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There have been many discussions and meetings about the People’s Social Forum (PSF) in Quebec lately, and generally speaking, most people think it is a timely and necessary event. If you check the website of the PSF, you will see many on-going and forthcoming events in Quebec concerning it, which show the commitment and engagement of many Quebec social movements.
The idea has roots.
The idea of holding a social forum in Canada is in fact ten years old. In Porto Alegre during the second World Social Forum (2002), the infatigable Judy Rebick and her friend Monique Simard (who was at that time the chair of Alternatives) initiated the discussion with more or less three hundred Québécois and Canadians who attended the Forum.
Later, Judy and Monique went across Canada to meet trade unions and community organizations. The idea was relatively simple: let us bring to Canada this creative methodology that your comrades from South America were experimenting with, i.e. open and ‘horizontal’ discussions about our struggles, our resistances, our hopes. A process that is a distinct movement away from the top-down, dogmatic and arrogant traditions of the left.
The reception back at home to what was not yet a fully formed proposal was mixed. In Canada, resistance came from certain trade unions [the primary potential source of funding for a national forum], in particular the Canadian Labour Congress. After a while, Judy, Monique and others thought of a “plan B” which was to set up local Social Forums that did in fact take place in many Canadian cities. In Quebec, two large national forums were organized in 2007 and 2009, with thousands of participants
By definition, a Social Forum is not a substitute for strong and creative social movements. It is not there to “draw the line,” not even to establish strategies. It is basically a ‘space,’ an ‘occasion,’ a moment of creativity where experiences and explorations are exposed and discussed. It is ‘intellectual’ in the noble sense of the word, far from the often sterile academia, and far from the arrogant I-know-it-all-ism of certain traditions of the left. In other words, a Forum reflects the strength, the will, the hope, as well as the limitations, the constraints and the dead angles of the popular movements.
In Brazil and other South American countries, the Forum appeared in the moment of a vast popular ascent. Masses and masses of people were struggling, to the point of debunking governments – such as what took place in Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere. There was a process of convergences between trade union, community organizations, the indigenous, women. Parts of the organized left were intelligent enough to join this convergence not as the enlightened ‘vanguard,’ but as tool and a vehicle for transformation. Later, the concept was ‘exported’ to other parts of the world. However, the Forum was not a ‘magical formula.’ In certain places, Forums ended up in becoming ‘events,’ or ‘big conferences,’ sometimes useful, but not to the point of making a difference. Again, the fact that popular movements are able to take the initiative, advance or even ‘win’ in the battle of ideas, cannot be imposed from some hierarchy.
In Quebec, the idea of convergence, coalition-building, creative intellectual work, has deep roots. In the contemporary period, huge processes involving thousands of people and movements have taken place: the Women’s March against poverty and violence (1995) with its sequel in 2000, the People’s Summit of the Americas (2001), the huge, popular and trade union mobilizations against the Charest government (2003), the student strike of 2005, the Social Forums of 2007 and 2009, and of course the Carrés rouges of 2012. These events were more than ‘events.” They were deeply embedded processes with an ‘intent.’ All of that explains largely why the WSF concept was seen as important and necessary in Quebec.
Currently, the popular movement in Québec is alive and kicking. It is strong, it can fight. In the meantime, the bourgeoisie is in a bad mood. They are doing whatever they can to undermine, humiliate, and threaten. Their message is very negative, “Quebec is going nowhere,” “the opposition from below is too strong,” “people do not believe in capitalism in Quebec.” It’s interesting to watch the lamentations and insults they used. To the point where right-wing parties have to say, “Oh sorry and by the way, we are not on the right”! On the other hand, they have power, the ‘real’ power, which is in the hands of their corporate entities. At the political level, there is one site of power and not ten or 12, and it is in Ottawa. so the question bounces back in our popular movement in Quebec: what to do to ‘really’ change power?
For sure, in order to answer this question, it is necessary to consider how to build alliances with other peoples in Canada. Throughout the ages and especially after the defeat of the great republican and democratic uprising of 1837-1838, Canadian elites through their state played the old British tactic of ‘divide and rule.’ The idea was fairly simple, as to divide popular communities and prevent them from taking power. They used coercion many times, by crushing the Metis in the 1860s for example. In 1917, working classes were disciplined after the defeat of the Winnipeg general strike. Against the people of Quebec, the Canadian state did not hesitate to impose repressive legislation such as the ‘War Measures Act.’ But they also use ideology, creating a racist and exclusive Canada along the myth of the ‘White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant,’ the WASP, whereas Québécois, First Nations and other subaltern groups were seen as ‘semi-civilized.’ It did not go well in Quebec from the 1960s onwards where a powerful social-national movement came about.
Today, all of these confrontations are aggravated. Canadian elites currently think that a new assault against the peoples is not only necessary but possible. Through the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and society, they believe it is possible to eradicate social benefits that were acquired by past struggles. They are using the impact of the financial crash of 2008 to impose new ‘austerity’ politics. In addition with the Harper government, they are deploying a neoconservative agenda to humiliate, threaten, control and repress. As in the past, they count on playing one people against the other, everybody-against-everybody. For example, they deny Québec’s right of self-determination. They use the prejudices and the ignorance disseminated by the media which has contaminated Canadian culture. In the past, one cannot say that the challenge has been met properly by progressive circles. In Canada, very few people (to the honorable exception of Judy Rebick, Libby Davies, Svend Robinson and a handful of others) have taken the issue of Quebec rights seriously. In Quebec, alliances with the First Nations were not properly structured with the exceptions of Québec Solidaire and the Fédération des femmes du Québec.
It is therefore urgent to break this elite offensive. Can it be done? An impressive participation of social movements in the PSF would certainly be a positive indicator. There will be, in addition, qualitative challenges. For a meaningful and non-superficial dialogue at the People’s Social Forum in Ottawa this August, it will be necessary for social movements to look at themselves ‘in the mirror’ and see what they can do to fight the ‘divide-and-rule’ successful elite strategies by seriously engaging in support of each other.