A Brief History of Connexions

Connexions originally arose out of a loose network of Canadian grassroots activists involved with poverty issues in a number of Canadian cities. Feeling a need to exchange information, ideas, and reflections on their experiences, they came together in the Spring of 1975 to form the ‘Ad Hoc Canadian Industrial Mission Group’. This Ad Hoc group organized two consultations later in 1975 which decided to develop a Canadian abstract service to provide regular updates of grassroots activities.

A collective, based in Toronto but with participation from other cities across the country, came together in the fall of 1975 to work on the project. The new project was given the name Canadian Information Sharing Service, and the first edition of their new abstract service, published as a stapled newsletter, was sent out to participants and others who were interested in February 1976. Reception was very positive, and the newsletters, filled with concise abstracts of publications, analyses, and the activities and visions of grassroots organizations, began to appear several times a year. In 1978, the name of the project was changed to Connexions (the full name is Connexions Information Sharing Services) to more clearly identify the project’s goal of connecting grassroots activists with each other and with information, ideas, and issues.

Funding for the project was minimal. Free space was provided by churches in downtown Toronto, and ‘printing’ was done on a Gestetner machine, a type of small manual printing press then found in many church and non-profit offices. The work was done by a collective of committed volunteers.

This model – a volunteer collective relying largely on donated resources – has been the project’s model for most of its existence. Despite its modest scale, it has been remarkably successful, producing descriptions of literally thousands of resources and organizations, and playing a low-key but significant networking role among grassroots activists over more than three decades.

Though church-based social activists played an important role in founding the project, Connexions is a secular project not affiliated with any religion. It has however received various forms of support (including space to house the project for a number of years) from churches and religious organizations, including the Anglican Church, the United Church, the Presbyterian Church, and a number of Roman Catholic religious orders and dioceses. In 1985, the work of Connexions during its first ten years inspired a number of individuals affiliated with the Canadian Theological Reflection Project to publish a theological reflection on the meaning of the Connexions project under the title A Theology of Connexions. It observed that "Connexions has become something of a crossroads, a meeting place – a place where stories get told. On the page of Connexions, one hears the voices of the powerless and the abused, the disabled, prisoners, the unemployed, the underemployed, skid row residents, the poor, the psychiatric patients, Third World peoples, immigrants, workers, older persons, women, native peoples, etc. Connexions realizes that the stories of the poor and oppressed differ radically from those of the typical Canadian as portrayed in mainstream culture."

In keeping with this tradition, Connexions has remained a grassroots volunteer-based collective project throughout its existence. For the first eighteen years of the project, information was distributed in a printed newsletter format. In 1994, Barrie Zwicker, the publisher of the Sources directory, a life-long peace activist, and an admirer of Connexions, offered to provide free office space and Internet server access to Connexions. This generous offer enabled Connexions to set up a website – www.connexions.org – and to begin the process of digitizing its extensive archive of written documents. The process of digitizing the archive continues to this day – in fact, with new contributions of archival materials continuing to come in, it looks like it will never end! Over time, the Connexions website has become a sophisticated and widely used site housing many thousands of documents, with users in many countries accounting for more than 140,000 page views a month, and with many other Internet sites linking to it. All the work of the project, from co-ordination to computer programming to data entry to proofreading to writing reviews and abstracts, continues to be done by volunteers. Indeed, volunteers and interns come to Connexions not only from Toronto, where the project is physically based, but from various parts of the world. Over the past few years, young interns have come to Connexions from Turkey, Switzerland, Korea, Belgium, and Japan. The city of Toronto attracts immigrants from all around the world, and a remarkably diverse group of new arrivals have joined long-time Torontonians in doing volunteer work for Connexions. A map in our office shows where people have come from: the map has pins in countries ranging from Sri Lanka to Haiti, Zimbabwe to Guyana, Nepal to Cuba, China to Brazil, and many other places.

Connexions has certainly changed in the 40-plus years of its existence, but in essence it remains what it was envisioned to be back in 1975: a small-scale grassroots collective effort devoted to social justice making a real difference.