By Patrick Brush

A review of IAEVG’s recent international conference through a social justice lens

On June 4-6, 2014, I attended the International Conference in Guidance and Career Development, organized by the International Association for Educational and Vocational Guidance (IAEVG), held in beautiful historic Quebec City. What a great opportunity for a career practitioner to go to an international conference so close to home. During the conference, there was an incredible number of workshops and symposiums to choose from, covering a wide array of topics dealing with both practical and theoretical concepts. My own personal interest was to attend sessions where I could collaborate with, and learn from, international experts in the field who are committed to the inclusion of social justice in career development practice. Workshop sessions tackling social justice concerns at a career development conference was something that I had yet to experience. It’s always a challenge to transform theory into practice, and this is particularly true when talking about the importance of social justice, a term that is often not well understood or easily articulated. The question is: how can we, as career professionals, commit ourselves to values that may run counter to the dominant culture, and conflict with prevailing political, economic and social discourses?

On the first day of the conference I attended a symposium entitled International Perspectives on Social Justice. It was facilitated by Nancy Arthur from the University of Calgary, and included presentations from an international panel of five experts within the careers field. Each panelist provided their own definition of social justice, and shared their research on, and thinking about, this topic. The question presented was “How is social justice shaped and brought to life in your practice?” This excellent thought-provoking (and radical) question aims to get to the root of the problem, which is, whose interests are career practitioners really serving? The requirements that clients have to meet for funding, or to gain entrance into programs, often become obstacles that stand in the way of their aspirations and/or goals. Many clients become overwhelmed by the process and give up before they even start. Many clients don’t fit the criteria that they all too often had no role in shaping, and are merely expected to conform – which makes me wonder whether we are here to do client-centered work, or to perpetuate a system that forces clients to jump through often unjust hoops. It seems counter-intuitive that a career practitioner’s job should be tied to policing people, ensuring their compliance. For example, we force clients to do countless items on a return-to-work action plan, to demonstrate and prove that they are in need and that they are deserving of receiving assistance. This further humiliates people whose only crime is to be unemployed or living in poverty.

The dominant view today blames poverty on the individuals’ “spirit” and personal life choices. Yet, as was reinforced over and over by the international speakers at the conference, poverty is socially produced and is the result of systemic inequality. My own view of poverty is that it is not an individual problem, but a broader issue that has to be dealt with collectively as a society.

In my experience as a career practitioner in an extremely wealthy country, when I encounter clients who face countless barriers to employment, including issues of food insecurity, and who may be homeless or at risk of becoming so, I feel outrage. However, these are often the very clients who do not fit into the available programs and services. What should I do when the person does not qualify, or when they are not willing or able to complete the tasks assigned? What is my ethical responsibility? As the person’s needs are sometimes immediate, should I feel responsible for ensuring that “the process” is adhered to, or providing whatever support I can to the person?

To paraphrase one of the keynote speakers, Rachel Mulvey from the University of London East, we cannot career counsel people into jobs that do not exist. She was referring to areas of chronically high unemployment – such as rural Nova Scotia, where I work. This is so true – we can certainly provide quality career development services, but to ignore the fact that there are simply not nearly enough jobs for everybody is unethical. It tends to blame the clients for their unemployment, and it is my belief that we have to work at influencing dramatic social change in policy so that we can better meet the needs of people in a more equitable way. When people go to the hospital they don’t have to demonstrate that they are deserving of treatment, they simply have to show up and the service is provided. A colleague of mine used to say that he never celebrated when one of his clients landed a job, because he realized that in a region with chronically high unemployment, when one of his clients won a competition for a job, then another one of his clients had lost. Our total caseload size never changes – except to increase. Instead of having competition for jobs, with winners and losers, why don’t we strive to have full employment? If we all work, we all win.

When talking about social justice at the conference, there was a clear consensus that not all the problems a client faces are of their own making. In fact, in many cases, the barriers are external to themselves, and the solutions are often beyond their individual control. Much of the work that we do as career practitioners is focused on the individual, never really addressing the systemic structural issues of inequality and unemployment. The problem in Canada, and much of the world, is not a lack of wealth, but how this is concentrated and distributed. If we are to truly be client-centered in our work, we need to be willing to work with communities, and challenge the systems that cause the social and economic marginalization of our clients. If we are not willing to address these challenges and approach our work in ways that are socially just, we participate in a system that contributes to our clients’ poverty and unemployment, and blames them for it. The challenge for the career development sector is to act on the fact that there are structural issues that affect our clients. Nelson Mandela once said that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the action of human beings.”


Patrick Brush, BA, BSW, RSW, has a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of Calgary and currently works as a career practitioner, doing case management with unemployed adults. Patrick lives and works in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, and is past board member of the Nova Scotia Career Development Association. Contact him at

To explore these issues in more depth: B. A. Irving & B. Malik (Eds) (2005). Critical Reflections on Career Education and Guidance: Promoting Social Justice in a Global Economy. RoutledgeFalmer.

IAEVG has been attempting to bring more attention to the issue of social justice within the field of educational and career guidance and counselling. A year ago, at the IAEVG conference in Montpellier, France they released a “Communiqué on Social Justice in Educational and Career Guidance and Counselling.” In March of this year, there was a special issue of the International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance dedicated to “Social Justice, Prosperity, and Sustainable Employment as a Challenge for Career Guidance.”