My career did not start in animal welfare. I began as a graduate student in Criminology and then worked in the social services. During my time in the social services sector, I helped to support youth in the foster care system, young people who were sexually exploited, and adults living with HIV/AIDs. I also supported literacy programs that were accessed by children living in low-income families and newcomers to Canada. My husband has also spent the vast majority of his career supporting vulnerable populations. Social justice is in our blood.
Admittedly though, when I founded the Paws for Hope Animal Foundation, it wasn’t with the intention to support people. I was driven by my love for animals and the recognition that the animal welfare system was broken.
However, it did not take long for me to make the connection between animal welfare and social justice. It did not take long to realize that behind every animal needing help, is a person who, more often than not, needs help too—a person who has been marginalized because of their race, gender, disability, sexuality, mental health, or history of abuse and neglect. These are people who face barriers simply because of circumstance or who they are. The way our society is structured means they will never know the various privileges that many of us have spent our lives taking for granted.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed our neighbours to the south rise up against racism, oppression, and state violence. The catalyst was the brutal murder of George Floyd but the fuel of this fire goes back centuries.
Most of us stand in solidarity with our American brothers and sisters in the fight against racism. But doing so requires us to pay attention to racism and oppression in our own country and communities—to understand and address the systems that continue to marginalize and harm racialized Canadians and First Nations peoples.
We must commit to learning more about our own history of colonialism, slavery, and oppression. Because we too are benefiting from our country’s racist past. We must commit to learning more about the Residential School system and the 60s Scoop and the ongoing genocide of First Nations people.
Standing in solidarity demands we understand the history of the land we are standing upon. In 1914, Canada turned away the Komagata Maru, a steamship on which a group of people from India attempted to immigrate to Canada. A riot ensued when the ship returned to Calcutta and dozens of people died. In 1942 over 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps for the duration of WWII. The last residential school in Canada didn’t close until 1996.
These are but a few examples of the racism that has shaped our country and influenced the beliefs and laws and systems that continue to benefit some groups over others. Animal welfare professionals have an obligation to fight against these systems. They are inherently harmful to certain groups of people and, as such, are inherently harmful to animals as well.
Whichever way you frame this work and however position yourself (social justice ally, animal welfare advocate, harm reduction supporter), there is an inherent call to action. Those words are verbs—ally, advocate, and support. They require and demand action.
We cannot continue to focus only on the animal. Doing so is not only unjust; it is also ineffective. We cannot make a sustainable difference in the lives of animals if we are not also working towards a better life for their people. We must do a better job of seeing the people behind the animals we care so much about. We must check our own biases and prejudices and challenge ourselves to do better when people are reaching out for help.
If you want to help figure out how Paws for Hope can do that, please get in touch. If you want to support people with pets that are in need right now, donate here. If nothing else, reflect on your position in society, your values, and how you can be a part of the change that is needed.
We must stop seeing ourselves as animal saviours but as social justice warriors.