The World Social Forum: Canadian contexts and questions

Ten years ago this month, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the World Social Forum erupted onto the global scene. Conceived in the heat of the surging anti-globalization movement, it summoned activists from around the world to gather in a spectacular festival of alternatives to neoliberal globalization. The World Social Forum quickly became a beacon and a magnet, attracting a stunning array of social forces who shared unequivocal opposition to neoliberalism, but who were otherwise exceedingly diverse -- in their demographic make-up, organizational forms, cultural expressions, geographic roots and reach, strategies, tactics and discourses.

The Forum grew exponentially in size over its first five years from 15,000 to over 150,000 participants. It moved from Porto Alegre to Mumbai, India in 2004 and to Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 and continues to move to different regions of the Global South. In addition, as a strategy both for internationalizing the process and allowing more people to participate, organizers invited activists anywhere in the world to organize Social Forums in their own places at whatever scales made sense to them. Vibrant Social Forum processes appeared at the regional level in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others appearing at smaller scales and on thematic concerns.

But in 2010, with the apparent ebbing of the anti-globalization movement in many places, many wonder whether the WSF has come to the end of its natural life. If, however, we consider the Social Forum a legacy of the anti-globalization movement, if we decouple it from the movement that gave birth to it and consider it as a methodology for movement-building, then perhaps there is more to consider, including for activists in Canada. Could the Social Forum as a political form and methodology help us regenerate our movements, locally and nationally?

From its origins, debates raged inside the Forum about its character and its future. Did the movement require a program and could the Forum produce it? Was the Forum a parliament of the movement? Could it enact a strategy to make another world possible? Could it assume leadership of that "other superpower" that it had helped call into being in the 2003 global movement against impending war in Iraq?

Over and over again, the answer to these questions was no. The Forum was not itself the movement, and even less the movement's vanguard. The Forum existed to convene the movements, to invite them to organize activities in a shared space and thus to communicate their struggles to one another, to encourage the movements to network, to advance their campaigns, to build understanding across issues, constituencies, languages and cultures. To do so, the Forum affirmed multiplicity, both as a central feature of the alternative world and a strategy to achieve it. It protected diversity by preserving the Forum as a non-deliberative space -- the Forum cannot itself make decisions nor be represented. No group(s) can hegemonize the WSF; thus all groups, especially the small, marginal and non-dominant, are free to participate without fear they will be manipulated politically. This is one of its most significant innovations.

Although overall extremely impressive, the spread and durability of Social Forum processes has been exceedingly uneven geographically. The Social Forum has been slow to gain ground in North America and its expression has been generally weak and uneven in Canada. However, in the wake of a second successful Quebec Social Forum in recent months, and the upcoming U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June, there is renewed interest in the possibilities represented by the Social Forum. There may be momentum for change.

From as early as 2002, isolated pockets of Social Forum organizing existed across the country. Social Forum events took place in Quebec City (2002), Toronto (2002-04) and Ottawa (2003); in 2003, a province-wide effort appeared in Alberta that by 2008 had seen three major events. An organizing effort coalesced in London, Ontario in late 2004 that produced three regional events combining elements of Social Forum and Youth Camp. But it was not until the first Quebec Social Forum (QSF) in August 2007, that a more stable and institutionalized Social Forum appeared. Attracting 5,000 people from across the territory of Quebec, it also reached a new scale. All Social Forum events prior to the QSF had been events in the hundreds. Only the Toronto Social Forum in its premiere event in March 2003 had attracted more than 1,000 participants.

Activists and organizations based in Canada have participated in the World Social Forum since its inception. Although official numbers are hard to come by, informal polling suggests that the number of Canada-based participants in Porto Alegre rose from about 250 in 2003 to approximately 700 in 2005. The vast majority of participants came from Québec and have included sizable youth contingents.

Key organizational entities included those concerned with international development and human rights with long experience on the international scene. Veterans of the anti-free trade movement, notably the Council of Canadians, now focused on global investment agreements and the proposed trade in water and genetically-modified foods, have been regular participants. The Canadian Labour Congress has had a consistent presence, as have had a number of its affiliate unions, notably CUPE and CUPW. From Québec, the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), the World March of Women, the development NGO Alternatives, the Confédération de Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), and the networks of "économie solidaire" have been prominent participants. A number of these groups are also members of the WSF's International Council. The Canadian churches have intermittently promoted the participation of grassroots activists from across the country through the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace/Developpement et Paix and through KAIROS, the churches' ecumenical social justice organization.

However, when it came to organizing social forums at home, it was small ad hoc groupings of individual activists who took the initiative. In Ottawa, Toronto, London, Edmonton and Calgary, they mounted social forums almost entirely through volunteer labour and their own fund-raising efforts and without the institutional involvement of these players. The entities with the most institutional longevity, organizational stability and resources, and sustained participation in the WSF have not been in the forefront in enrooting social forum processes in Canada.

On one hand, this pattern of organizing expresses the vitality of the autonomist traditions of the Forum. Small self-organized groups of activists feel that they have the right, responsibility and capacity to mount Social Forums in their places. On the other hand, most of the local Social Forum processes wither away after a few big events have been successfully mounted as exhausted activists withdraw. Among many activists, especially youth, a deep suspicion of institutionalization prevents serious discussion of the sustainability of the Forum as a process beyond the spectacle.

In Québec, this was also the story until very recently. The organizing process toward the 2007 QSF had been preceded by two failed attempts. These processes were fraught with conflict, as cultures of individual participation and direct democracy in the anti-globalization milieu ran into the norms of coalition politics, with its traditions of formal and organizational participation and delegated representatives. The more open and pluralistic culture of the Social Forum with its ethos of participation and self-organization makes many on the more traditional left nervous, as they are accustomed to more institutionalized and formally negotiated forms of activist politics. The Social Forum as a non-deliberative space that does not speak or act as a unified entity remains somewhat unintelligible in conventional political terms.

In Québec, these tensions were very much in evidence in the organizing toward the first QSF. Between the first QSF in 2007 and the second one this past October, the institutionalized social movements in the Québec, notably the CSN, the FFQ and some big NGOs, have become more committed to the Social Forum as an ongoing organizing process. This has been assisted by several developments: first, the emergence of local Social Forums in regions across Québec in the lead up to the August 2007 event, demonstrating the attraction this form of organizing has for many groups in many communities; second, hosting the meetings of the International Council of the WSF in Montreal in the days preceding the 2nd QSF generated interest anew in the global process and its relevance to North America; thirdly, the appearance of an impressive national-scale United States Social Forum process, dominated by radical mass organizations of poor people of colour, and producing its second major event this coming June in Detroit; and finally, the generalized collapse across Canada outside Québec of an institutionalized social movement sector and, with it, any sustained Social Forum activity.

In this context of profound crisis and desperation in progressive movement politics in Canada, does the Social Forum suggest a path forward? Undeniably, the process(es) would be fraught. But the Quebec and U.S. experiences as well as those in Alberta, Toronto, Ottawa and London offer plural lessons and strategies. What might grow our movements beyond the small-scale activisms that are, thankfully, everywhere apparent? If not the Social Forum, then what?

Janet Conway is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at Brock University and is writing a book on the World Social Forum. is a community supported media site. You can help make a difference -- please donate today to and be part of the community that keeps us going strong.

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