Red Squares, Red Feathers

People’s Social Forum Brings National Movements Together

Activists movements from across the country will come together this weekend in Ottawa, to unite causes. Photo Alex Bailey
Activists movements from across the country will come together this weekend in Ottawa, to unite causes. Photo Corey Pool

After a year of marching with the carré rouge pinned to coats, lapels and backpacks, activists are now donning Idle No More’s red feather—joining a slew of movements attempting to work together to overcome shared struggles.

At a general assembly set to take place in Ottawa next weekend, a number of activist groups plan to launch a process that will pave the way towards a People’s Social Forum, aiming to unite common goals across various social movements in Canada.

The forum’s purpose is to establish a structure for “uniting against neoliberalism and the right,’’ said one of the event’s planners, Roger Rashi.

“We need some kind of united front to fight the right and particularly the conservative government.”

The concept of a People’s Social Forum for Canada draws inspiration from the World Social Forum, a yearly activist gathering that originated in 2001. Two social forums have already been held at the Quebec provincial level—in 2007 and 2009.

“They were instrumental in developing a unity and an understanding among the social movements,’’ said Rashi. “This, I believe, contributed to the success of the student strike.”

For the past year-and-a-half, social forum planners have been setting up regional committees to mobilize local groups. For Rashi, the time seems ripe for a social forum that stretches beyond Quebec’s borders.

“I think the student strike of last year woke people up,” he said. “I think it showed people that once you engage in action, in mobilizing people at a democratic, grassroots level, people respond.”

He hopes the forum will be held in 2014.

“We’re giving ourselves a year to mobilize massively,” he explained. “We’re hoping to bring thousands of people, and to come out of it with a will and a determination to defeat the government, and develop a strong progressive alternative around Canada.”

Among the groups participating in the project are organized labour organizations like the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, Quebec social groups like Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain and First Peoples activists like the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement.

Rashi isn’t daunted by the task of reconciling such a diverse group into a single organism.

“A social forum is an open space, which allows for building relationships and contacts among activists in a non-hierarchical way—I think it is very conducive to common action and developing trust.”

The Revolution Begins: Port Elgin

Next week’s general assembly will showcase a proposal from the Port Elgin Coalition, drafted by representatives from aboriginal groups, activists and labour unions in Port Elgin, ON this past November.

Dave Bleakney, a national union representative for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers was invited to Port Elgin by activist and “rogue page” Brigette DePape, who infamously protested against Stephen Harper during the 2011 Throne Speech. Bleakney will be attending the assembly along with the CUPW National President Denis Lemelin.

He said the CUPW will use the opportunity to learn from other movements.

Bleakney said that participating in a Social Forum will be in some ways “a return to the roots of the labour movement,” which he describes as having been, “ignited by being a social force on the ground, not by making pleas to power—but actually claiming power.”

The CUPW has a history of working with First Peoples activists, having also forged links with the Algonquins of Barrière Lake.

“We were invited into their community to observe the traditional electoral process, and were quite moved by that,” said Bleakney, referencing the Nation’s participatory approach to democracy.

“I think we’re being more and more influenced by indigenous traditions, and I really hope that they pollinate the labour movement to become something other than what we are.”

For Bleakney, the Maple Spring gave impetus to the labour movement to become more involved in societal initiatives like a People’s Social Forum.

“The Quebec students ignited a sense of possibility,” he said, adding that groups like CLASSE “did what labour unions used to do, many decades ago, which is organize on the ground as opposed to the sort of boring old meetings [and] top-down leadership that the labour unions have become known for.”

“I think we’re being more and more influenced by indigenous traditions, and I really hope that they pollinate the labour movement to become something other than what we are.”
—Dave Bleakney, National Union Representative for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers

ASSÉ and Idle No More

ASSÉ’s finance secretary Jérémie Bédard-Wien is also part of the Port Elgin Coalition—he said it is important to “unite Quebec, Canadian and Indigenous movements.”

Bédard-Wien hopes the coalition will allow activists to “go further than our own little organizational interests [and be able to] coordinate organization and political action, rather than send press releases.”

When asked about the challenges of fighting such a multifaceted problem like neoliberalism, Bédard-Wien said, “We’ll all have to work together to establish attainable goals—it might not be that easy, but it’s worthwhile.”

Bédard-Wien continued to stress the importance of coming together to prevent “simply looking at problems like they’re unrelated to each other.”

He said powerful social movements, like Idle No More, are already rising across the country.

“There’s been a lot of interest coming from our members to work with First Nations movements more closely,” he said.

ASSÉ recently released a statement in support of Idle No More that reads, “If 2012 was the year of our Maple Spring, we are ready to greet the Native spring of 2013.”

According to Bédard-Wien, some First Nations activists have credited the Quebec student strikes as an inspiration. He said the feelings are mutual.

“Their movement is an inspiration to Quebec students, and it’s clear that both movements can work together,” he said. “The red feather is a clear reference to the red square, and [it] shows we must work together in order to defeat what affects us both.”