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The Canada We Want

Taking Canada Back or Moving Canada Forward? 

by Chelsea Taylor

Chantal Chagnon leads Conservative Convention demonstrators (photo: author)
Chantal Chagnon leads Conservative Convention demonstrators (photo: author)
Calgarians rally in opposition to the Harper government (photo: author)
Calgarians rally in opposition to the Harper government (photo: author)
Satirical Activism Presents the 1% at Conservative Convention in Calgary (photo: author)
Satirical Activism Presents the 1% at Conservative Convention in Calgary (photo: author)

(Calgary / Treaty 7 Territories) From October 31st to November 3rd, progressives gathered in Calgary to demonstrate public actions in coordination with the Conservative Party Convention, engaging in teach-ins, rallies, marches, drumming and singing, and workshops, broadly under the banner of “The Canada We Want - Wake Up Canada”.

With keynote addresses and rally speakers featuring an impressive list of well-known opinion leaders in Canada's progressive movements, speaker after speaker articulated the Canada We Don't Want. Union leadership, Environmental opinion leaders, First Nations grassroots organizers, and those that call for respect for democratic institutions, human rights, and greater restraint on free trade joined together over the weekend to share their top concerns with hundreds of participants.

Broadly, this coalition had been organized under the banner of Common Causes, a multi-organizational umbrella group that had emerged from the Canadian Labour Congress. Common Causes emerged around the same time that Idle No More organized rallies and Round Dances in early 2013. Organizations that took an active role in Common Causes connected with local organizers and staff in Calgary to pull off an impressive schedule of activities throughout the weekend.

While some guest speakers tried to address a vision for The Canada We Want, most speakers delved into particularities with Harper's Canada that were not working. The laundry list that was articulated all weekend revolved broadly around the rights of all Canadians, the rights of workers, the rights of First Nations, and concerns over environmental protections and restraint against extractive industries. 

With an opponent like Harper, it is no wonder environmental, labour, and First Nations’ movements – that have historically not been aligned, or often at odds with each other –find convergence in their opposition to the agenda of the day. As Crystal Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation stated, "Thank you Mr. Harper, for creating the perfect solidarity puzzle. You have brought together people who fight for the rights of Canadians, the rights of Workers, and the last piece of the puzzle, First Nations." 

Throughout the weekend, local organizers and activists continued to express that they felt there had been a ground shift in Calgary, and that the traditional divisions between organizing communities were not as apparent. Locals spoke of optimism around this new solidarity. One wonders about the future of such an alliance. How long can this solidarity last? Who is building solidarity between movements? What is to be done?

Taking Canada Back, Moving Canada Forward

Typical of progressive coalitions, the Calgary convergence was strong on the criticisms of Harper, and less capable of addressing a vision of "The Canada We Want". This dynamic expresses itself in the way solidarities can be forged in opposition, and fall apart on discussions of solutions. 

Part of this problem stems from the need to continue to build understandings between groups that have not had a lot of practice in organizing together. Ever-present blind spots and fault lines marked the weekend’s activities in small but substantial ways. 

For example, while some attendees, keynotes, and union leadership addressed the need to "Take Canada Back", First Nations spoke more directly to the need to "Move Canada Forward". 

David Fandrich, the Regional Prairie organizer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada spoke about how “there's enough people out there that are taking Canada back”. Likewise, author Andrew Nikiforuk, Calgary-based author of the Tar Sands and Saboteurs, along with seven National Magazine Award winning articles, opened his keynote address with the question, “What happened to Canada?” 

The Canadian notion of ‘The Good Old Days” is a noble concept, exemplified in peacekeeping and the welfare state, but such rhetoric around peacekeeping and a generous, caring state may ring hollow for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. The Original Peoples of Canada have been subjected to genocidal  colonial policies, and continue to be subjected to such legislative attacks on their sovereignty, their constitutional and treaty rights, and their rights under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Such settler colonial understandings of the "Good Old Days" are worth interrogating, especially with respect to reconciliation and building a Nation-to-Nation relationship with First Nations. Such statements around how "Canada used to be good" paper over our historical relationship to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, and do not express understandings and solidarities with these communities’ struggles.

Nikiforuk called for Albertans to start acting as owners of the Tar Sands deposits with respect to Alberta's petro-state political problems. Petro-state rhetoric perpetuates colonization. Nonetheless, if Albertans are to act as owners, how do we reconcile the federal obligations of Treaty and Constitutional rights of First Nations and Metis communities within provincial allowances on the encroachment of such obligations? Put otherwise, we must reconcile with the existing Constitutional and Treaty rights of First Nations and Metis communities and clarify our understanding of land rights and title.

We must build a movement framework that goes beyond asserting settler provincial ownership of the Tar Sands deposits, and recognize the work that communities like the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are doing to assert their rights and responsibilities as the original caretakers of these lands .

Missing in Action: Representation from Migrant Justice

Were the weekend to have included representation from Migrant Justice organizing communities, there may have been some interesting conversations surrounding statements made by David Suzuki, and representatives from labour, on immigration and the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

An action on Thursday saw actors depict the 1%, thanking the Conservatives for their policies that had enriched their bank accounts. Among the satirized gratitude, the 1% thanked the Conservatives for the Temporary Foreign Worker program. The action was sponsored and organized by the Alberta Federation of Labour. 

The ongoing conversation between migrant justice communities and labour continue to come up against each other here on two points. On the one hand, migrant justice communities identify the exploitative treatment of TFWs (Temporary Foreign Workers) and the unfair immigration system as the source of injustice, while on the other hand, labour's grievance seems to be more concerned with the impact on status Canadians wages and availability of jobs. This identification of “the issue” leads to very different conclusions based on the analysis of “who is directly impacted” and “what is to be done”.

Recently, David Suzuki threw his hat into the ring of debates around immigration, suggesting that Canada is full, and should further slow down immigration to Canada for environmental threshold reasonsThis prompted Syed Hussan, an organizer with No One Is Illegal - Toronto, to write an open letter to Mr. Suzuki expressing concern over his statements. A response to the letter has not been made yet.

In speaking to the The Media Co-op, Hussan also points out that, broadly, issues of nationalism and racism separate the rights of all workers into status and non-status categories that further prevent the possibility of building solidarities. If solidarity existed meaningfully between these groups, there would be a much stronger front to challenge the conservative agenda. He states:

“Historically, Canada has always relied on racialized labour for large industrial projects, and has used temporary foreign workers to achieve such goals, but what is happening here is that unlike previous decades of immigration and temporary labour policy, these workers are barred from the option of gaining status. In these ways, temporary foreign workers are still racialized bodies that would have occupied similar low-wage, low skilled, precarious and dangerous work, but without access to the protections that status as well as provincial regulations provide."

Building Solidarity, Maintaining Solidarity, Challenges

These blind spots and fault lines continue to hold back progressive politics in Canada, and moving forward on a Canada We Want. It is what leaves our temporary, emerging, and fragile solidarity networks vulnerable in the face of 2015 and afterwards. In the next three years, our best shot is to see only a handful of grievances get some kind of recognition. Meanwhile, others debates and issues continue with no end in sight under the electoral formulas of our party system, and the surface-level understandings between our movements.

Many participants in these movements do not identify any political party as their champion, and critics have been outspoken on the limits of developing strategies that only include electoralism. 

Counter Con-Con attendee and Occupy Edmonton organizer Penny Paradis stated, “It feels like the NDP just expect your support because you are a progressive. It's like they know we don't really have a viable alternative, so they do not have to be accountable to progressive grassroots struggles. It makes them out of touch and perpetuates a system that can never replace conservative power because it's too similar in where it gets its own power from: the top. When they show up and speak, it just feels like the commercials I am used to ignoring.”

Top-down dynamics were on display throughout the weekend, perpetuating the “figurehead” approach to leadership. Such an approach is a double-edged sword, as it has the negative effect of prioritizing well-known organizers and high-ranking positions over the grassroots power base. 

However, at the Creative Action workshop with Brigitte DePapeone participant expressed the wish that the workshop could have been held a month before the Conservative Convention, so that organizers could have come together to plan actions. Upon following up with this participant, she indicated that it is a dilemma because sometimes in order to get a lot of people together to organize, someone who has a high profile is necessary to draw out interest.

This sounds like circular logic. When we continue to prioritize the position and work of high-ranking organizational officials and high profile people, we devalue the on-the-ground relationships between community organizers. That, perhaps, we are more interested in what people with rank and status have to share with us, rather than regular members of our organizing communities. As a result, we hand over power to figureheads who then run the risk of becoming further alienated from the grassroots people. Yet, to be clear, not all of the high profile speakers embrace this dynamic. 

What is to be done?

What is direly needed is greater inter-movement dialogue to build understandings between these groups that have not historically organized together if we are to have any chance of defeating conservative power in Canada. We must start framing our strategies from the perspective of those who have the most to lose, and identifying those who have the most to gain, in order to build effective inter-movement solidarity.

Fortunately, William Singer of the Blood Nation offered up insight into how to build solidarities by talking about his experiences organizing between Idle No More - Lethbridge and Calgary Treaty 7 areas, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He attended the activities over the weekend to support Idle No More and PSAC, and described the relationship between the two as allies since the Omnibus bills have impacted not only First Nations, but also public sector workers. 

He indicated that PSAC has offered material support to Idle No More, and that PSAC is running a campaign entitled "We Are All Affected". Singer also reported that the organizing relationship is strong and continues a year later. He concluded with the idea that we need to prioritize peace, unity and solidarity between groups in order to effectively fight the conservative agenda.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada also came out with a statement regarding Elsipogtog, condemning "the heavy-handedness used by police against a people who had been previously staging their blockade with only drums and feathers. Violence committed by anyone is not an acceptable solution to conflict." PSAC President Robyn Benson states, “It is inconceivable that protection of the oil and gas industry has been made more a priority than the protection of people and the earth.”

Cheslie Maki, AUPE representative attending the counter summit, spoke to The Media Co-op at the Idle No More rally. He spoke against Harper and against the water usage intensity and harm of fracking operations. He suggested that allowing such operations is an act of murder. He joined the Idle No More rally to stand against fracking, and to protect public services. When asked how to sustain our solidarity between our movements, he said, “Just keep working together and standing together.”

Chantal Stormsong Chagnon, an organizer with Idle No More, spoke to the need to change hearts and minds first. She suggested that in order to sustain the solidarity emerging between environmentalists, First Nations, and labour, “It's all about relationship building, and sharing culture. To us, that is sharing food, drumming, sharing culture and interests, and connecting over our common goals. We are community people.” She has also been working towards building understandings between political parties to make change from the bottom up, working with grassroots members of parties on common goals. 

While the formal leadership of unions and organizations focus on messages from within their movements, these three grassroots speakers focused on issues beyond their immediate positions and places, and spoke to the need to have greater inter-movement collaboration and relationship building. Maki's statements on the need to both keep working together and standing together is indicative here. Perhaps it is not enough to say “Solidarity!” and not get involved in the work that is to be done to make this statement a form of practice. 

In the lead-up to 2015, we would do well to consider mapping out our movements, our blind spots, our fault lines, and to build relationships where we are working in solidarity, building common understandings, and sharing in the work of each others’ movements. To derail the conservative agenda, it is going to take everything we have. To build broadly inclusive movements that are accountable to the grassroots, and that can assert our own agenda outside the current narratives of electoral politics, we've got some work to do.


Written exclusively for The Media Co-op on Tuesday, Nov 5th 2013

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