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A ‘co-operative’ path to social justice

By: | January 30, 2014

Residents of St. John’s and surrounding areas are coming together to address various issues related to social and environmental justice, some of which, they say, are compounded by the province’s recent economic prosperity.

The Social Justice Co-operative NL co-hosted an "Ending Violence Against Women: What Needs to Happen?" public discussion last September in St. John's. Photo courtesy Lori Heath.

If the membership numbers of a recently formed social justice co-operative and the diversity of its members’ concerns are any indication, it would seem being a ‘have’ province hasn’t been the saving grace some thought it would be. Despite the province’s booming natural resource economy, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are facing an assortment of serious social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges, many of which are striking a passionate response from those who feel more can be done to confront or mitigate their consequences.

Last year a group of individuals from the St. John’s area began discussing possible ways to ensure interested people could readily engage in addressing such issues as poverty, environmental justice, responsible economic development and gender inequality. In turn, they formed the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador, which incorporated last winter and attracted about 100 people to its first annual general meeting (AGM) in May.

Since then it has organized or co-sponsored community events around issues like democratic reform, sexual violence and globalization, and this weekend in St. John’s it will host its first ‘open space’ event.

“An open space is a new process for organizing meetings, conferences, community work groups, councils, meetings of any kind,” explains Lori Heath, a co-operative director. “I’ve attended three of these in the past few years and they’re really, really dynamic, really creative, really participatory, democratic, and really effective as well because they make good use of people’s time.

The event will begin with a theme, she explains, “and in our case the theme is ‘social justice: what does it mean to you?’ And it’s wide open, so it starts out with no agenda.

“We’ll start with a brief introduction to the process, and we’ll have several locations in the venue where people can convene a group meeting…to lead a session, discuss a particular issue, promote a certain organization or campaign, give a presentation, lead a workshop, teach a skill, tell a story, whatever,” she says. “Or you can just sit in on the presentations offered by others throughout the day – you’re not obliged to lead something. It can be formal or just an informal discussion. You don’t have to be an expert on the topic; you can just say ‘I’d love to talk to someone about this’, and maybe the experts will show up. Or you can try to pull together a group that might eventually form a working group on some issue.”

Social justice in a time of economic prosperity

Heath says the co-operative will try to fill part of the void left by the closure of Oxfam Canada’s regional office in St. John’s last year, and that its creation comes at a time when the province’s new economic prosperity is presenting some new problems or exacerbating existing ones.

“In my opinion…economic growth doesn’t necessarily (correlate) with people’s well-being, and in fact there are often a lot of problems that come along with some of this type of economic development that we’re seeing,” she says.

“I’m not putting down the fact that people are doing well now because of the oil economy, but definitely we shouldn’t just assume that everything’s rosy now because the economy is starting to look up. There’s still a lot of local issues having to do with affordable housing, we’re seeing an increase in drug use and (certain types of) crime, and there’s a lot of community development issues that we see here in St. John’s – and I’m sure in other communities, how our communities are being planned with regard to essential services like power, for example, and land use.

“At a community level those are really important. At the national level we’re seeing the Harper government slashing programs and waging a war against science, while promoting large scale – and in many cases really environmentally-damaging – economic development. So it’s a really, really important time right now for engaging in all these issues.”

Recent successes, laying new ground

Social Justice Cooperative AGM 2013

About 100 people attended the Social Justice Co-operative Newfoundland and Labrador’s first AGM in May 2013. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

Picking up where Oxfam left off, says Heath, the co-operative “will continue to do local and global social justice work, but to do it in a very local grassroots context, to be able to organize on the ground.”

Saturday’s ‘open space’ event will offer people an opportunity “to talk about environmental issues, poverty issues, issues affecting new Canadians, student issues, seniors’ issues, workplace issues – it’s very wide open and democratic. It’s a completely open forum for anyone to speak.”

Heath is welcoming anyone interested in presenting or leading a discussion or workshop at the event to notify the co-op in advance, if possible, so they can organize an adequate amount of space. But she also encourages spontaneous involvement, she says.

“Some topics that have come up so far are issues of global citizenship, recent trade agreements like CETA, direct democracy issues, Aboriginal women’s issues, child welfare issues,” she says, “so there’s a real range there already and I know we’ll have a lot more.”

The Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador presents What Does Social Justice Mean to You, a free and public ‘open space’ forum, Noon-5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1 in Canon Wood Hall of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church on the corner of Military Road and King’s Bridge Road. For more information visit the SJCNL website.

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