Protesters engulfed by tear gas during Summit of the Americas protests and demonstrations in Quebec City. Image credit: Gates of Ale/Wikimedia Commons

On April 18, 2021, rabble.ca marks 20 years of independent media. To celebrate, we’re sharing an excerpt from Everything on (the) Line, a collection of social movement stories from rabble over the past 20 years. Selected by editors Sophia Reuss and Christina Turner, these stories of activist struggle are at the centre of rabble’s work, and have been since its founding as an alternative news source and community in 2001.

The most successful social movements harness a range of tactics: leveraging people power and organizing in the streets, shifting public discourse through the media, and, sometimes, electing insurgent politicians to formal political leadership. In the spring of 2020, Sophia Reuss and Christina Turner sat down with three activists working towards system change in these realms: rabble co-founder Judy Rebick, NDP member of Parliament Leah Gazan, and executive director of Indigenous Climate Action Eriel Tchekwie Deranger. They met over video conference to reflect on the future of movement organizing and the power of independent media.

SOPHIA: Judy, what’s your perspective on the impacts of the social movements we’ve seen rise up in the last 20 years?

JUDY: rabble started at the height of the anti-globalization movement. That movement — against corporate globalization — was strong and growing. There was nowhere that meetings with world political leaders and financiers — the G8, the World Trade Organization — could happen where there weren’t huge protests. But six months after rabble was founded came the September 11 terrorist attacks. And September 11 shifted everything. The anti-globalization movement declined. All of a sudden, any activist was a terrorist, and we saw the rise of Islamophobia.

rabble was founded at a moment when social movements were powerful, and it was difficult because there was a precipitous decline in movement organizing some years after September 11. What did happen in that period of time was the explosion of social media, of the internet.

The big social movement that emerged next was Idle No More, which was the first movement that was fuelled in a big way by the power of the internet. Idle No More became a hashtag, and the movement spread in a way that we hadn’t seen happen for a long time. We started to see movements that were organized in physical space turn into movements that started to be organized online. Black Lives Matter was also organized online. This is not to say that these movements didn’t have demonstrations, but that we saw a big changes in the way movements were organized, and as a result, who could be involved in movement organizing.

The anti-globalization movement, for example, was organized by mostly young people and with support from the unions. And if you’ll remember, there was a big division between the labour movement and youth. In Quebec City in 2001, we saw a terrible thing happen: the labour movement was holding press conferences and denouncing the anarchists in the street, even though the people in the streets weren’t just anarchists, but thousands and thousands of young people who were becoming radicalized. Those of us in the streets had to defend ourselves against three days of attacks by the police, who were using tear gas and beating people. And yet the labour movement didn’t support us, and we had these heated debates about diversity of tactics.

Then came Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, which, in some ways, represented a new form of online organizing. Now we’re seeing something quite different, I think. I think what’s going to emerge out of 2020 is going to be a global, anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist movement. That’s what I hope, anyway.

ERIEL: It’s really interesting to watch how as social movements have started to build momentum and shift the Overton window, the range of policies and ideas that are politically acceptable in the mainstream, we have also seen the rise of fascist, oppressive policies and political leadership. These politicians and policies represent an attempt to maintain the systems that built the countries that we’re in, systems of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. In the environmental movement, we’ve seen this really happen over the last five years.

The labour movement, the movement for Indigenous rights, and environmentalists have started to come together, to build relationships with progressive leaders in government. And we’re starting to see shifts happen. The fact that we even got a bill tabled on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Bill C-262, pays homage to that movement work. The fact that we’re seeing Indigenous communities have our rights recognized in multiple different ways is evidence of strong social movements.

But while Indigenous rights have been recognized, they have not been implemented, and those are two different things. We have a lot written on paper, but it’s the implementation, the follow-up, that’s the most important. And as we’ve made that progress, we’ve also seen the rise of fascism. In Alberta, the ushering in of the United Conservative Party (UCP) government in 2019 has taken us 10 steps backwards from the slow progress that we made over the last 10 to 15 years.

Independent media has become such a game changer in the way that we fight back. It enables us to fight back, to have conversations. During the coronavirus pandemic, as we socially distance, independent media allowed us to respond to the oppressive measures that conservative and neoliberal politicians tried to slip through the cracks in a time of crisis.

But that isn’t to say that fascists and the right wing aren’t trying equally as hard. Just because we have strength in numbers and are starting to build these collective, coalesced movements doesn’t mean we’ve won. We have to keep pushing harder and further to actually create systemic change that goes beyond writing the policy on paper and work towards implementation of what needs to come next.

What are the next steps that need to happen so that we don’t elect more conservative, fascist political leadership in this country? What are we going to do once we’ve won the space? That’s what excites me about the future. That’s where independent media spaces that elevate those voices, the voice that I found at seven years old, is critical.

People talk about climate change, about environmental destruction, and about human rights as if these are all different things. But they’re all propagated through systems of colonization and entrenched white supremacy predicated on hyperindividuality and the accumulation of wealth, notoriety, and fame. These systems drive capitalism and patriarchy. And we have to fight these systems, because they are driving the climate crisis, which is causing harm to Indigenous populations and the planet as a whole.

Ultimately, I think that we are winning. Right now, we’re in a moment where the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to be like “Oh, balanced budgets, what’s that?” This pandemic is forcing us as a whole, as society, as a species, to reevaluate what is important and how we move and react to these systems of economic crashes. I’m really excited by the opportunities, but also terrified by what the future brings.

LEAH: For the last few years, I actually was one of the key lobbyists for Bill C-262, the legislation that sought to see the full adoption and implementation of the UNDRIP. When I was lobbying for Bill C-262, I just felt so hopeful for the first time in my life. People from all walks of life, all different cultural backgrounds, colours, ethnicities, came together to fight for this bill for which we were long overdue. And I think a big part of that was the fact that alternative media outlets really led the charge in terms of communicating and informing others about UNDRIP.

Right now, with the pandemic, I think we have an opportunity to change things so that we never go back to the way things were. Policies like a universal income for all people, for example. These ideas come about not because of elected officials, but because of people in movements. And right now, I see a movement and a unity of people coming together over social media and alternative media platforms to highlight issues that are often ignored by mainstream media outlets.

I sit in the House of Commons and I hear my minimum human rights up for debate almost on a daily basis. The House of Commons is one of the most racist, oppressive environments I’ve ever been in. Indigenous rights are recognized in the Canadian Constitution, but they are not respected.

In this country, it’s been normalized to question the human rights of people, whether it be Palestinians or Indigenous peoples. We’ve got a long way to go and I think alternative media is saving the day. Progressive media outlets are critical right now in terms of storytelling. Alternative media provides a different side of the story and forces people to think in a different way, to question systems that continue to marginalize and oppress people, in real time.

Take the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests, for example. If it wasn’t for alternative media outlets like Ricochet, for example, most people would not have known about how the RCMP were dismantling the encampments and restricting movement on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Excerpted with permission from Everything on (the) Line: 20 Years of Social Movement Stories from rabble.ca, edited by Sophia Reuss and Christina Turner, published by Between the Lines, 2021.

Image credit: Gates of Ale/Wikimedia Commons

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca. She also holds the CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.