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The annual gathering of the World Social Forum (WSF) — the left’s response to the elitist annual Davos World Economic Forum — is in session in Montreal starting today until Sunday, August 14 with several thousand people from dozens of countries attending.

More than 1,000 self-managed sessions have activists discussing and creating progressive alternatives to traditional political, economic and social policies that they will take back to their own countries. Some years, 100,000 people have attended.

Over the years, more than a million activists have been educated and inspired at WSF gatherings held previously only in developing countries. Montreal was selected this year because it has been the site of strong social and political activism over the last few years.

The Forum is an exciting event, writes John L. Hammond of CUNY: “The scene bursts with energy as people who work on particular causes at home — feminism, the environment, Indigenous rights, economic justice, human rights, AIDS treatment and prevention and many more — compare notes and strategies. 

Networking, discussing key issues, and building alliances are the main activities at Forum sessions. The Forum can best be described as a “process,” an incubator facilitating new visions and ideas.

The activism bred at the WSF has supported change and revolution in several countries. It can take credit, in part, for the collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round in 2003, the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and exposing the harsh austerity programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Little impact in English-speaking Canada

Thousands of Canadian social activists have taken part in numerous WSF gatherings over the years. While this exposure has helped radicalized students in Quebec, it appears to have accomplished little in Eastern Canada. Even during the brutal years of the Harper administration, only a handful of unions and fringe radical groups advocated strong action.

The NDP and leading social movement groups, say the Council of Canadians, should have seen the need to explore alternatives to Canada’s corporate-dominated political system. But the NDP doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of neoliberalism, the damaging centrepiece of right-wing politics.

While the Council of Canadians, the country’s largest social action group, has won praise for challenging voting irregularities in court, its activism is usually limited to holding protests and sending petitions to government. 

In Canada, as in much of the rest of the world, the left has lost a tremendous amount of ground since the WSF was created 15 years ago. We now live in a world where the one per cent has huge powers, corporations dominate our lives, neoliberal policies reign in the public, and where progressive governments have fallen in several countries.

In view of these challenges, it is time for the WSF to seriously evaluate itself and its place in the world.

The movement has lost some of its radical edge over the years. Organizers have given in to some extent to the influences of government and the corporate world — initially the group’s main enemies.

Not independent enough?

Eric Toussaint, a Belgian political scientist and one of the ideologists of the WSF, has been concerned for some time that the movement is not independent enough. 

“It worries me to arrive in Porto Alegre and see that the seminar “Ten years later” is sponsored by Petrobras, Caixa, Banco do Brasil, Itaipu Binacional, with several governments in attendance,” he said on the tenth anniversary of the WSF.

“I would much rather have seen a Forum with less financial means but more militant in nature”, he said.

The sources of funding for the Montreal event may be an issue for some participants. Organizers claim the gathering will cost $2.4 million. This includes $710,000 from various levels of government and another $287,500 from unidentified “solidarity and sponsorship supporters.”

Some of the more activist participants complain about the increase in attendance in recent years by non-governmental organizations, which tend to be comfortable operating within the capitalist environment. Meanwhile, participation by Indigenous groups, which are usually more radical, has decreased.

When WSF events are held in developing countries, perhaps thousands of people from the region can afford to attend. With this get together held in Montreal, participation from the Global South is expected to be down considerably.

Where is the WSF going?

Perhaps discussions held in Montreal will lead to a reinvigorated and forward looking WSF.

Since its beginning, the WSF has held that it does not intend to be a body representing world civil society, and therefore does not directly take part in political struggles. However, after 15 years of facilitating discussions there are concerns that the Forum could flounder if it does not move in new directions.

Pierre Beaudet, founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, says there is “a recognized necessity for [WSF affiliated] movements to seize with both hands some major issues….At this moment, the Forum could open up the self-organized convergences and go further than just producing a mixture of ideas which has characterized it thus far.” 

Adds Beaudet: “The difficulty, of course, is to identify the points of convergences, which is certainly not easy to do, considering the incredible diversity (which also comes with an incredible richness) of the participants from social movements.”

With its access to tens of thousands of activists, the Forum is the only progressive assembly in the world with the potential to facilitate co-ordinated action on a global scale on crucial issues, such as global warming, neo-liberalism and life inequalities.

If the massive body is to begin changing direction in Montreal, it likely will have to overcome two obstacles. 

The WSF’s complicated non-hierarchical system — perhaps reminiscent of the ungovernable mechanisms that laid low Occupy Wall Street — seems to prevent the Forum from moving forward.

The other potential obstacle concerns leadership. Some of the men who have been at the forefront of the WSF movement for all of its 15 years are still there. Much has changed since then. Will new leadership emerge to work with the old guard to allow the WSF to retain the best of its past and also move in a new direction?

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to rabble. He specializes in writing about human rights issues, climate change, and international financial corruption. You can visit his blog at


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Nick Fillmore

Mr. Fillmore, formerly was an editor and producer with the CBC for 18 years, which included the position of Canadian Desk Editor at The National TV News, and head of an investigative journalism unit...