Social justice is grounded in the idea that every human being deserves the full spectrum of political, economic and social rights, and opportunities.
To withhold this access is the opposite of social justice: it’s discrimination. According to social justice principles, society should never withhold rights and opportunities because of a person’s:
2. What is the opposite of social justice?
“The opposite of social justice is ignorance and inaction.”
– Azeeza Kagzi, Canadian university student
Social injustice happens when our society treats people unfairly. We create a kind of hierarchy, then place certain people ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than others. As individuals, we often don’t realize how we’re reinforcing that subtle hierarchy. It’s known as unconscious bias.
The passionate movement against institutionalized racialism in 2020 has prompted many North Americans to consider the many faces of social injustice. Photo: Ames Eades on Unsplash
The reality is that we all have biases. And most people in North America enjoy privileges of some kind. The social justice journey begins when we show willingness to examine those privileges. Until we do, we won’t realize how many challenges we never have to face in our daily lives.
How many of the painful realities below don’t apply to you?
In Afghanistan, immense poverty means many children must resort to dirty, dangerous and degrading work, instead of attending school. Photo: Mohammad Elias Hatimi
3. How to tell if you care about social justice
“I think I was just brought up to want a world that is a bit kinder than it was the day before.”
– Wren Walker, Canadian student
As a young person, did you ever speak up when someone was bullied or brutalized at school? Perhaps the child was a refugee. Or had a speech impediment. Or had just confided to his untrustworthy friends, “I think I might be gay.”
It might have happened years ago. But willingness to speak out indicated that you weren’t okay with what was happening. It bothered you that someone was being belittled or physically hurt.
Perhaps you feel the same now when you learn of people enduring discrimination, ignorance and suffering. It’s a sign that fairness, kindness and human dignity are important to you. Your voice will be important in the social justice conversation.
4. Why call it social justice?
There’s a difference between legal justice and social justice. There is some connection nowadays, which is great. Enough social pressure can eventually lead to the writing of more fair, careful, inclusive policies and laws. But generally:
Legal justice tends to focus on justice for individuals wronged. That means the person does something, it’s against the law and justice is served. Say someone commits a murder or robbery, for instance. That action will be dealt with in civil or criminal court. The facts are discussed, arguments offered, decision rendered, and punishment served.
Social justice, on the other hand, tends to focus more on relations between people and groups within societies. It operates on the understanding that all people should have access to wealth, health, well-being, justice, privileges and opportunity. And that this should be true, regardless of people’s:
5. How long has the idea of social justice been around?
You’ll see examples of social justice values and heroism throughout history, from as far back as the Old Testament of the Bible. People were urged to act justly, caring for widows and orphans, for instance, instead of casting them out. Later, Christians like British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, born in the late 18th century, worked to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.
The expansion of social justice ideals continued in early 19th century Britain, during the Industrial Revolution. The wave continued throughout Europe and into the United States, as people fought against the exploitation of human labour. Early social justice focused mainly on capital, property and the distribution of wealth.
For 41 days in 1919, workers in Winnipeg stayed off the job, calling for the right to collective bargaining and fair wages. Photo: Public Domain
Social justice meaning expands
Throughout the 20th century, social justice movements began including race, gender, the environment and other forms of inequality.
In Canada, women including well-known Manitoban writer and suffragist Nellie McClung, campaigned for the right of women to vote. In January 1916, a new law was passed in Manitoba. It gave women the right to vote – and to put themselves forward as candidates – in provincial elections. It took until 1918 for a similar federal law to be passed in Canada.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1955. Her quiet but firm statement had incalculable value as part of the Civil Rights Movement for social justice for Black people. Photo: Public Domain
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States took place in the 1950s and `60s. Rosa Parks has become an iconic figure in the movement, for her simple gesture of resistance in 1955. She quietly but firmly refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
This led to the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by a young Baptist minister: Martin Luther King Jr. King would go on to be one the most influential civil rights leaders the world has known. It was the beginning of the end of racial segregation laws in the U.S.
Events like these helped mobilize Black Americans – and many white Americans – to begin an unprecedented fight for racial justice that spanned two decades.
Social justice becomes universal
At this time, too, the measure of social justice expanded to include a universal human dimension – factoring in not just our fellow citizens, but humanity as a whole. People began asking questions like these:
In Kenya, thousands of families have lost the livestock they rely on for nutrition, income and security to the ravages of climate change. Photo: Jon Warren
6. How did 2020 stand out as a year for social justice movements?
“The murder of several Black North Americans caused people to start reflecting, not just on institutionalized racism, but on how disadvantaged peoples within our society are treated.”
–Rabia Tahir, Canadian student
Many people have noted that the movement to overthrow racial injustice took on a new momentum in 2020. While some see Black Lives Matter as a continuation of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, others call today’s chapter “a new iteration.”
“There’s no one or two true leaders of the movement, they are less willing to work within the system, they are looking at more than just policy change and they are looking past politicians as they push for change,” notes Eugene Daniels, in Politico magazine.
Social justice through social media
Many Canadians joined social justice movements in 2020 through social media. After the killing of Black American George Floyd, millions of people expressed their outrage and empathy, shared their personal stories, and expressed their deep desire for change.
Social media was critical in the organizing of hundreds, if not thousands, of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests cross the world. Here in Canada, people who had never attended an in-person rally for social justice turned out to BLM events.
COVID-10 worsens social injustice
In countries around the world, the question of how a global pandemic highlights and worsens social injustice was dissected online. On social media, people are noting that economic inequality goes hand-in-hand with racial inequality and gender inequality.
In developing countries like Venezuela, women and children are often vulnerable to numerous forms of social injustice at once. The same is true for many people in Canada. Photo: Alberto Gulin
“As the current situation evolves, the number of people put in vulnerable circumstances will grow,” noted the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “The rights and needs of these people cannot be forgotten or ignored.”
A study published by Toronto Public Health noted that both racialized and low-income groups have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the city. The study noted that 83 per cent of cases involve members of a racialized community.
Women have been affected, too, by the global pandemic, even in privileged countries like Canada. The Charity Village website notes that twice as many women lost their jobs as men in 2020.
7. What does it mean to advocate for social justice?
It doesn’t have to involve attending a dozen rallies a year – though that never hurts! Here are some tips from social justice advocates who volunteer with World Vision Canada:
In Bangladesh, Choity was 13 when she dropped out of school to work, earning about $10 a month. Much of the ‘fast fashion’ in Canadian stores is made by workers overseas who are underpaid and poorly treated. Photo: Laura Reinhardt
8. What social justice causes need my attention right now?
“It’s simply about being involved in issues that one cares about. Everyone has the capacity to do that.” – Azeeza Kagzi, Canadian student
There are countless social justice issues needing attention right now. The global COVID-19 pandemic has triggered economic downtowns in our communities, in Canada and in countries around the world. People who were already disadvantaged are often the ones who suffer most.
Here are a few examples of social justice in the news recently:
Anti-Black discrimination – This critical issue has made headline news in Canada over the past year. Some Canadians tend to see our country as one which models inclusion. Yet many critics say we have a long way to go toward achieving equity for Black people in Canada. This past summer, many Canadians attended Black Lives Matter events for the first time.
Canada’s Indigenous peoples – Social justice is about having the same political, social and economic rights and opportunities. This hasn’t been so here in Canada, for Indigenous peoples. Groups like Project of Heart call on all Canadians to get involved.
Shrinking ice caps and more severe weather makes accessing traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds more dangerous for Inuit families. Naval traffic is increasing in the North, worsening environmental challenges. Photo: Paul Carroll on Unsplash
Environmental issues – Fighting climate change isn’t just an environmental concern, it’s a social justice issue, too. Climate change is most likely to impact developing countries, according to the Government of Canada web site. And those countries are least able to afford its consequences. Within developed countries like Canada, Inuit families who rely on ice and the ocean to hunt, fish and trap are being drastically affected.
Global poverty and injustice – In a world of such plenty, the fact that anyone lives in poverty is socially unjust, in and of itself. But poverty also creates other forms of social injustice. And that will get worse, due to the impact of COVID-19. Here are two ways you can help through World Vision Canada:
In countries like Malawi, Canadians can purchase tools for children with disabilities, helping them attend school and join other activities. Photo: Limbikani Kamlongera
People with disabilities – Canadians with mental or physical disabilities have the right to live free from discrimination, enjoy the same quality of service, education, vocation, inclusion and life as anyone else in Canada. We have a long way to go on this front – especially as COVID-19 disables more people every month.
Women’s rights – True, women in Canada can vote, attend university, enter any profession and make decisions about marriage and children. But a report published in 2018 by the Canadian Women’s Foundation noted that women still face systemic inequality of many kinds. And as many groups point out, women are still exponentially more vulnerable to gender-based violence.
9. How soon can I expect to see change in society?
It starts the moment you learn something new about another person or yourself. It continues when you make changes in your life: checking your biases, rejecting privileges which hurt others and speaking out for causes you believe in.
Sometimes it feels like the world is on fire for social justice, like it’s done recently, with movements to overturn racial injustice. Other times, progress will seem to slow or even grind to a halt temporarily.
But even if the social justice fervor quiets down for a bit, on social media or in the news, it doesn’t mean change isn’t happening. Be patient and persevere. Keep reading, keep learning, keep advocating. Keep faith that things will change. And most of all – get involved.
“Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
This article was written by Deborah Wolfe with Azeeza Kagzi, Rabia Tahir and Wren Walker contributing.