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You know an event will be special when a planning meeting, almost two years in advance, bursts the seams of its venue. Such was the case this weekend in Ottawa, as activists from across Canada converged to prepare for the People's Social Forum, Canada's version of the World Social Forum.
This weekend's gathering, a planning meeting originally expected to attract around fifty participants, had to be moved to a larger venue at the University of Ottawa at the last minute, as over three times that number descended on the nation's capital.
The social forum, which was originally entitled the Canada-Quebec-Indigenous Social Forum before being changed to the People's Social Forum over the course of the weekend, is based on a triadic approach which gives equal importance to the role of Canadian, Quebecois and Indigenous Nations.
This approach may have accounted for the composition of participants this weekend. Almost a quarter hailed from Indigenous communities, while roughly the same number had made the short trek from Quebec. Those are tremendous levels of participation for national projects, which in the past have struggled to achieve meaningful buy-in from Quebec or First Nations.
Roger Rashi of Montreal NGO Alternatives, who along with Raul Burbano of Common Frontiers has been spearheading the social forum project, was thrilled with the progress made over the weekend.
"The weekend was an unqualified success. We had three times more people than originally expected, and the tremendous new development was that thirty front line Indigenous activists, including two of the founders of Idle No More, took a very active part in the process. In the eyes of many, this was the first time they had seen so many Indigenous activists fully engaged in a process which involves non-Idigenous movements."
Rashi also highlighted the creation of three working caucuses (Indigenous, People of Colour and Quebec), and an interim coordinating committee as signs that the weekend had succesfully brought the ambitious project of a social forum closer to fruition.
Concerns were raised that the triadic structure did not give sufficient respect to the struggles of people of colour, which led to the name change, but those concerns seemed to have largely been addressed by the conclusion of the weekend.
In addition to strong representation from Quebec and Indigenous communities, organized labour was well represented at the weekend's gathering. National Presidents Dave Coles of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, and Denis Lemelin of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers were in attendance, as was Antoni Shelton, right hand man to OFL boss Sid Ryan. The latter arrived Sunday morning, having been busy Saturday with the spectacularly succesful Common Front protest which drew over 30,000 to the Ontario Liberal Party Convention.
Representatives of most other national unions were also present, as were representiatves from most Quebec unions, including the FTQ, CSN, CSQ, FIQ and FAE.
Coles turned heads on Sunday when he strode to the mic and repeated a message he has been delivering with regularity over the last number of months: "Capitalism is not broken and in need of ammending, it IS the problem." Strong, and welcome, words from a national union president which neatly summarized the feelings of many in the room.
The weekend was dogged by concerns over the absence of a clearer agenda and the inability, due to the need for simultaneous translation, to divide into smaller groups to discuss the project less formally. The Saturday session did seem in need of focus, as strong speeches by Jéremie Bedard-Wien from ASSE, Russell Diabo from Defenders of the Land and Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean, co-founders of Idle No More, were followed by a general discussion period which achieved little of substance.
The meeting rebounded on Sunday, as the morning was devoted to discussion of two proposals for national coordination and the afternoon saw progress on the nuts and bolts of organizing the forum.
The meeting had originally been intended to provide a space for parallel discussion of the social forum and the proposed Port Elgin Coalition, a plan which was shelved as it became clear that there wasn't time to treat both with the respect they deserved, and a decision was made to focus on the social forum.
Instead, Sunday morning was given over to discussion of the Port Elgin coalition proposal and a parallel project known as Common Causes.
The Port Elgin Coalition proposal was originally tabled by ASSE and other Quebec delegates to a meeting of progressive minds in Port Elgin, Ontario in November, and had its praises sung here by Diabo, Brigette DePape, Marie-Eve Rancourt of Quebec union FAE, Antoni Shelton and others. Bedard-Wien had explained that ASSE was fully supporting the project in his speech the previous day. The project seeks to bring together progressive groups from across the country in a national coalition to fight austerity and neo-liberalism. (Full disclosure: I attended the Port Elgin meeting, and helped to draft the proposal)
These interventions were followed by an explanation of Common Causes by Anil Naidoo and Gary Neil of the Council of Canadians. This Council organized project also seeks to unite progressive organizations, with an emphasis on organizing to defeat Harper in 2015.
While there is certainly some overlap between the projects, there was consensus among those involved in both that they were complementary, not competitive. For my part I'm thrilled to see the good work my friends and allies have been doing with Common Causes, and look forward to both projects coordinating to help build the national movement we need. I believe they should both receive our full support.
Although a date of summer 2014 was set for the social forum, no consensus was reached on a location, a decision which was left to the next meeting, to take place in five or six months. With expansion committees already active in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and British Columbia, and commitments made to form such committees in a dozen other cities this weekend, the social forum looks likely to be one of the largest progressive gatherings this country has ever seen.
I'm already looking forward to it.
For more information on the People's Social Forum process you can email Roger Rashi at