The Peoples Social Forum puts Indigenous struggles front and centre

This past weekend in Ottawa, thousands of activists from all across Canada participated in the Peoples Social Forum.

With little more than a year until the next federal election, much of the talk around the Social Forum was about defeating Stephen Harper’s government. But this historic gathering of progressive political forces was about much more than just electoral strategies. It was about bringing together people working on diverse issues and causes, in order to see how we could better coordinate and maybe even find some effective unity that could make us more powerful than the sum of our parts.

We all want Stephen Harper gone, but we realize that while a Prime Minister Mulcair or Trudeau would at least stop some of the worst attacks from the Conservative government, they would hardly transform the wretched political status quo. The Social Forum was about building the power of social movements, which right now in Canada are for the most part weak or quiescent.

I’ve been involved with this organizing effort for over a year, helping pull together the BC Expansion Committee of the Peoples Social Forum. We were able to help get a diverse group of participants from BC to Ottawa, including environmental and anti-war activists, union members and representatives of frontline Indigenous communities opposing pipelines across their territories.

Most people flew to Ottawa, but another group of us took a road trip, driving all the way from Vancouver to Ottawa, picking up people and carloads in the prairies. I feel very lucky to have travelled with the caravan. It was a hectic six days, filled the challenges inherent to this vast land – like planning to meet up at “the Tim Horton’s on Memorial Ave in Thunder Bay” only to discover there’s two – but well worth it.

We were welcomed by activists in the Fraser Valley, Kamloops , Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and northern Ontario. Everywhere we went people were excited about the Social Forum process, passing on lots of messages and banners and other cargo for us to carry to Ottawa .

All across this vast land, those of us on the caravan saw evidence of the importance of Indigenous struggles. In Vancouver, Audrey Siegl and Cecilia Point of the Musqueam Nation spoke at our caravan’s send off rally at Crab Park, highlighting the legacy of residential schools and talking about the tent city at Oppenheimer Park and disproportionate number of Indigenous people homeless in Vancouver. On the road near Chase, BC, we stumbled upon a Secwepemc pow-wow; we were invited to join in and share a meal, and we got to interview Neskonlith Chief Judy Wilson, who had just issued an eviction notice to Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the horrible tailings pond breach at Mount Polley.

The On to Ottawa Caravan to the Peoples Social Forum with Grassy Narrows youth in Kenora

The On to Ottawa Caravan to the Peoples Social Forum with Grassy Narrows youth in Kenora

In Winnipeg, we were warmly greeted at the historic Ukrainian Labour Temple, but our arrival coincided with the terrible news that the body of a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl, Tina Fontaine, had been discovered. Few things illustrate the contemptible politics of the Harper government more than their callous refusal to convene a national inquiry into the more than one thousand cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Finally, one of the last stops our caravan made was at the Weyerhaeuser mill outside of Kenora, Ontario. There we met up with Indigenous youth from Grassy Narrows who were demanding the company promise not to use logs from their territories. The people of Grassy Narrows have maintained a 12-year blockade against logging companies.

We made it to Ottawa late on the night of Aug. 20, and the opening ceremony began the next morning at 5 a.m. on Victoria Island, Algonquin territory. Perhaps the most significant feature of the Peoples Social Forum was the way that Indigenous voices and movements were central to the whole endeavor. This reflects a big improvement on past practices, a sign of a new level of awareness in the wake of Idle No More and with the wider resurgence of Indigenous activism and culture.

Overall, the Social Forum was an ambitious and necessary political project. The political left in Canada is extremely weak and scattered. The process of the Social Forum could help to remedy this, but I think it will really depend on whether the idea catches on at the provincial and regional levels.

Already there are plans for follow-up events, such as a Saskatchewan Social Forum planned for late next month. This province’s politics, with an entrenched and corrupt Liberal government and an uninspired centrist NDP opposition, could badly use the infusion of energy a Social Forum can bring. Here’s hoping for a BC Social Forum soon.