Montreal hosts the World Social Forum

August 18, 2016

Ashley Smith and Eric Ruder report from Quebec on the latest gathering of labor, social movement and left-wing activists as the WSF turned 15 years old.

THOUSANDS ATTENDED the World Social Forum (WSF) in Montreal in mid-August, the first held in the Global North since the WSF's founding in 2001. Climate-justice activists, trade unionists, women's rights and antiracist activists, Palestine solidarity activists, nonprofit organizations, independent media outlets and many more were in attendance to debate and discuss the way forward for struggles and social movements today.

The WSF featured more than 1,200 self-organized sessions as well as a number of larger plenaries spread over six days and several venues throughout Montreal. Among the many themes taken up at the conference were imperialism, trans rights, global poverty, climate change, anticolonial struggles and the rights of indigenous peoples, and the struggle against privatization and austerity.

Montreal was chosen as a site for the conference in the wake of the Maple Spring student strike of 2012 and the continuing militancy displayed by public-sector workers in their battle against austerity last year.

Marching for another world at the opening of the World Social Forum in Montreal
Marching for another world at the opening of the World Social Forum in Montreal (Eric Ruder | SW)

Previous reports about the conference anticipated attendance of more than 50,000, and organizers estimated a total of 35,000 people took part, but most people in attendance seemed to think the number was significantly smaller. The opening march from the city's east side into downtown, for example, drew less than 3,000.

About 200,000 attended the first WSF in Brazil in 2001, which was conceived as a counter-summit to the World Economic Forum for the super-rich and corporations held annually in Davos, Switzerland.

As a whole, the social forums around the world played a central role in mobilizing and coordinating the global justice movement as well as opposition to the U.S.-driven invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The massive worldwide protests on February 15, 2003, in the run-up to the invasion were spearheaded by forces in and around the social forum networks.

THE DECISION to hold the WSF in an advanced industrialized country for the first time sparked controversy due to the expense and difficulty in arranging travel and visas for those coming from impoverished and marginalized parts of the world.

Canadian authorities--following the lead of the newly elected Liberal Party government led by Justin Trudeau--refused to issue some 200 visas to those wishing to attend. Most of those denied entry hailed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Iran, Nigeria, Haiti and Nepal. Among those denied entry was Aminata Traoré, a well-known global justice activist and a former minister of tourism and culture in Mali, who is a candidate to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as UN Secretary General.

Despite an open letter sent by Québec Solidaire (QS) to Canada's immigration minister decrying the decision to bar hundreds from the WSF, the government refused to relent. "These members do not represent any danger or cost to Canada," wrote QS president and spokesperson Andréas Fontecilla. "We sincerely hope that the Canadian government will do whatever is necessary, especially knowing that these figures are not coming to Canada to try to stay."

WSF organizers pointed to the contrast between Canada's image as an open society and the reality of barring social justice campaigners from entry. "[Canada's refusal to issue visas] brought up the fact that we live in a world that has restrictive migration policies," said Carmenda Mac Lorin, one of the WSF organizers. "It is absurd in a world where merchandise can move and not people, freely. These people are struggling for human rights, for education, for better conditions for workers, for children, for women."

Needless to say, the economic barriers to participation combined with the administrative barriers erected by the Canadian state undercut the geographic and racial diversity of the conference.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination Bernie Sanders, both of whom were slated to be present, expressed their support, but were ultimately unable to attend.

SOME OF the events that took center stage at the WSF included global justice campaigner and author Naomi Klein. Hundreds hoping to attend a plenary featuring Klein were turned away due to lack of space in the relatively small auditorium booked for the session. There was also a packed house for a screening of This Changes Everything, Klein's documentary about climate change based on her book by the same name.

Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar spoke to some 400 people about revolution and counterrevolution in the Arab world. Toward the end of that session, a Tunisian man who was a supporter of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tried to disrupt the event.

Another controversy that hung over the start of the WSF was an accusation by two Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs) in Canada that the conference was "anti-Semitic," which led to the federal government withdrawing its maple leaf logo from the event.

MPs Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt focused their criticism on an anti-Semitic cartoon on a part of the WSF website featuring a talk titled "Terrorizm, Wahhabism, Zionism." Once the cartoon was brought to their attention, however, conference organizers immediately removed the cartoon and banned the session.

But the MPs also asserted that the sessions to discuss the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights were also evidence of "anti-Semitism"--a blatant attempt to tarnish global solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli apartheid.

Such controversies are a predictable result of the WSF movement's growing courtship in recent years of sponsorship by various government and even corporate entities. The WSF in Montreal depended for funding, for example, on Canada's federal government, the government of Quebec and the city of Montreal.

For some years now, various figures close to the global justice movement have worried that the WSF and related regional social forums are sacrificing their independence from government institutions in search of "respectability" and funding.

DESPITE THE difficulties of unearthing information about sessions from the conference's confusing website and printed program,'s publisher, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), promoted six meetings, working together with socialist groups in Canada and Quebec, including Front d'Action Socialiste (FAS), Réseau Écosocialiste (RS) and New Socialist Group (NSG). Together, these four socialist organizations also promoted a session on the Syrian revolt that was coordinated by Syrian solidarity activist Yasser Munif.

The session that resonated the most with the international audience was "From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation," featuring ISO members Haley Pessin and Khury Petersen-Smith, a co-author of the 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine. The room was packed to overflowing with people seated on the floor and in the aisles as Pessin and Petersen-Smith delivered a blistering indictment of police violence in the U.S. and the need to further develop the politics and organization essential for the future struggle.

Another jointly sponsored session sought to influence the running debate at the WSF about the need to stand in solidarity with Palestine. Titled "Fighting for BDS: Facing Down Israel's Backlash," it featured author and activist Ali Abunimah, ISO member Wael Elasady, Lorraine Guay of BDS Québec and Mary-Jo Nadeau of Faculty 4 Palestine.

Other sessions in the series promoted by the four socialist groups included "Lessons from the International Struggle Against Austerity," "On the Left: A New Dialogue in Quebec and Canada," "Revolutionary Marxism: The Politics of Socialism from Below," "The Syrian Revolt and Grassroots Struggles" and "Climate Change and Political Realignments in North America."

The four groups also organized a Soirée Socialiste / Socialist Night to bring together socialists and socialist organizations at the WSF for a party and to provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the prospects for building the socialist movement in each country and internationally.

Representatives from various socialist groups--including the four cosponsors, plus Solidarity (U.S.), Solidarity Vancouver, Socialist Alternative and Lutte Commune, a network of rank-and-file in public-sector unions in Québec--gave greetings to the people in attendance.

At the high point of the party, more than 100 people joined in a stirring rendition of the socialist anthem The Internationale, sung simultaneously in several languages.

While many activists and organizers no doubt made the most of WSF 2016, the difficulties in obtaining visas and the overall level of disorganization of the event posed questions about the WSF phenomenon going forward.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the shared focus on building the global justice movement in the streets helped to unite disparate groups, but it's no longer clear what unites the broad array of nonprofits, unions, activist formations and other organizations that typically attend the forum. As a consequence, the event often felt like multiple simultaneous events organized by one or another network instead of the exciting cross-pollination that animated the earlier meetings.

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