Labour leader John Shields mourned as pillar of social justice

John Shields, former priest, social worker, labour leader and head of the Land Conservancy of B.C., has died in Victoria.

He was 78.

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Shields will be remembered as a champion of social justice and as a man unafraid to reinvent himself to follow his callings, say those who knew him.

He is survived by wife Robin June Hood, stepdaughter Nikki Sanchez Hood and family and friends. He was predeceased by his first wife, Madeleine (Longo) Shields, who died in 2005 after a long illness.

Shields died in hospice care at Royal Jubilee Hospital on Friday through the medically assisted dying program.

After breaking his back in a car accident in 2015, Shields discovered he had a rare, terminal blood disease. In the weeks before his death, he participated in the Living Well, Dying Well program through the Centre for Earth and Spirit, a charity he helped found dedicated to Earth-based spirituality and awareness.

“He was so curious and wise-minded and held onto that right until the last minute,” said his wife. Hood said that Shields spent his last night surrounded by people he loved, beautiful singing and poetry. “He believed in kindness, compassion and justice. I’m just starting to realize how many people he affected.”

Shields was born on Dec. 20, 1938, in New York City, where he grew up. He moved to Canada in 1969 and worked for 15 years as a social worker with the Victoria Family and Children’s Service. He is best known for his pioneering work as a four-term president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union between 1984 and 1999.

“It’s a sad day for the BCGEU. John was a great friend to me and so many of us at the BCGEU and within the labour movement nationally,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith. “He felt, ‘Equal pay for equal work’ was a mantra. He was a true feminist in that way … We’ve lost a real warrior. He’s left a hole we’re all going to have to pull together to fill.”

During his tenure with the BCGEU, Shields negotiated landmark pay-equity agreements and advocated for women’s, workers’ and First Nations rights. The organization said in a statement that Shield’s legacy, “can be found in every workplace in B.C. — in the improved working conditions, benefits and wages that were achieved during his time leading the BCGEU.”

Bob Plecas, a longtime civil servant who negotiated across the table from Shields, said he was tough, “But perhaps the most principled man I ever worked with. He stood up for what he believed in.”

After leaving the BCGEU, Shields took a job as operations director at the Land Conservancy in 2013, when the Victoria-based non-profit was on the brink of demise, crippled by debt. Shields worked with the courts to map out a plan to protect nearly 50 properties and pay creditors. Environmentally sensitive properties across the Island and Interior were transferred or sold to environmental agencies or government with the condition they remain protected.

At the time, Briony Penn, chairwoman of the Land Conservancy’s board of directors and a friend of Shields, said the organization would be “forever grateful for his contributions.”

Before Shields moved to Canada, he was an ordained Catholic priest, theology teacher and civil-rights advocate. He obtained a master’s degree in theology from St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C., where he joined Reverend Martin Luther King in silent vigil during national debates around the Civil Rights Act.

Shields became disillusioned with the church when it changed direction from the progressive approach under Pope John XXIII. He left the priesthood to pursue other spiritual paths aligned with his values, a journey he details in the 2011 book The Priest Who Left His Religion in Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality. He continued to write about his spiritual journey and the dying process on his website blog.

In a 2015 post, he wrote: “The deeper we look, the greater is our consciousness of our unity with each other and with every other being … . Conscious energy that we associate with the essence of personality is not destroyed or assimilated, just as other forms of energy are not newly created or destroyed … I have drawn great personal strength from knowing that my conscious energy will persist beyond the moment of my death.”

Shields’ family and close friends held a private vigil this weekend. Public celebrations of his life will take place in Victoria on April 9 and in Vancouver on April 15, organized by the BCGEU. The venues are yet to be determined.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

• Shields’s blog is at johntshields.ca/blog

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