The history of the Social Justice Summer Retreat is still evolving as we continue to expand our reach and clarify how we can achieve our objectives.

Events like this have been organized before. The progressive intellectuals and activists of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s used to gather at the National YMCA Camp at Geneva Park on Lake Couchiching near Orillia. That’s where they helped combine the Christian social gospel tradition and the social democratic ideas of the CCF (the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, fore-runner of the NDP) -- and the League for Social Reconstruction (that was the brains trust behind the CCF) into the social safety net that we have today.

The Couchiching gatherings were referred to as Thinkers Conferences and were rather elitist. They are carried on today but with a more liberal orientation – featuring speakers like Paul Martin and other members of the Liberal Cabinet.

There were other camps and leadership training schools organized between the 1920’s and the 1970’s – by groups such as the United Jewish Peoples Order, the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and the Grindstone Island Cooperative. They left a rich tradition of organizing by those firmly on the left-wing of Canadian politics, whether socialist, communist, or simply peace-loving.

It is wonderful to hear these old activists reminisce about all the fun they had when like-minded people – those who shared a commitment to social justice – got together with their families in a wonderful Northern setting. We wanted to resurrect these traditions.

The idea for such a retreat was hatched in late 80’s when some activists from churches, unions and other social movements gathered at Emmanuel College to discuss running a leadership development program for our younger activists. Talked turned to the history of progressive summer camps in this province.

Soon after that, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation brought together activists from about 35 social movement organizations to discuss what we were doing, what we might have in common and how we might work more closely together to achieve a greater impact. It was proposed that we continue the networking over a longer period in the summer, and bring along our families, so that we could establish deeper relationships and more collaboration.

A small group gathered in January of 1998 to plan our first retreat – Debbie Field, Sam Gindin, Josephine Grey, David Langille, Lee McKenna du Charme, Susan McMurray, Judy Rebick, and Ted Reeve. We agreed that our purpose was to help build and strengthen the social movements of Ontario. The Atkinson Foundation gave us $12,000 to help organize and subsidize the first retreat. We checked out the facilities of the Geneva Park YMCA Camp at Couchiching and the CAW’s Family Education Centre at Port Elgin – and found that they would cost too much for our crowd. So we began looking at summer camps and Arowhon quickly emerged as a natural choice – it offered wonderful facilities in a beautiful wilderness setting, and the owners, Joanne Kates and Leon Muzinski, were sympathetic to the cause. Algonquin Park is roughly of equal distance from the major cities of the province.

We try to offer a rich program but we want to avoid organizing a conference in the countryside. So we structure some free time in the program and we encourage you to take a break when you feel the need – so you can find the right mix of listening, talking and recreation.

Consistent with our commitment to social justice, we want to avoid this being an elitist event so we seek a mix of leaders and grass-roots activists. Everyone who attends is a full participant and capable of contributing to a panel, workshop or discussion.

Various groups have chosen to hold their meetings in conjunction with the Retreat -- such as the OCASI youth program, the Ontario Environmental Network’s youth program, the Ontario Young People’s Alliance, and the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice.

In order to better reflect the diversity of Ontario, each year we have extended our outreach to sectors of the social justice community that we felt were missing or under-represented.

Organizing and financing the Retreat became an ongoing process involving a broad partnership of groups – including the Atkinson Foundation, Catalyst Centre, Canadian Autoworkers, Conservation Council of Ontario, Canadian Energy and Paperworkers Union, Canadian Federation of Students, Canadian Labour Congress, Council of Canadians, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadian Postal Workers Union, Interpares, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, Ontario Coalition for Social Justice, Ontario Federation of Labour, Ontario Young Peoples Alliance, Phoenix Community Works Foundation, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the United Steelworkers. The Centre for Social Justice continues to take responsibility for financing and coordinating the Retreat.

We welcome you to Arowhon, and invite you to join us in our ongoing debates about how to build and strengthen the social movements of Ontario.

We also invite you to get involved in helping to organize next year’s Retreat. This is now a year-long process which begins at the Retreat where you can help identify emerging issues, give us your feedback, and join the working group.