“Justice” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year

What did this mean in 2018?

| Chantelle Spicer | Editor at-Large of the online dictionary, Peter Sokolowski, states that the word “justice” is the 2018 ord of the year, having regularly appeared in the top 20 loo- ups of 2018. The online traffic around this word is up 74% from 2017 searches, with spikes occurring at certain points of the year when current events sparked interests. Though it is a word much used, how it is used may have encouraged thousands of people to look deeper into the word. Given the many philosophical or culturally understandings of “justice,” as well as the ramifications this can have in many lives, perhaps it is time we all begin to examine the idea a little more closely.

This year, news stories that circulated around the idea of justice included Kim Kardashian’s advocacy of criminal justice reform, credibility of the American Justice Department, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault testimony in the appointment of now-Justice Kavanaugh – all of which have far more to do with injustice than justice.

Dr. Cristine Blasey Ford is sworn in to provide testimony regarding sexualized violence perpetrated by Brett Kavanuagh. Her testimony sparked worldwide solidarity and criticism regarding structures for reporting of violence and the #WhyIDidntReport movement.

We don’t have to look far to find those examples in Canada either. One which stood out in the headlines this year were the criticisms surrounding  the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry. In response to decades worth of calls for action regarding the 1,200 (-4,000)* missing and murdered women and girls, the Government of Canada (finally) launched the entirely independent inquiry in September 2016. However, from the onset, the inquiry received criticism from Indigenous families, communities, and organizations on a number of fronts. Following on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there are fears this is may be another instance of Indigenous communities being asked to share their stories – many of which are heartbreaking and horrific – to an official body that has no authority to offer any form of justice for women and may, in fact, further victimize families. This lack of authority is entrenched in the overarching mandate and jurisdiction of the commission, which cannot recommend that police re-open cases (though they aim to report instances systemic police bias or wrong-doing when heard during testimony). Furthermore, many families across Canada have reported facing many challenges in receiving support and resources – a promise made to families and communities at the onset of the Inquiry’s testimony period.

At the final testimony session given on December 10, 2018, Sunsan Frazer, a lawyer representing Families for Justice, stated:

“Families need to make sure that their loved ones did not die in vain. The death, the disappearance, has to have some meaning. And everyone who came before you to tell you their truth — that truth has to have meaning.

Those stories have to ground your report. Those tears that were cried have to have a purpose. People gave themselves to you completely, without reservation and at a great personal cost.”

The final report for the MMIWG Inquiry is scheduled for June 30, 2019.

artwork by Jon Labillois (http://jonlabillois.com), member of Member of the Listuguj Migmaq First Nation Band in Gaspe Quebec. This piece utilizes images of Indigenous women lost to violence in Canada.

Another aspect of justice to consider is: who has access to it? As seen in the MMIWG Inquiry, justice is something that can be offered (or not) – that it is not an inherent right, but may, in fact, be owned by the Canadian government and justice system and used however it deems fit at that time.

West Coast LEAF (Legal Education and Action Fund – an organisation focused on an equal and just society for all women and people who experience gender-based discrimination) published its annual report card on the province’s actions regarding the UN Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women on December 6th. This report gauges the province’s compliance with UN recommendations from year to year, providing a yearly baseline of accountability. This year, LEAF assessed a C- grade, up from a D+ in 2017. This grade represents ongoing concerns regarding access to BC’s legal aid system, which continues to be under-resourced and incapable of meeting the public demand for legal assistance. The report shows that in January 2018, “Legal Services Society (LSS) publicly stated that it was refusing approximately 60% of applicants, 70% of them women, and that its level of coverage for family law matters fell far short of the nationwide norm.” For a number of reasons, this particularly affects Indigenous women, individuals with disabilities, and migrant workers. (to see more of the report find it at http://www.westcoastleaf.org/our-work/cedaw-report-card/)

Those who have faced violence in relationships may experience the most challenges to accessing justice (beyond even reporting the violence), which range from court delays to gaining assistance navigating the legal system. Though steps for improved access to justice were made, including the creation of an office for an independent Human Rights Commissioner, many more steps need to be taken before we could begin to call this “the justice system.

If we cannot find justice through our legal system, or if that form of justice does not meet one’s personal interpretation of justice, where do we turn? In recent years, restorative justice has been a focus of much conversation and work, though it has been a part of the legal system for over 40 years. This work is based on an understanding that crime is a violation of people and relationships, with principles of restorative justice being rooted on respect, compassion and inclusivity. Meaningful engagement and accountability are foundational the process, providing an opportunity for healing, reparation and reintegration for all parties involved. Restorative justice can take various forms and may take place at all stages of the legal system. It does have its critics, who call it “too soft” or lacking the integrity to make sweeping changes to society given the fact that it only works on a small, personal scale or case-by-case basis. However, this flexibility, opposed to the rigid framework of the formal legal system, may be its greatest strength, allowing for multiple understandings of what justice can mean – putting the ownership of justice into the hands of the people. This idea can be further explored through the idea of social justice, which is a concept defined as “the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society.” This intrinsic and shared vision of justice is shared by a wide range (if not all) equity-seeking social movements who seek to see social justice represented though taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labor law, and the regulation of markets.

One could go on about the various forms of injustice that have gone on in the past year, of the powerful rallying cries of those seeking justice that have occurred to date – and will continue to as we, as a society, demand more. As this article is written, treaties regarding Wet’sewet’en traditional lands are being violated for LNG projects, millions of people in Canada are living in poverty, survivors of sexualized violence live in silence – none of this looks like justice….and none of these actions are slowing down. In the coming year, as we seek to understand justice better (keep looking it up folks!), to demand it,  hopefully those who are the gatekeepers of justice will relinquish their hold….or maybe we will just take it anyway.

* Due to lack of proper or standard reporting mechanisms, it is difficult to gauge how many Indigenous women and girls have been affected by extreme violence. The official number recognized by Canada is 1,200. However, Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at Alberta’s University of Lethbridge, recently set up an online, national database which has already gathered 3,000 names.

Feature photo of Lady Justice created by Eddie Calz (https://www.deviantart.com/eddiecalz/art/Justice-604261220)