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The People's Social Forum: Together we can be more than the sum of our parts

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The Conservative Party of Canada's convention may have been postponed due to the floods in Alberta, but as it happens there is another political gathering of consequence for Canada's future taking place this week in the Wild Rose province.

The second General Assembly of the People's Social Forum gets underway this evening in Edmonton. After an initial assembly in Ottawa earlier this year, the Edmonton meetings will continue preparations for the big event -- a major summit slated for the summer of 2014 called the People's Social Forum. This is just one of several important initiatives underway to build coalitions and mobilize against Harper's agenda and neoliberalism more generally.

The plan is to put together an unprecedented convergence of Indigenous peoples, Quebecois social movements, and activists and civil society organizations from the rest of Canada. To my mind, this is a project that is too important to fail.

Anyone who wants to see Harper dislodged from power, and anyone who wants to see a successful pushback against austerity and against environmental devastation, should work to make this big, broad and effective.

Harper's credibility, even amongst much of his conservative base, is badly dented, and there are no doubt more scandalous revelations to come that will weaken his government even more.

Of course, despite Harper's new woes, the reality is that the overall axis of political discussion in Canada has tilted significantly to the right in recent decades, and even more so since Harper won his majority in 2011. Just look at the more-pro-KeystoneXL-than-Harper Justin Trudeau, who has clearly chosen to pander to Big Oil and to present himself as the respectable/happy/young/less-threatening face of establishment politics.

Justin Trudeau is Big Oil's Plan B -- that much is clear. So it's all the more timely and impressive that the Social Forum has chosen not only to meet in Edmonton this week, but then to join in and support the Tar Sands Healing Walk taking place July 5 and 6. It's great to see the People's Social Forum throwing in with a crucial front line Indigenous struggle. An extra boost to this year's Healing Walk is being provided by the Sovereignty Summer campaign just launched in conjunction with Idle No More.

In fact, Idle No More's approach is worth looking closely at for the Social Forum and other initiatives, like Common Causes, aimed at pulling together new progressive coalitions. I spoke to INM co-founder Sheelah McLean a few days ago about their impressive new website, and she explained that the whole concept behind Sovereignty Summer and their online tools upgrade was to boost the capacity of existing local Indigenous struggles to get their message out and mobilize support. This is precisely the kind of large, attractive and technologically cutting edge support network of which the Canadian left needs much more.

Coordination and unity matter. In the UK -- where labour and popular movements are struggling to organize a fightback against another unpopular Conservative government -- they recently held a People's Assembly that drew over 4,000 people together in London. Writer and activist Alex Snowdon, in an article published prior to the big assembly, explained the strategic importance of national-level organization: 

Although austerity is a coherent project driven by central government, it manifests itself in a plethora of 'single issues' and specific cuts, many of them at local level. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a great deal of the opposition has been focused on particular cuts and policies. Such protests and campaigns are necessary and extremely welcome, but also limited. The fragmentation of the movement can only be overcome through a broad-based national event like the People's Assembly, supplemented by a commitment to sustain co-operation in the long term. 

Many organizations have been involved, but leading organizations and activists from Quebec are spearheading the call for the People's Social Forum.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, for instance, is in Edmonton this week "to stand in solidarity with Sovereignty Summer, with brothers and sisters from Idle No More, and to fight for a clean environment."

That works for me. It's quite a convergence of activists and struggles happening this week in Alberta, and hopefully it will be just the start of even bigger things.

The framework of a People's Social Forum leaves open all kinds of room for creative initiatives; it doesn't have to just be an old fashioned One Big Summit. I'd love to see a serious, ambitious 'On to Ottawa' type mobilization or caravan(s) leading up to a major Social Forum. Technology and social media, of course, can also be harnessed to involve many more than the thousands or tens of thousands who will show up in person. I hope there'll also be a major proliferation of local assemblies, which will keep the larger process more democratic and multiply the overall impact of the organizing.

This is not a moment for leftier-than-thou hair-splitting. This is a time to put away our narcissisms of tiny differences and make things happen.

If we get it together, we can be more than the sum of our parts. That's what it's going to take to rise to the challenges of our times.  


The quote from Nadeau-Dubois comes via Ethan Cox, who is in Alberta this week covering the People's Social Forum and the Healing Walk. For live updates, follow Ethan on Twitter @EthanCoxMtl

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