Health Care as Social Justice Practice

Martha Roberts and Tom Warren

As neoliberalism continues to erode access to a publicly-funded health care system in Canada, people’s health organizers are working to improve the health of working class and marginalized communities. This budding movement seeks to defend and expand upon existing health and medical services. At the same time, organizers are establishing parallel initiatives that bring together workers and participants in health programs to mobilize for their shared interests. For instance, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) consists of initiatives ranging from advocacy of harm reduction programs (e.g. safe-injection sites for heroin users), to advocating for housing access for the poor, to seeking increased pedestrian safety in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The health justice movement has also built networks that focus on advocacy and education – including the Alliance for People’s Health, a grassroots organization of progressive health care workers fighting for health for all, and the People’s Health Movement, an international alliance of activists and organizations. These networks have taken on campaigns to influence policy, build coalitions, form international delegations to support peoples’ liberation, as well as consolidate efforts to build community power and democratic control over people’s health through advancing community-based health knowledge and building working-class control over health and health care services.

This movement brings together organizers from diverse backgrounds who seek to extend or challenge prevailing health care models, while also filling the many gaps around professionalized medicine. Some activists in the movement are licensed medical professionals – such as physicians and midwives – who work to develop practices that extend beyond the dominant state-sanctioned biomedical approach to medicine. A biomedical approach defines good health as an absence of disease or infirmity and approaches treatment of disease and infirmity primarily through professionalized clinical treatment based on bourgeois scientific principles combined with pharmaceutical treatment. This approach neglects underlying social and economic causes of poor health, such as inequality, poverty, and community disempowerment. As organizers work to ensure health care access for all, they seek to deepen public understandings of the causes and consequences of poor health by increasing community participation in health programs.
In this roundtable, organizers reflect on Canadian-based people’s health initiatives. This organizing is embedded in much wider international struggles for liberation and justice. The movement has drawn inspiration from initiatives abroad, and collaboration across borders is well underway. In many contexts, the movement is seeking to bring health care into alignment with the broader goals of economic and social justice for all.

Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay is an immigrant who made Montreal home, but is currently working as a rural family doctor in northern Ontario. He is an organizer with the Canadian chapter of the People’s Health Movement and is a co-representative for the North America region on its global steering council.

Aiyanas Ormond is a community health worker and organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and a member of both the Alliance for Peoples’ Health and Red Sparks Union, which supports national liberation struggles.

Martha Roberts is a Registered Midwife with the Strathcona Midwifery Collective and an active organizer with the Alliance for Peoples’ Health, a grassroots organization of health workers and community organizers fighting for health for all.

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