A Peoples’ Social Forum (PSF) which has been several years in the planning will occur at the University of Ottawa on August 21-24 and organizers are expecting thousands of people to attend. There will be more than 500 workshops and presentations, as well as assemblies and cultural activities. In a statement of purpose, which introduces the four-day program, organizers say this: “We will weave our collective movements together to face the crises of our times head-on, and counter the government’s attacks on our rights, our jobs, our environment, our services, and our future. We will honour the unceded Algonquin territory on which we will stand, and honour each other’s struggles for dignity and justice.”
The forum is incredibly diverse and as such its planned activities are difficult to summarize and describe. I talked to Gustavo Frederico, one of the Ottawa-based volunteers, to better understand why the PSF is occurring, what it will involve and what it hopes to accomplish.
Where did the PSF come from, can you provide some context?
The first World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and there have been a number of others since, the last one in Tunis in 2013. These events present a citizens and grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, Switzerland. Unlike the WSF, Davos promotes a neo-liberal agenda, including privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and government cutbacks in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.
Most national social forums adhere to the charter of principles drawn up initially by the WSF. The goal is to allow for a large number of people to engage in an open forum atmosphere. The WSF has led to the organizing of other regional social forums in the U.S., Europe Asia, Southern Africa and elsewhere.
The PSF in Ottawa is the first pan-Canadian forum and it comes with the same motivation as those in Porto Alegre and elsewhere – to propose and envision an alternative social and political agenda. It is diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan, aimed at stimulating debate and exchange, proposing alternatives to the existing economic order and building alliances to effect change.
Who is organizing this and how?
There are a number of streams or organizing bodies. One of them is labour and the list of acknowledged PSF supporters and sponsors includes a good representation from unions, from Quebec and the rest of Canada. Another key group arises from Indigenous organizations from the grassroots to the national level. A third grouping which appears well organized is social movements from Quebec, particularly the student movement.
What will be talked about?
The three main organizing groups and their concerns are foundational but the Ottawa event will be diverse. There are more than 500 workshops on a wide variety of themes: the environment and related issues about resource extraction and Indigenous rights are important, as are issues related to labour and the government’s austerity agenda. Others deal with youth, solidarity and LGBT issues and much more. Many of the workshops are related in one way or another to media and communications and there is a strong cultural component including the presentation of films and documentaries.
Will there be much of a presence from religious groups?
There are a number of religiously-based groups involved although they aren’t there to talk about religion per se. Ecumenical groups such as Citizens for Public Justice and Kairos are involved with the PSF but mainly through their work on issues related to the environment, poverty or human rights. Some of the workshops could be described as primarily spiritual in their orientation and there is one workshop on Christ as a revolutionary. However, there is not much apparent involvement from local Ottawa churches or from large religious denominations. Unfortunately, the outreach to religious organizations has not generated much response.
Is there a concern about infiltration and possibly provocation by the state security apparatus?
Organizers are aware that there is always the possibility of infiltration by state security actors but there has been no discussion about this at the level of volunteers. The PSF has adopted a non-violent approach within its charter. It is diverse, offers much cultural content and is also child friendly.
The primary concern is that people within the forum act in a respectful way toward one another because among those who will attend there are conflicting points of view. There is also the possibility that individuals from the community who are contrary to what the PSF is doing will attend and cause problems at the assemblies and workshops. Organizers of the PSF have had discussions with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) about how to maintain a peaceful assembly. CPT is involved in promoting non-violence in many of the world’s trouble spots and has valuable advice to offer in this area.
Will all of this go anywhere or is it just meant to equip those attending with more information?
On the last days (Saturday and Sunday) there will be a number of movement assemblies where key facilitators will assist people in a process of how they might best address the issues raised. The record of the federal government is a concern. The Conservatives’ policies don’t resonate with many people so this is a chance to talk in strategic terms about what to do together. The focus will be partly about how to change the current government but it is wider and deeper than this. It is meant to energize and build community among the movements involved.