The Just Society Movement
For the Poor by the Poor - A Model for Grass-Roots Activism
By Finn Coyle
The Just Society Movement (1968 - 1972) was a short-lived but remarkably successful Toronto based grassroots social and political advocacy network run by and for Toronto’s poorest residents. It began as it would continue – simply and spontaneously after a chance meeting at their children’s summer camp brought single mothers Suzanne Polgar and Doris Power together. The two had much in common and much to talk about, in particular their frustrations dealing with the confusing, sometimes humiliating, and a number of the program’s illogical rules and regulations. To begin, they decided to pass on what they’d learned from their experiences and what they could learn from further study to support and empower others like themselves. Three years later, success brought the movement to an end, as membership numbers, a broadening of concerns, and their alignment with larger, professionally run organizations meant it could no longer operate according to its founding principles as a truly grassroots community of peers supporting and empowering one another.
Yet, in many ways, the JSM had achieved its objective. It counted more than 600 active members – all volunteers - and operated 4 offices – two in Toronto and one each in Kingston and Windsor – near to welfare offices and entirely staffed by volunteers. Besides successfully meeting this original objective, the group also proved to be media savvy activists, using an appealing public profile – more than 80% women, many of whom were single mothers fighting on behalf of their families – and well-orchestrated demonstrations and appearances to raise awareness and public support.
And, what’s more, their efforts brought results – substantive changes in the Welfare System (as it was then called) that made it more accessible, less confusing, and less stigmatizing for those in need – which is to say, more just.
The movement’s name alluded to the “just society” as promoted first in the writings, and later in the successful election campaign of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, whose appealing image as a dynamic and progressive leader - the ideal figure to lead in this age of growing social awareness and advocacy for a more inclusive, egalitarian – that is, a more just society. Trudeau and the Liberals were not alone in their progressive thinking but were, rather, part of a broader, global trend that saw former European colonies gradually win their independence, uprisings in Soviet Bloc nations, student and worker protests in France, and of course, the powerful African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. provided a poignant and particularly inspiring example of dignity and courage in the face of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and the often violent means used to maintain it. As well, their well-organized, well-orchestrated methods offered an inspiring example of what a unified front could achieve. The feminist and gay rights movements followed behind in the avenues opened up by the Civil Rights Movement, though these often reflected the divisions in society at large, their advocacy reflecting the experiences and desires of their mostly white, middle-class leadership.
Inevitably, politicians followed the public and this general trend toward greater equality, and focus soon fell on the plight of the poor who had been left behind in the post-war prosperity. In 1965, U.S. President Lydon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty”. In Canada, a Special Senate Committee on Poverty was created with a budget of $1 million and in 1968 began to cross the country to listen to the concerns of the country’s poor, with the intention of summarizing the findings in a report, and drawing up an action plan for the elimination of poverty.
The committee got off to a bad start, choosing hotel ballrooms as the venue for the meetings, confirming for many just how far removed the committee was from the lives of those it had been charged with improving. In response to this glaring faux pas, the senators along with the media, took guided tours of some of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the committee’s investigation, it at least brought to light the hardships faced by a substantial number of the population – set at 1 million by the Ontario Federation of Labour in 1964. Internal divisions lead to a final rift, with 4 members leaving the group to write their own report, which they called The ‘Real’ Poverty Report, countering what they were certain would be the watered down official version.
Women are especially hard hit by poverty, more so if they are also single mothers responsible for raising a family, with the constraints this places on where they can live and work. It isn’t surprising then that women were responsible for the first documented coordinated effort to push for changes to the welfare system. In 1966, 55 mothers from Sarnia joined efforts to write a letter to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, in which they included numbers showing that the Family Benefit Plan, by offering a single, set rate to all, regardless of location, meant that those living where the cost of living was low received more relative to those living in places where it was higher.
And it was in this context of growing social awareness and an emerging culture of engaged, progressive activism that two single mothers met and decided that instead of just complaining, they were going to do what they could to affect change simply by offering support to people who had very little, if any, to empower them as they, in turn, would empower someone else so that they, in turn . . .
JSM – Grassroots Advocacy – Objectives & Methods
- To educate and empower the poor was the founding principle and goal.
- The approach taken was as simple and straightforward as it was effective. Run by the poor for the poor, it provided a community of support and expertise from those who had, themselves, had to deal with the intimidating and humiliating experience of dealing with an impersonal bureaucracy. The organization was informal and non-hierarchical. Because it was entirely run by volunteers, it avoided the necessity of seeking government financial aid, and so kept itself free from government influence. As well, meetings were run informally, with no attendance taken, nor required fees so that authorities were never sure how large the organization was becoming and so could not effectively gauge how large potential demonstrations might become, nor how quickly they might get underway in reaction to specific events.
- It operated two Toronto offices, open from 9 – 5, close to welfare offices in the city’s west end, on Dovercourt Road, and in the east, on Seaton Street. As the movement grew, branch offices were opening in Kingston and Peterborough.
- Out of the Dovercourt office, under the direction of volunteer and single mother Susan Abela, the movement published 500+ copies of the JSM newspaper Community Concern.
- Information kiosks were set up at welfare offices. Volunteers would also spend time in office waiting rooms offering help to anyone needing it. This coordinated effort meant that they could not be easily ejected from welfare offices so that their presence had to be tolerated.
- As the movement grew, so too did its mandate, from providing support and crucial information to advocating actively for change.
- This community movement of women volunteers, many of them mothers, was unusual and drew media attention to demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins. With this coverage, they were able to raise awareness of issues relating to poverty and social assistance. As well, the fear of unwelcome negative media coverage gave JSM direct and immediate access to key officials such as the Minister of Welfare.
- The central role played by volunteer women and mothers in the JSM meant a different approach had to be taken to the kinds of protest as well as in their planning and execution. As sole-providers for their children, many in JSM could not risk doing anything that might get them arrested or injured. They could still be effective – but whatever they planned had to take into account their responsibilities. For example, they could not take the chance of being arrested – not only because it would take them away from their children, but worse, their children could be taken from their care entirely.
- Poverty and motherhood also placed other restrictions professional, male activists did not face and, consequently, often overlooked in their planning. Transportation to a protest site, for example, required money and childcare, which if not provided, meant that the likelihood of violence had to be weighed in order to prevent putting children at risk.
- The political and media savvy volunteers managed a public campaign that drew attention to the problems faced by the city’s poor. One notable instance of this was a staged sit-in, ending in arrest, at a vacant apartment in a building run by the Ontario Housing Corporation that exposed the discriminatory practices and lack of transparency in the management of buildings run by the Ontario Housing Corporation. The action brought to light the generally known, but always denied, eviction and blacklisting of families with children deemed to be difficult. The particular case that brought it about involved a mother and her 5 children – two of them special needs requiring local services – who turned to the organization for help being evicted and then told there were no other vacancies. Newspapers were of course drawn to the compelling story and the coverage drew attention to the JSM and the unfortunate need for this sort of advocacy.
- Their effort resulted in changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program – those on welfare were ineligible for financial aid, which put post secondary education out of reach for many, particularly single mothers who could not afford to go off assistance in order to attend school. (A decision that was later reversed.)
- A 500 strong contingent showed up at a Toronto meeting of the Senate Committee for the Study of Poverty – from whom they’d refused funding in order to remain independent – received front-page coverage with the demand that the issue was not poverty, but rather wealth, which should instead be investigated as the root cause. Their advocacy won the support of a number on the Senate Committee who resigned to write their own, independent report to counter what they were certain would be whitewashed by the government.
- A regular presence in the media, the JSM kept attention focused on the city’s poor – some school teachers would bring students into the offices to learn about the challenges faced by some in the city – which helped keep public pressure on the government to bring about change. As well, they joined a broad-based, national advocacy network that lead to productive alliances like the one formed with those in the peace movement in order to stop the demolition of a group of downtown houses by Ontario Hydro, which subsequently became co-operatives.
- Overall, by all accounts, the group had considerable success far and above their original mandate of educating and empowering Toronto’s poor in a remarkably short span of time.
The JSM’s considerable successes demonstrate the effectiveness of their approach to grass-roots activism, which grew organically without straying from its founding principles. In particular, they avoided repeating the hierarchical, top down approach that most often reflected the view of those speaking from a position of privilege with no direct knowledge of the lives of those they presume to offer help. Also important, though they had no established hierarchy, nor designated leaders, they nevertheless acknowledged the need for some leadership and direction, which they met by encouraging all volunteers to step forward and assume the role temporarily. The group also provides an example of the necessity of resisting the often abstract, overtly politicized approach taken by some activists, and keeping the focus on serving the needs of those whose rights are being championed. Women – and single mothers in particular – do not enjoy the same freedoms as men do when it comes to activist work. Even minimal travel costs can prove to be an obstacle to attending demonstrations; child care is an issue when it comes to attending meetings; the nature of the protest must be kept in mind since a single mother can’t risk leaving her children on their own should an action lead to arrest. These are basic needs, obvious enough to women, but often overlooked by men. By providing things like childcare at events the organizers made it the participation of all its members to participate, which was not the case with other, mostly male-dominated organizations.
Overall, the successes of the Just Society Movement demonstrate the efficacy of their style of ground-floor, peer-to-peer, independent (no government funding), grass-roots, holistic approach to activism. Conversely, the relative short lifespan of the movement acts as a cautionary tale about the challenges faced by smaller organizations as they attempt to join their efforts to larger, more broad-based movements.
Little, Margaret Hillyard. “Militant Mothers Fight Poverty: The Just Society Movement, 1968-1971.” Labour / Le Travail, vol. 59, 2007, pp. 179-197.
"Just Society Movement: Toronto's Poor Organize," George Ford and Steven Langdon, Canadian Dimension 7 (June-July 1970), 19-23.
"Just Society Plans Day Care Centre". Seven News, Volume 1, Number 7, August 28, 1970, P. 5.
"The Just Society Movement." Howard Buchbinder, in Brian Wharf, ed., Community Work in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Sewart, 1979), 129-152;
Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History. Bryan D. Palmer & Gaetan Heroux. Between the Lines. 2016.
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This article is also available in French.