The idea of a just society first gained modern attention when philosophers such as John Stuart Mill asked, "What is a 'just society'?" Their writings covered several different perspectives including allowing individuals to live their lives as long as they didn't infringe on the rights to others, to the idea that the resources of society should be distributed to all, including those most deserving first. In 1861, John Stuart Mill published an essay entitled, "Utilitarianism". In this famous essay, Mill advocated the latter view, in which decision makers attended to the "common good" and all other citizens worked collectively to build communities and programs that would contribute to the good of others.
The term was later used as a rhetorical device by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to encapsulate his vision for the nation. He first used the term in the 1968 Liberal Party leadership contest, at the height of "Trudeaumania", and it eventually came to be identified as one of his trademark phrases. Unlike the "Great Society" of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, the label Just Society was not attached to a specific set of reforms, but rather applied to all Trudeau's policies, from multiculturalism to the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau defined a just society before becoming the Prime Minister of Canada:
The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The Just Society will be one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country's affluence will be given a better opportunity. The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques. The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity. The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfill themselves in the fashion they judge best.
The phrase is now an ingrained part of Canadian political discourse. Those on the social-democratic left consider themselves Trudeau's heirs and vigorously denounce any policy that would harm the Just Society legacy, while the neoliberal right attacks the notion that Trudeau's Canada was more "just" than other eras.
Additionally, the concept of a just society is the ideal strived for by advocates of social justice, civil rights, and toleration, of which Trudeau was one. Notable other users of the phrase have included Irish Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave of the Fine Gael party.
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- Duncan Cameron (2011). "The Grammar of a Just Society" (PDF). Centre for Global Political Economy, Simon Fraser University.
- Pierre Trudeau: 'Canada must be a just society' - (Video 2:20) - CBC Digital Archives