This week, thousands of community organizers and social justice activists from around the world will converge in Montreal for the World Social Forum. Their goal? Nothing less than changing the world. But the Canadian government’s denial of entry visas to hundreds of would-be participants has thrown a wrench in the works.
Holding the forum in Canada could affect the diversity of participants, according to Safa Chebbi, who is responsible for participant services. The organizers have provided letters of support for visa requests to about 2,000 participants, mainly from Haiti, Iran, and African countries. A survey of 243 people called to participate in the forum revealed a refusal rate of 70 per cent. Uncertainty about departure dates was the most common reason. A round trip airline ticket is one of the documents required to obtain a Canadian visa in many countries.
“We believe that the refusal will not affect the image of the World Social Forums. On the contrary, we believe rather that it will undermine the credibility of a country like Canada, which missed a golden opportunity to show its openness by perpetuating the practices of the former government,” laments Safa Chebbi.
A forum for many movements
The World Social Forum, the largest recurring gathering of global justice activists in the world, begins Aug. 9 at the Place des Festivals with a large demonstration and opening assembly. That will be followed by a week of conferences and workshops that will address topics including Indigenous rights, access to public services, equality for LGBTQ people, and intercultural relations.
These activities are for the most part self-organized by the hundreds of participating organizations. A large assembly in Parc Jarry on Aug. 13 will see participants share a single space.
“The WSF itself doesn't have only a single cause. It's more like an assembly of groups to make common cause. All the organizations that have proposed actions come together to discuss the feasibility of their ideas, we construct a global action plan and concrete proposal to improve the world,” explains Raphaël Canet, forum co-organizer and sociology lecturer at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
“This forum is the only space we have in terms of civil society to all gather together and build a different globalization, a globalization of solidarity,” Canet adds. “People have the opportunity to see each other, and to see that international solidarity really exists.”
Canet believes this solidarity is more and more necessary, given the danger to our collective security from growing social inequalities. “We have never before produced so much wealth concentrated in so few hands. There are new pharaohs being created but there are masses of people who have nothing at all. When people have no alternative, they turn to a logic of hopelessness, and it's there that we see crime and terrorism appearing. We want to find solutions to give people hope.”
At the WSF, there is no hierarchy or official balance sheet. Even if the approach of the forum appears anarchic at times, it has brought its share of concrete results. “Fair trade and participatory budgets — where local populations participate in allocating municipal funds — have been greatly publicized at past forums, and they are becoming more and more common,” explains Juan-Luis Klein, geography professor at UQAM who has led research projects on the impact of the World Social Forum.
This is the first World Social Forum to be held in the Global North. The first three, from 2001 to 2003, were held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The last two, in 2013 and 2015, took place in Tunisia. The decision to organize a World Social Forum in Montreal was taken three years ago. “It was just after the student movement of 2012, and a lot of people were mobilized. There was lots of energy. It was necessary to use that energy to mobilize around other issues,” explains Canet.
“Montreal and Quebec have always had a very strong presence at the World Social Forum,” adds Klein. “Social movements have always been very important in Quebec. Just think of the solidarity funds of the FTQ or the CSN, established by unions to save jobs. CPE’s [public daycare centres], which started as community care centres in the neighbourhoods of Montreal, are also a good example. We have things to show the world.”