in power.
As opposition critic for penal reform, Stackhouse wanted to make the prison system more humane and, after a rash of escapes, more secure. He was part of a cross-Canada fact-finding mission to 15 penal institutions, but the resulting report was lost in the dissolution of Parliament for the 1974 election. Still interested in reforming our correctional system, he notes that “Canada has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the democratic world. If you look at Europe, where rates are much lower, you see there are other ways to keep society safe.”
Returning to academic life in 1975, Stackhouse served as principal of Toronto’s Wycliffe College for the next decade and then won a second term in Parliament in 1984, serving this time in the ruling government of Brian Mulroney.
Free trade was the big issue of the day and, as a member of the committee on free trade, he consulted nationally with the business community to gauge its support for NAFTA. Stackhouse was also part of the house finance committee’s success in shaming the big banks into lowering their credit card interest rates after the Bank of Canada reduced its prime.
As chair of the Human Rights Commission, Stackhouse was instrumental in producing Canada’s first publication on aging and human rights. “We advocated back then for the removal of mandatory retirement at age 65,” he says. This issue still interests Stackhouse, who in 2005 published a book called The Coming Age Revolution. “If I were writing it today, I’d drop the word ‘coming,’ It’s here!” he says.
Running for a third term in Scarborough 1988, he lost narrowly, ascribing his defeat to fears among industrial workers about free trade and the strongly pro-life Roman Catholic population in his riding.
As an MP, Stackhouse never played up his clerical status or brought his religion into the house. “But I never hid it, either,” he says. “Everyone knew I was clergy, just as they knew who was a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.” Not making a public issue of one’s religion is a positive way Canadian politicians differ from some of their U.S. peers, he notes.
Stackhouse admits he would like to have served longer in Parliament, focusing on human rights for the elderly. “We’ve made notable advances in rights for women, and I’d like to see the same for older people.”