"Your silence will not protect you" - Audre Lorde
Social justice movements are striding confidently into 2018. From the #metoo movement, a decade old hashtag thought up by African American activist Tarana Burke and given new life by the celebrities of popular culture including the high priestess of them all Oprah Winfrey, who with her sister celebs evolved it into a multimillion fund for survivors of sexual harassment and a new hashtag #timeisup; to the thousands of women and their allies who showed up for round two of the women’s march, it feels as if we’re experiencing a seismic cultural shift here in North America and around the globe.
It was about a year ago that the Tambourine Army - feminist anti-violence champions from the Caribbean entered our popular consciousness. The name and shame campaign they mounted headed by Jamaican activists led to charges of ‘cyber-terrorism’ against one of the leaders after she posted on social media the names of fairly prominent men who were rumoured to be abusive to women and girls. She was arrested and jailed. After an international campaign of feminist and other organizations denouncing her arrest and calling for her release, the charges against her were dropped. The attempt to intimidate women and girls by the patriarchal and misogynistic criminal justice system did not silence their voices.
Closer to home we are witnessing the sometimes nasty pushback in academia from the likes of alt-right poster-person academic Jordan Peterson who is courting fame and money by proclaiming his right to deny agency and humanity to trans and non-binary identified folks who have the misfortune to show up in his classes. His attempt to weaponize the term ‘social justice warrior’ has galvanized feminists, young scholars, LGBTI+ activists and other fair-minded folks who pushed back and loudly claimed the term for themselves, yours truly included.
In a recent panel discussion the moderator asked what we thought of the term ‘social justice warrior’. I quickly jumped in to say (before the discussion could be moved to a discussion of the aforementioned prof above, thus giving him more air time than is worth our while) that social justice warriors were the women I worked with every day at OCASI who educate about and build resistance to patriarchy and other systems of oppression. They are my colleagues who speak out against anti-Black racism, transphobia and challenge the Council every day to walk its talk. They are my sector colleagues who after long days in their paid work prioritize their work with Caregivers to ensure that they receive fair access to an often opaque and discriminatory immigration system.
They are the doctors who came out in their lab coats to protest and demand access to healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers. They are the lawyers who champion the causes of the persecuted and the imprisoned even here in our “fair” country of the north.
The march towards justice hasn’t been confined to the feminist and LGBTI+ movements and their primarily racialized women leadership. We are also witnessing much action on the anti-Black racism movement front as well. Two years after Black Lives Matter Toronto entered the public consciousness by staging a two week encampment outside police headquarters in downtown Toronto to bring attention to the brutal approach to policing Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, the City of Toronto rolled out its anti-Black racism strategy with funding commitments attached.
The Province through its Anti-racism Directorate and less than a year after passing Ontario’s first antiracism legislation, released an anti-Black racism strategy. About a year ago the Province had announced its Black Youth Action Plan along with funding commitments of $47M over four years.
And, three years late but certainly welcome, the Prime Minister of Canada acknowledged and pledged Canada’s support for the UN Decade of People of African Descent. It’s a start. From the community we saw the coming together of various Black organizations and groups with the Michaelle Jean Foundation to launch the first National Black Canadians Summit. Most exciting was the launch of the new Federation of Black Canadians, a long overdue policy think-tank that even now at its nascent stage has huge expectations placed on it from diverse Black communities who have long felt erased from the Canadian narrative.
There is a celebratory mood this Black History month, even as we continue to work to ensure that the majority Black folks – from Haiti to Nigeria and points in between – crossing into Canada irregularly often risking life and limb, have fair access to justice and sustenance (food, shelter, social connections and services). And we continue to call for the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the USA.
Social justice movements have been reinvigorated. Those of us who have spent the last decades in the trenches know that we cannot rest, because it is all too easy for hard won gains to be rolled back. We know that the raising of community and public awareness is only the beginning of the struggle to remake a society into one of equitable access and opportunity. We know that there is much work still to be done: from income inequality to growing levels of poverty; from freeing women from the practice of female genital mutilation to securing rights and privileges for those with disabilities; from anti-Black racism to the struggle against hetero-patriarchy, the struggle continues.
As we build coalitions and alliances, as we experience pushback through threats and intimidation from those who want to maintain the status quo, we must remind ourselves and each other that ‘the arc of history is long but always bends towards justice’.