Peoples' Social Forum will build a better Canada

By Ricardo Acuña

It can be difficult these days, especially here in Alberta, to fathom that there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel in regards to our future.

Our provincial and federal governments have been increasing the frequency and severity of attacks on democracy from attacks on collective bargaining and First Nations, to the death of evidence-based decision making and the broad-scale silencing of dissent. Federal and provincial governments seem intent on eliminating any space that might result in the articulation of creative and alternative ways of structuring our society.

Despite all that, we have seen a tremendous number of grassroots movements like Idle No More, Occupy and the fight-back against the government's anti-union legislation in the past couple of years. Albertans have shown time and again they are not yet prepared to fully abandon their belief in democracy, people-power and collective action -- they're not prepared to completely hand over control of their lives, their livelihoods and their communities to the goals, dreams and aspirations of the 1%.

Our province and country are clearly at a crossroads. With out-of-control inequality and ever-increasing consolidation of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, there is a choice to make: we can let go and succumb to undemocratic government decisions or we can hold on to our values and ideals and work to turn things around.

The latter option is what the Peoples' Social Forum is all about. It will take place in Ottawa from August 21 to 24 -- a forum building on the successful expressions of civil society we have seen in the past few years, and on the principles of the World Social Forum movement. It will be a space where movements, organizations, unions, students, First Nations and many others will come together to share their visions and hopes for a better Canada and begin strategizing how we go about building it.

Given the role that Alberta's natural resources play in the national discourses on everything from pipelines and trade to labour, environment and First Nations, it is critical that the voices of Albertans be heard loud and clear at this national gathering. Albertans have been on the frontline of these struggles for the past 20 years, and our stories of victory and defeat and visions of an alternate future must help inform the development of alternatives at the national level.

To that end, a group of Alberta-based organizations, movements and individuals have organized a province-wide convergence in advance of the Peoples' Social Forum. 

The social forum process has the potential to be the start of something new, vibrant and hopeful for our province and country, but only if the broadest range possible of Albertans commit to fully engaging with it. Check out the details of the national gathering at and find a way to get involved. A better Alberta is possible. 

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Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

This piece originally appeared on Vue Weekly and is reprinted with permission.

The People's Social Forum as seen from Quebec

By Pierre Beaudet

| June 22, 2014


There have been many discussions and meetings about the People's Social Forum (PSF) in Quebec lately, and generally speaking, most people think it is a timely and necessary event. If you check the website of the PSF, you will see many on-going and forthcoming events in Quebec concerning it, which show the commitment and engagement of many Quebec social movements.

The idea has roots.

The idea of holding a social forum in Canada is in fact ten years old. In Porto Alegre during the second World Social Forum (2002), the infatigable Judy Rebick and her friend Monique Simard (who was at that time the chair of Alternatives) initiated the discussion with more or less three hundred Québécois and Canadians who attended the Forum.

Later, Judy and Monique went across Canada to meet trade unions and community organizations. The idea was relatively simple: let us bring to Canada this creative methodology that your comrades from South America were experimenting with, i.e. open and 'horizontal' discussions about our struggles, our resistances, our hopes. A process that is a distinct movement away from the top-down, dogmatic and arrogant traditions of the left.

The reception back at home to what was not yet a fully formed proposal was mixed. In Canada, resistance came from certain trade unions [the primary potential source of funding for a national forum], in particular the Canadian Labour Congress. After a while, Judy, Monique and others thought of a "plan B" which was to set up local Social Forums that did in fact take place in many Canadian cities. In Quebec, two large national forums were organized in 2007 and 2009, with thousands of participants

By definition, a Social Forum is not a substitute for strong and creative social movements. It is not there to "draw the line," not even to establish strategies. It is basically a 'space,' an 'occasion,' a moment of creativity where experiences and explorations are exposed and discussed. It is 'intellectual' in the noble sense of the word, far from the often sterile academia, and far from the arrogant I-know-it-all-ism of certain traditions of the left. In other words, a Forum reflects the strength, the will, the hope, as well as the limitations, the constraints and the dead angles of the popular movements.

In Brazil and other South American countries, the Forum appeared in the moment of a vast popular ascent. Masses and masses of people were struggling, to the point of debunking governments – such as what took place in Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere. There was a process of convergences between trade union, community organizations, the indigenous, women. Parts of the organized left were intelligent enough to join this convergence not as the enlightened 'vanguard,' but as tool and a vehicle for transformation. Later, the concept was 'exported' to other parts of the world. However, the Forum was not a 'magical formula.' In certain places, Forums ended up in becoming 'events,' or 'big conferences,' sometimes useful, but not to the point of making a difference. Again, the fact that popular movements are able to take the initiative, advance or even 'win' in the battle of ideas, cannot be imposed from some hierarchy.


In Quebec, the idea of convergence, coalition-building, creative intellectual work, has deep roots. In the contemporary period, huge processes involving thousands of people and movements have taken place: the Women's March against poverty and violence (1995) with its sequel in 2000, the People's Summit of the Americas (2001), the huge, popular and trade union mobilizations against the Charest government (2003), the student strike of 2005, the Social Forums of 2007 and 2009, and of course the Carrés rouges of 2012. These events were more than 'events." They were deeply embedded processes with an 'intent.' All of that explains largely why the WSF concept was seen as important and necessary in Quebec.

Currently, the popular movement in Québec is alive and kicking. It is strong, it can fight. In the meantime, the bourgeoisie is in a bad mood. They are doing whatever they can to undermine, humiliate, and threaten. Their message is very negative, "Quebec is going nowhere," "the opposition from below is too strong," "people do not believe in capitalism in Quebec." It's interesting to watch the lamentations and insults they used. To the point where right-wing parties have to say, "Oh sorry and by the way, we are not on the right"! On the other hand, they have power, the 'real' power, which is in the hands of their corporate entities. At the political level, there is one site of power and not ten or 12, and it is in Ottawa. so the question bounces back in our popular movement in Quebec: what to do to 'really' change power?

For sure, in order to answer this question, it is necessary to consider how to build alliances with other peoples in Canada. Throughout the ages and especially after the defeat of the great republican and democratic uprising of 1837-1838, Canadian elites through their state played the old British tactic of 'divide and rule.' The idea was fairly simple, as to divide popular communities and prevent them from taking power. They used coercion many times, by crushing the Metis in the 1860s for example. In 1917, working classes were disciplined after the defeat of the Winnipeg general strike. Against the people of Quebec, the Canadian state did not hesitate to impose repressive legislation such as the 'War Measures Act.' But they also use ideology, creating a racist and exclusive Canada along the myth of the 'White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant,' the WASP, whereas Québécois, First Nations and other subaltern groups were seen as 'semi-civilized.' It did not go well in Quebec from the 1960s onwards where a powerful social-national movement came about.

What next?

Today, all of these confrontations are aggravated. Canadian elites currently think that a new assault against the peoples is not only necessary but possible. Through the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and society, they believe it is possible to eradicate social benefits that were acquired by past struggles. They are using the impact of the financial crash of 2008 to impose new 'austerity' politics. In addition with the Harper government, they are deploying a neoconservative agenda to humiliate, threaten, control and repress. As in the past, they count on playing one people against the other, everybody-against-everybody. For example, they deny Québec's right of self-determination. They use the prejudices and the ignorance disseminated by the media which has contaminated Canadian culture. In the past, one cannot say that the challenge has been met properly by progressive circles. In Canada, very few people (to the honorable exception of Judy Rebick, Libby Davies, Svend Robinson and a handful of others) have taken the issue of Quebec rights seriously. In Quebec, alliances with the First Nations were not properly structured with the exceptions of Québec Solidaire and the Fédération des femmes du Québec.

It is therefore urgent to break this elite offensive. Can it be done? An impressive participation of social movements in the PSF would certainly be a positive indicator. There will be, in addition, qualitative challenges. For a meaningful and non-superficial dialogue at the People's Social Forum in Ottawa this August, it will be necessary for social movements to look at themselves 'in the mirror' and see what they can do to fight the 'divide-and-rule' successful elite strategies by seriously engaging in support of each other.

Peoples’ Social Forum 2014: building good relationships

By Ana Collins

Indigenous histories teach us that we are all part of an intricate creation; where all beings carry their own bundle of gifts and responsibilities to creation. Our bundles help us at all times of our existence and give us tools in order to live a sustainable and fulfilling life. Creation is formed in a universal order that facilitates balance, interconnections, and happiness for all life. Essentially, creation is based on a relationship-making structure to maintain that balance and mino bemaadziwin: good way of living.

The Peoples’ Social Forum, to be held in Ottawa, August 21-24, 2014, is about relationship building, bringing people together who don’t usually work together but who might be working on common causes, changing the nature of future relationships, honouring treaties, changing the structure of how things are done on this land, and respecting the teachings that the land has for us.

This historic 4-day gathering will open with traditional Algonquin ceremony on Victoria Island. At the University of Ottawa, and other sites in the city, at hundreds of workshops, presentations, panels, movement assemblies, demonstrations and arts and cultural events we will all teach and we will all learn. We will see the interconnectedness of all our struggles and we will build a better future together in good relationships.

To participate in the Peoples’ Social Forum register yourself and your family, apply for billeted housing, and hop on one of the many caravans travelling to Ottawa from all around the land. We are committed to helping people from all geographic regions, Indigenous, youth, elders, People of Colour, and low income.

Anyone can propose an activity or workshop– to share knowledge, ideas, strategies, and inspiring stories of resistance. We are interested in all kinds of workshops: anti-­‐oppressive work, protecting public services, decolonization, children’s activities, radical politics, resistance and the arts, alternative economic systems, land defence, youth leadership, treaty education: all activities that build a better future.

Movement Assemblies are community gatherings, held during the Peoples’ Social Forum, designed to develop action plans in order to work together across issues on local, regional, and national fronts. Many Assemblies are already planning their activities at the Forum: Climate Change, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Alternative Media, Water, Democracy, and many more. Everyone is welcome to join and share their ideas.

To do all this and to learn more, please visit the website:

Many organizations, nations and individuals are currently facing serious challenges that are undermining inherent Indigenous rights, and the treaty relationships that form the basis of this country, and the values we hold as a society. Our movements continue to be fragmented, each fighting their own battles: we react to disasters, funding cuts, resource development and violence.

The time has come to build a strategic broad coalition to defend and protect land, communities and creation by taking up our bundles and honouring our responsibilities. We must build good relationships with public service unions, non-governmental organizations, scientists, recent migrants, students and all groups and individuals who want to build an alternative future based on mino bemaadziwin.

Ana Collins
Indigenous Coordinator for the Peoples Social Forum
Unceded Algonquin Territory,
Ottawa, August 21-24, 2014

Alberta Convergence for Social Forum a success!

June 15, 2014 - 8:28am

Council of Canadians organizer Aleah Loney was a key force behind the Alberta Convergence for the Peoples' Social Forum which brought together about 55 people in Edmonton yesterday.

It was promoted as, "Attend a day­‐long gathering for the Alberta Expansion Group on June 14 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton to converge and plan the next steps forward, including ideas for workshops, travel to Ottawa, and continuing to build a Peoples’ Social Forum here in Alberta as well."

Ricardo Acuña wrote in Vue Weekly, "Given the role that Alberta’s natural resources play in the national discourses on everything from pipelines and trade to labour, environment and First Nations, it is critical that the voices of Albertans be heard loud and clear at [Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa this August]. ...To that end, a group of Alberta-based organizations, movements and individuals have organized a province-wide convergence in advance of the Peoples’ Social Forum. This Saturday, June 14, a broad cross-section of Albertans will gather at the University of Alberta to raise awareness about the Peoples’ Social Forum, and begin coordinating what Alberta’s presence at the national gathering will look like."

The outreach for the Alberta Convergence also noted, "The Alberta Expansion Group will also work with local organizers throughout Alberta, including in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, and anywhere else to encourage and support the holding of local organizing meetings."

For more about the day, see the Alberta Social Forum twitter feed, the Peoples' Social Forum 2014 - Alberta Expansion Group Facebook page and this website.

For more about the national gathering this August 21-24, please also see Council of Canadians supports the Peoples Social Forum.

Assembly of Social Movements on Climate Change Kicks Off With a Bang !

New step forward for the Peoples Social Forum

Jeudi 12 juin 2014, par Michel Lambert

More than sixty people were in Montreal on June 6th for the first ever Assembly of Social Movements on Climate Change, under the umbrella of the Peoples’ Social Forum, taking place in August 2014. This preparatory meeting of the larger Assembly to take place on August 23rd gathered representatives from environmental groups, citizen movements, First Nations communities, as well as labour union representatives, women’s groups and student associations, giving credence to the notion that the climate change issue is crossing over into seemingly dissociated sectors. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and eight Native communities and groups were represented.

The meeting was held in cooperation with the passing of the Peoples’ Walk for Mother Earth in Montreal, a 700-km journey from Cacouna to Kanesatake aiming to raise awareness among local communities who will be affected by both the Line 9 and Energy East pipeline projects.

An unprecedented willingness to work together

The call was initially made by Alternatives and the Council of Canadians, and successfully mobilized over fifteen groups just for the organization of the June 6 meeting. Respecting the autonomy and specific agendas of each other, the participants appreciated the opportunity and the urgency of working together in solidarity, complimenting each others work to obtain significant achievements against the pro-hydrocarbon and anti-climate policies of the present federal government. This initial meeting held discussions to build consensus at three levels.

Three priority issues

  • The Assembly has taken a stand against projects aiming to exploit hydrocarbons, as these projects are the main culprits in the rising rate of greenhouse gas emissions affecting climate change.
  • The Assembly will also address the much-needed transition towards green and renewable energies, climate jobs and decreasing our carbon footprint.
  • The Assembly of Social Movements on Climate Change will promote the idea of climate justice, and therefore the respect of fundamental rights of First Nations communities.

Converge, Coalesce, Coordinate !

The Assembly wishes to achieve more together than as a sum of all its parts. Activist art, direct action and civil disobedience are the main tactics that were agreed upon, along with disinvestment campaigns, training camps and common declarations

A sustainable Assembly

The Assembly of Social Movements on Climate Change, unlike the extractive industry, aims to be a sustainable and a lasting process ! Its structure will be inclusive, horizontal and participative, based on the Peoples’ Social Forum Charter in order to debate and put forth common plans of action.

At the Peoples’ Social Forum, and beyond

More than 10 000 people are expected to attend the Peoples’ Social Forum in Ottawa from August 21st to 24th 2014. It will be a historic event : the very first time that many activists and progressives from French and English Canada as well as First Nations will come together to discuss the future we want to work towards. The issue of how we protect our environment will be of fundamental importance.

The Assembly of Social Movements wishes to halt climate change. Regardless of who will govern the country as of 2015, we know that the policies and actions of our government and the oil industry are responsible for the current situation, and the Parliamentary opposition offers far too few significant alternatives and changes. By joining forces from across the Canadian territory, including environmental and First Nations groups, citizens’ movements, youth, scientists, workers, students and more, the Assembly wishes to leverage social justice movements through the climate change issue, giving new breath to current and historic struggles of civil society in favour of climate and social justice.



Michel Lambert is the Executive Director of Alternatives
Download now the final report of this initial meeting of the Assembly of Social Mouvements on Climate

When is civil society a force for social transformation?

Michael Edwards 30 May 2014

There are more civil society organizations in the world today than at any other time in history, so why isn't their impact growing? 

When you look at the numbers, the growth of civil society has been remarkable: 3.3 million charities in India and 1.5 million across the United States; NGOs like the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee that work with hundreds of millions of people; 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90 per cent of them launched since 1975. That’s not counting all the street protests, social movements and informal community groups that are often omitted from the data. In the UK, for example, these latter outnumber registered charities by more than four to one.

These statistics are mightily impressive - except when compared to the problems that civil societies want to solve. You could argue that things would be worse without the involvement of these groups. There’s also evidence to show that they’re making inroads around the edges of poverty and injustice.

But there’s no sign that the underlying structures of social, political and economic violence and oppression are being shaken to their roots.

As a result, fewer people in the world are dying young, and basic indicators of health and education, income and employment are getting slightly better - at least for most people in most countries. However, economic inequality is rising, democracies are being hollowed out, climate change is worsening, and discrimination based on race, gender, ability and sexual orientation remains endemic.

Social movements have helped to challenge these underlying problems, and they’ve successfully unseated dictators in many parts of the world. But they haven’t been able to secure lasting gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

Expecting civil society groups to achieve these gains by themselves would be foolish. However, given the rapid growth of all these organizations, shouldn’t they be having at least some impact on the deep transformation of self and society? What is going wrong?

I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to figure out an answer to that question, and every so often I put some thoughts down in print. Of course, like the proverbial painter on the Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, I have to start afresh as soon as I’ve finished each round of revisions, since civil societies are constantly mutating.  But they don’t seem to be mutating in the direction of social transformation, despite the headline-grabbing protests of the Arab Spring and other ‘revolutions.’ In fact my conclusion this time around may be surprising: the strength of civil society is declining even as its size continues to expand.

I think there are two main reasons for this mismatch. The first is that civil society groups are increasingly divorced from the forces that drive deeper social change. When one looks at the few times in history when civil society has functioned as a powerful and lasting moral and political lever - like the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s - large numbers of people became active in translating ethical action into power structures at every level, from the family to the courts and corporations.

In this sense, civil society is like an iceberg, with the peaks of protest rising above the waterline and the great mass of everyday citizen action hidden underneath. When the two are connected - when street protests are backed up by long-term action in every community, bank, business, local government, church or mosque, temporary gains in equality and diversity have more chance of becoming permanent shifts in power and public norms. In that respect it’s not the Arab or any other ‘Spring’ that really makes the difference, but what happens in every other season, of every other year, across every generation.

Unfortunately these episodes of large-scale, joined-up action are quite rare, and the long-term trend has been the opposite, at least in Europe and North America. Traditional forms of participation - like voting and membership in labor unions and other mass organizations - have declined alarmingly over the last 50 years. Other forms of participation have emerged in their stead, but they haven’t had the same effect in pulling large numbers of people into face-to-face, ongoing, and potentially transformative activities. 

These new forms of participation are largely social media-based, but they also include social enterprises and professional advocacy groups which have strong messages but much weaker memberships. They may well attract large numbers of people to donate money, sign petitions, and consume less harmful products, but none of these actions have the same amount of purchase in the heartlands of politics and economics. They are too thin to have much effect on the transformation of society. 

As an indicator of changing fashions, the number of Google searches for “civil society” fell by 70 per cent between 2004 and 2012. During the same period, searches for “social media” and “social entrepreneurs” rose by 90 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

It isn’t that these new trends are bad in themselves - successful social movements have always made use of innovations in marketing, revenue-generation and communications. The problems arrive when they displace other forms of civil society action that remain essential. In that respect, it’s significant that today’s most transformative civil society groups incorporate both online and offline activism around a strong ethos of democratic participation and accountability. “Making Change at Wal-Mart,” for example, uses Facebook to help employees identify which of their “friends” works for the company, to supply them with information about their rights, and then to connect them to ongoing campaigns and demonstrations on the ground.

But in terms of transformation, it does matter that a different ethos of competition and technocracy is increasingly influential in civil society itself. In a classic case of cooptation, what was designed as a solidarity-based alternative is being turned into an integral component of the social capitalist economy. 

The second reason for the decline in civil societies’ transformative potential is that structures that used to mediate between people of different views and backgrounds have largely disappeared. Getting large numbers of people to participate in politics and civic life is priority number one. But those people will likely disagree with each other on everything from gay marriage to student debt. That’s the reality of civil societies everywhere, which don’t belong to conservatives or progressives, or to anyone else in particular, but to everyone.

So priority number two is to find ways for people to come together across their differences and hammer out some common ground. That common ground then gets translated formally into laws and policies by voting in reforming governments, and informally into the norms of public opinion that help to set some sense of direction for society.

This was precisely the process that underpinned broad, public support for redistributive actions like the GI Bill of 1944, which made college education and other benefits accessible for all returning veterans in the USA. Many future leaders of the US Civil Rights movement were graduates of these programs. Something similar took place in Britain after the end of World War Two, when the newly elected Labour Government introduced the Welfare State. Greater social intermingling during the war years, and a sense of shared experience and responsibility, helped to draw in a wider range of support.

In both these examples, the ground was laid for potentially transformative changes in society, though much of it has since been eroded. By guaranteeing the conditions in which broad swathes of the population could participate in politics and public life, governments gave civil society a tremendous boost.

The problem is that most of the structures through which people participated have been destroyed or allowed to wither on the vine. They included labor unions (which declined by 43 per cent in the USA between 1950 and 2000), parent-teachers associations (which lost 60 per cent of their members during the same period), political parties, and national federations of women’s groups. As a result, the rich and diverse ecosystems of civil society that had brought different groups together, however imperfectly, began to resemble monocultures in which organizations looked alike or turned into single issue or constituency groups.   

This process was most visible in the decline of particular kinds of civic institutions, but it also had a personal face. Coalition building, or simply arguing with each-other to create a sense of the public interest, require a willingness to engage, and to recognize that sustaining civil society is a shared responsibility, even if we disagree about the details of what civic groups should do.

At its core, civil society has always been a deeply human construction, a way of “rearranging the geometry of human relationships” and not just cementing the bricks and mortar of NGOs and other groups. That, too, is being lost to the tide of corporatization and technocratic management.

Reversing the decline of civil society as a force for transformation will be exceptionally difficult, because the processes of hollowing out and separation, of commercialization and muzzling have become so deeply embedded. Any group that bucks these trends will be isolated and undermined. Philanthropists will deny them funding, politicians will curb their rights to organize, corporations will co-opt their language and their tactics, and other, less radical groups will try to colonize their work and capture their supporters.

But since civil societies are ours to lose, they are also ours to reclaim, to refresh and re-energize against the background of a constantly shifting landscape of opportunities, tools and techniques - social media and social enterprise included.

The destruction of civil society is easy, and it’s happening around us now. Its re-creation is much more difficult, a task akin to accumulating all the ‘snow’ that eventually makes the ‘iceberg’ of everyday citizen action.

That may sound like too little, too late, or simply take too long, or be too much work in an era when instant gratification is demanded. But it will be worth it. After all, it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic.



Self-Determination as Anti-Extractivism: How Indigenous Resistance Challenges World Politics

by Manuela Picq on June 2, 2014


Indigeneity is an unusual way to think about International Relations (IR). Most studies of world politics ignore Indigenous perspectives, which are rarely treated as relevant to thinking about the international (Shaw 2008; Beier 2009). Yet Indigenous peoples are engaging in world politics with a dynamism and creativity that defies the silences of our discipline (Morgan 2011). In Latin America, Indigenous politics has gained international legitimacy, influencing policy for over two decades (Cott 2008; Madrid 2012). Now, Indigenous political movements are focused on resisting extractive projects on autonomous territory from the Arctic to the Amazon (Banerjee 2012; Sawyer and Gómez 2012). Resistance has led to large mobilized protests, invoked international law, and enabled alternative mechanisms of authority. In response, governments have been busy criminalizing Indigenous claims to consultation that challenge extractive models of development. Indigenous opposition to extractivism ultimately promotes self-determination rights, questioning the states’ authority over land by placing its sovereignty into historical context. In that sense, Indigeneity is a valuable approach to understanding world politics as much as it is a critical concept to move beyond state-centrism in the study of IR.

The Consolidation of Indigenous Resistance against Extractivism

Indigenous peoples are contesting extractive projects in various, complementary ways. Collective marches have multiplied as an immediate means of resistance throughout the Americas. In 2012, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador led thousands of people on a 15-day, 400-mile March for Life, Water, and the Dignity of Peoples, demanding a new water law, the end of open-pit mining, and a stop to the expansion of oil concessions. Within days, a similar mobilization took over Guatemala City. The Indigenous, Peasant, and Popular March in Defense of Mother Earth covered 212 kilometers to enter the capital with nearly 15,000 people protesting mining concessions, hydroelectric plants, and evictions. In Bolivia, various marches demanded consultation as the government prepared to build a highway within the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isidoro Sécure (TIPNIS). From Canada’s Idle No More movement to the protests against damming the Xingú River Basin in Brazil, Indigenous movements are rising and demanding they be allowed to participate in decisions affecting their territories.

Protests are at the core of global Indigenous agendas. In 2013, the Fifth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples of the Abya Yala encouraged communities to step-up resistance in light of the threat posed by state-sponsored extractivism. This is what Indigenous women were doing when they walked from Amazon territories to Quito, Ecuador, denouncing government plans to drill without consultation in the Yasuní reserve. Local protests are not trivial or irrelevant in world politics. Rather, they are part of a larger effort to transform local concerns into international politics.

Indigenous peoples have remarkable expertise in international law and are savvily leveraging their rights to consultation and self-determination guaranteed in the ILO Convention 169 (1989) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (UN General Assembly 2008). They have won emblematic legal battles at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), at times obliging states to recognize Indigenous territorial authority. In the decade-long case of Sarayaku v. Ecuador, the IACHR upheld the right of free, prior, and informed consent with a binding sentence against the Ecuadoran State for allowing a foreign oil company to encroach on ancestral lands without consultation during the 1990s. A 2011 petition by communities of the Xingú River basin led the IACHR to order Brazil’s government to halt the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. The Mayan Q’eqchi’ expanded jurisdiction by taking Hudbay Minerals to Court in Canada for crimes committed at an open-pit nickel mine in Guatemala. In Canada, two Manitoba First Nations used their own legal systems in 2013 to serve eviction notices to mining companies operating illegally on their land.1

International pressure is significant, yet states frequently eschew what they perceive to be uncomfortable mechanisms of accountability. Courts may validate Indigenous resistance, and UN reports warn against the catastrophic impact of extractive industries, but Brazil continued to build the Belo Monte Dam and Peru’s government did not consider suspending the Camisea gas project of drilling 18 wells on protected territories that have been home to Amazonian peoples in voluntary isolation (Feather 2014). Nevertheless, states that evade prior consultation obligations only foster Indigenous inventiveness. In the absence of official mechanisms of consultation, people establish autonomous ones. Local communities of the Kimsacocha area took matters in their own hands after years of being ignored, demanding Ecuador’s government consult them on a mining project in the highlands. In 2011, they organized a community-based consultation without the authorization of the state that was nevertheless legitimized by the presence of international observers (Guartambel 2012). The community voted 93% in favour of defending water rights and against mining in the area. Autonomous forms of prior consultation are increasingly common in Latin America. In Guatemala alone, there have been over sixty community-based consultations since 2005 (MacLeod and Pérez 2013).

Contesting States of Extraction

Indigenous resistance has been the target of severe government repression, ranging from judicial intimidation to assassinations of activists. Mobilizations against the Congo mine in Cajamarca, Peru, led President Ollanta Humala to declare a state of emergency and unleash military repression. An estimated 200 activists were killed in Peru between 2006 and 2011 for resisting extractivism (Zibechi 2013). Colombia’s government, in turn, declared protests against the mining industry illegal. In Ecuador, about 200 people have been criminalized for contesting the corporatization of natural resources. Many have been charged with terrorism. Violent repression against TIPNIS protesters in Bolivia revealed that even Evo Morales, Latin America’s first elected Indigenous president, is willing to use force to silence demands for consultation. Various activists opposing the multinational mining giant AngloGlod Ashanti have been assassinated. Argentina’s Plurinational Indigenous Council, which calls for an end to extractivism, has recorded eleven assassinations since 2010. The Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL) estimates there are currently 195 active conflicts due to large-scale mining. Peru and Chile lead the list with 34 and 33 conflicts respectively, followed by Mexico with 28, Argentina with 26, Brazil with 20, and Colombia with 12. Mega-mining alone affects nearly 300 communities, many of which are located on Indigenous territories.

This wave of intense criminalization indicates the expansion of the extractive frontier. In Peru, where anti-extractivist unrest toppled two cabinets under the Humala government and led to the militarization of several provinces, mineral exploration expenditures increased tenfold in a decade. In 2002, 7.5 million hectares of land had been granted to mining companies; by 2012 the figure jumped to almost 26 million hectares, or 20% of the country’s land. Nearly 60% of the province of Apurímac has been granted to mining companies. In Colombia, about 40% of land is licensed to, or being solicited by, multinational companies for mineral and crude mining projects (Peace Brigades International 2011). According to OCMAL, 25% of the Chile’s territory was under exploration or operation as of 2010. In 2013, Mexico’s government opened the state-controlled energy sector to foreign investment, changing legislation to allow private multinationals to prospect for the country’s oil and natural gas resources for the first time since 1938.

The problem is that governments are largely licensing Indigenous land. In 2010, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues reported that Colombian mining concessions had been awarded in 80% of the country’s legally recognized Indigenous territories. Colombia’s government has 8.8 million hectares of Indigenous reserves designated as oil areas and granted 168 mining licenses on Indigenous reserves in 2011. Extractive industries lead to evictions, toxic waste, and resource scarcity, creating conflicts over water, soil, and subsoil. Open-pit mining uses unsustainable amounts of water. The controversial Marlin mine, partly funded by the World Bank in 2004, and today fully owned by Goldcorp, uses in one hour the water that a local family uses over 22 years (Van de Sandt 2009).2 In Chile, mining consumes 37% of the electricity produced in the country – which will reach 50% in a few years – compared to 28% for industry and 16% for the residential sector. This requires the Chilean State to continually expand energy sources, thereby accelerating displacement and the transfer of agricultural land to hydroelectric projects.

Conflicts against extractivism should not be dismissed as only concerning Indigenous peoples. They encompass larger debates about the role of extractivism in politics and contest a development model based on the corporatization of natural resources. In particular, they reveal the continuous role of resource exploitation as a strategy to finance states. Governments are prioritizing extractive industries as key engines of growth, although there is ample evidence that extractive industries create relatively few jobs. President Juan Manuel Santos promised to turn Colombia into a mining powerhouse because it attracts quick investment. Opening Ecuador to mega-mining financed much of President Correa’s third re-election. In fact, his unexpected policy shift to approve drilling within the Yasuní Reserve is explained largely by his government’s urgent need for cash. China, which holds over 35% of Ecuador’s foreign debt and financed 12% of its budget in 2013, buys about 60% of the country’s oil and is expected to pre-buy Yasuní oil (Guevara 2013).

Indigenous claims against extractive projects contest a world system based on predation and usurpation. In Guatemala, mining is managed by long-standing political elites and inscribed in the colonial genealogy of power. In many instances, the entrepreneurs promoting mining today are the scions of the same oligarchical families that have controlled Indigenous land and peoples for centuries (Casaús 2007). The political economy of extractivism encompasses global inequalities of exploitation, within and among states. About 75% of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada, and most operate in the so-called Global South (Deneault et al. 2012). Extractive industries in the North rely on alliances with national elites to exploit natural resources of peoples and places historically marginalized from power politics.

Indigeneity as a Way to Rethink International Relations

Claims against extractivism are ultimately claims to the right of self-determination. The unilateral expropriation of land for mining today is a continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery. It conceptualized the New World as terra nullis, authorizing colonial powers to conquer and exploit land in the Americas. It also paved the way for a paradigm of domination that outlasted colonial times to evolve into a broader – and more resilient – self-arrogated right of intervention embodied by the modern state (Wallerstein 2006). Today, the idea of “empty” lands survives in extractivist practices. Large-scale mining by multinational corporations perpetuates the human abuse and resource appropriation initiated by Spanish colonizers centuries ago in the Bolivian mines of Potosi. International rights to self-determination may have replaced Papal Bulls, yet the political economy of looting natural resources on Indigenous lands continues, now in the name of development.

In this context, Indigeneity is a privileged site for the study of international relations. First and foremost, the extent and sophistication of Indigenous political praxis is relevant to any explanation of world politics. The rise of anti-extractivism as a politics of contestation against state exploitation calls for alternative sites of governance, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (Shadian 2013). Indigenous claims are shaping political practice, framing international legislation, and destabilizing assumptions about stateness. They seek the redistribution of rights as much as the uprooting of the concentration of power in the state. In that sense, Indigenous claims to consultation challenge the authority of states over natural resources as much as Westphalian forms of sovereignty.

Second, Indigeneity disrupts state sovereignty (Ryser 2012). The UNDRIP became the longest and most hotly debated human rights instrument in UN history because the expansion of Indigenous rights is intrinsically related to issues of state authority over territory. Rights to self-determination entail the recognition of plural forms of territorial authority in competition with states. Indigeneity is attributed to peoples who have historically been excluded from projects of state-making. Yet it contributes much more than making visible historically excluded groups. It refers to a politics that both precedes the state and lies outside of it. It is the constitutive “other” of the modern state, marked by a co-constitutive history that explains why Indigenous politics vary depending on different processes of state-formation. Consequently, Indigeneity is vital to a discipline dedicated to studying relations among states precisely because it is intrinsically related to state-formation. Standing outside of, and prior to, the state makes Indigenous standpoints valuable in terms of thinking critically about world politics and imagining what post-national political assemblages may look like (Sassen 2008).

Finally, Indigeneity is a strategic perspective in expanding scholarly debates on what constitutes IR. Indigenous experiences complement and broaden official national histories with forgotten or repressed narratives (O’Brien 2010), thus expanding methodological assumptions on how to do IR (Jackson 2010). Its precedence over the modern state encompasses alternative worldviews to think about the international beyond stateness. Indigeneity thus defies core epistemological foundations about power. In particular, it historicizes the state and sovereignty, moving away from Eurocentric conceptions of the world (Hobson 2012) and breaking with the discipline’s unreflective tendencies (Tickner 2013). The vibrancy of Indigenous struggles not only confirms the inadequacy of the state, echoing calls to provincialize Europe’s political legacies (Chakrabarty 2000), but it also provides concrete experiences of what the international can actually look like within and beyond the state (Tickner and Blaney 2013). Indigeneity is therefore doubly valuable for world politics. In addition to contributing alternative praxis of the international, it instigates critical theory to expand disciplinary borders.


Indigeneity is a valuable category of analysis for world politics. Indigenous experiences offer a fuller understanding of the world we live in. Integrating indigenous perspectives in the study of IR speaks to the ability to extend our political practice beyond the ivory tower. It is not a category of analysis that concerns merely Indigenous peoples, just as racism is not a matter for people of African descent only, or post-colonial studies the domain of previously colonized societies. The entire thrust of Indigeneity is that the non-state is the business of the state, and that there are alternative pathways available to decolonize the discipline.

Stripping IR of its state-centrism invites us to reflect upon the entrenched colonialism of international relations. Indigenous perspectives will hopefully inspire scholars to adventure beyond the conventional borders of the discipline. After all, opening an alternative locus of authority is nothing short of revolutionary.


See on IC Magazine

PSF at the NCRA!

Sylvia Richardson, long-time community radio producer and member of AMARC, the World Association of Community Radios, will be representing the Peoples Social Forum this weekend at the National Community Radio Association's Annual conference in Victoria. 

There, she will be using art to envision community radio as a movement and work with NCRA members to develop a plan to engage with and mobilize for the Peoples Social Forum. 

We wish Sylvia the best of luck in her workshop and outreach efforts this weekend!

Hundreds of high school activists gather in Toronto for the first Student Social Forum

Today, 200 student activists from within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) will connect with community, union, and artist activists to share their passions and experiences in a forum designed to deepen their commitment to social justice work. Hosted by OSSTF Human Rights Committee, "Action reAction: A Youth Social Forum", is the first of what organizers hope will be an annual event for the TDSB. 

"There are so many educators and students who are actively promoting human rights and social justice," explained Bruce Lyne, a Toronto teacher and organizer of the youth social forum. "We wanted to create an opportunity for them to come together with one another and community activists. This conference is about building a stronger activist community in our schools."

The event will also feature the Camille Natale Awards, annual awards given to students to recognize their outstanding human rights/social justice work. The keynote speaker of the forum, Andre Lopez, a former student at the Student School, was also a winner of the Camille Natale Award last year.

"As the future leaders of the world we have a choice," said Andre Lopez, explaining why he thought youth needed to be politically engaged. "We can either continue living in a world of oppression that was forced upon us by past generations, or we can break the cycle of repression and create a better world. This is our world, our government, we need to take control of it and start making changes for the better."

The student social forum is a also a lead-up event to the Peoples' Social Forum, a massive convergence that is set to take place in Ottawa this August. This gathering will see hundreds of participant-led workshops at the University of Ottawa, in an attempt to weave together movements against the impoverishment of the austerity agenda and for social justice in Canada.

Hayssam Hulays, OSSTF District 12 Toronto:, (416) 393-8900 x243

LOCATION: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) 252 Bloor, Toronto

Saving the Climate, Booting Out Harper and Changing the World

The decision concerning the development of Northern Gateway’s pipeline will be revealed sometime during the first week of June. It’s safe to say that no one is waiting with bated breath. Everyone knows all too well that even if Stephen Harper would be the only Canadian supporting the project, it would go through despite having lost referendums and faced opposition from Indigenous population and citizens alike, ignoring Canada’s responsibilities and the negative impact that expanding the tar sands industry will have on climate change. A recent exchange with Barack Obama in regards to the Keystone XL pipeline sums it up: Harper “won’t take no for an answer.”

So is that it? Is this the end? Thankfully not. That very same first week of June 2014 will see the creation of an unprecedented process; the Social Movements’ Assembly on Climate Change, in Montreal, precisely where most of the attention of the pro-pipeline will turn given that Quebec is in front of two other major pipeline projects.

The Assembly’s mission and process are clear: the Assembly wishes to address the issue of further developing tar sands head-on, as it’s the main culprit in increasing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Climate at risk

Since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990, it is abundantly clear that greenhouse gas emissions provoked by the combustion of oil, gas and coal are overwhelming the global climate. Climate change has already begun, sparking an increase of 0,8°C since the industrial revolution. At this moment in time, the International Energy Agency warns that the world is heading towards a dizzying increase of 4°C à 5°C, not a mere 2°C as previously suspected.

Harper in denial

All the while, the Harper Government refuses to recognize the urgency of the problem and refuses to offer solutions to ensure that realistic goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are met. Quite the contrary: he has systematically attacked different processes meant to protect the environment, which can only mean one thing: we must mobilise massively, and fast.

With the omnibus Bill C-38, Harper considerably reduced evaluations of that environmental impact on new tar sand development projects, as well other projects that would create emissions. He has questioned the territorial integrity of First Nations with Bill C-45, his second attempt at a mammoth omnibus bill. He then sought to destabilize environmental groups by over-reviewing their finances and monitoring their every move in a disproportionate, Orwellian fashion. While rules to limit emissions from the oil and gas industries are still awaited, the Harper Government allocates $1,4 billion-grants to oil companies, year after year.

An extra-parlementary alliance to save the climate

The Conservatives rely so heavily on the increase of tar sands in order to achieve their economic extractivist program that they categorically deny that climate change is a very real problem. Other parties seem relatively cautious in raising the issue and haven’t made any attempts at introducing an exit strategy from the fossil fuels, as has been done in many Nordic countries.

The ball is therefore in our court as a civil society to ensure action. On June 6th, this novel process will reunite forces from the East and the West, with Native communities taking part in a massive non-partisan alliance in order to force the Conservative Party to modify its approach, as well as force the other parties to adapt their platform and broach the topic of climate change if they truly wish to replace Harper. The meeting in June will lead to a much larger meeting during the Peoples’ Social Forum from August 21st to 24th in Ottawa, during which more than 10 000 people are expected to participate.

The climate: A strategic issue for social movements

The Assembly on Climate Change will be the first initiative gathering forces from all Canadian territories. Indigenous and environmental groups, citizens’ associations, scientists, youth and all those who are active on this issue will be present.

The environmental movement in Canada is very dynamic and inspiring, but it can’t carry the fight against climate change all on its own. The second innovation of the Assembly will be to involve other branches of social movements in this struggle. The support of workers, students, Natives and citizens of Canada will be necessary.

Last fall, Naomi Klein reminded members of the new union UNIFOR that the fight against climate change boils down to fighting for historical demands of the labour and grassroots movements.

The Assembly on Climate Change will therefore seek to make the fight against climate change a tool to give current and historical social justice struggles new life. Considering the Harper Government’s unique strategy for oil, this new beginning could weaken the bond between the oil industry and the Harper Government.

The heart of the beast

Approaching the fight against climate change as a stepping stone against Harper can only pave the way to a future in which governments who choose to ignore social action, citizenry and democracy, and who attempt to prioritise corporate interests over the common good would be ousted from power without a chance of aspiring to it once more.

Of course, the struggle won’t be easy. After all, we are aiming the heart of the beast: Free Trade, deregulation, neoliberalism, extractivism. Powerful lobbies and interest groups will be a big obstacle. But this is the most direct strategy to bring back social justice, and respect of nature, as major values of interest in public debates.

The struggle against climate change is a struggle against the system at the heart of the current federal government. And beyond the citizen Stephen Harper or the Conservative Party, when we’ll shake the system, we will change the world.

Stopping the fossil fuel juggernaut in its tracks

Will British Columbians be able to stand up against the Premier's "unbridled boosterism" of LNG and other fossil fuel? 

By Derrick O'Keefe


British Columbia is currently facing an unprecedented fossil fuel juggernaut. Tar sands pipelines, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and the expanded fracking that goes with it, ramped up coal exports — it’s all coming at us at breakneck speed. It’s going to take an enormous social movement to stop them.

This is the urgent political task of our generation. As I wrote over two years ago:

Once a certain tipping point is reached — and the science tells us this is likely somewhere in the neighbourhood of two degrees Celsius of warming — there will be no possibility of curtailing or reversing the climate change.

Catastrophic climate change will go from theory to reality … we are hurtling towards the cliff. If and when we go over, it won’t just result in massive loss of life and dislocation for us humans — we will also take millions of species over the cliff with us.

This is where the neo-liberal, capitalist joy ride has taken us. Heading over the edge. Only an unprecedented collective mobilization and effort can save us.

Broad public awareness of the threat posed by global climate change (hey, even the New York Times has ramped up the seriousness of their calls to action) is a big part of the reason there is already mass opposition to these fossil fuel mega-projects in this province. But much more is needed. Big Oil, Big Gas and Big Coal — and the governments, both provincial and federal, more or less beholden to them — are determined that the expansion of their industries will mark economic development in BC for decades to come.

While Enbridge’s pipeline and bitumen export plans face an enormous wall of opposition, other equally dangerous plans are flying under the radar or have managed to cobble together significant support. Of these, none is a bigger threat than the massive expansion of LNG and fracking projected for northern BC.

The Premier, BC Liberal Christy Clark, doubles as a world-traveling salesperson for the so-called “Trillion dollar” LNG boom she foresees as key to the province’s future. Her LNG dream is based on questionable economics. And, more importantly, it would lead to a nightmare scenario when it comes to staving off runaway climate change.

It turns out the government knows this, or at least has a better idea than they’ve let on. For months, they have refused to release their own scientific study of the greenhouse gas emissions of the LNG industry. The Environment Minister, Mary Polak, was briefed about the study last year, but the public has been kept in the dark.

Meanwhile, Christy Clark has been out selling LNG with her usual unbridled boosterism. In December she downplayed a major Harvard study pointing to alarming evidence of higher than thought methane emissions from fracking and LNG. When asked about LNG’s impact on climate change, she made this bizarre assertion: “We do see it as the biggest opportunity we have ever had as a province to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions around the globe … And we intend to take it.”

Earlier this week, that statement was exposed as utter nonsense, when the Canadian Press reported on warnings issued to the provincial government.

“Methane emissions are a particular concern since they have a global warming impact 21 times higher than carbon dioxide,” said one July briefing note.

“A small increase in the percentage of natural gas that escapes can have a significant impact on overall emissions.”

At a meeting last November, staff warned Ms. Polak that the federal government has updated its formula for calculating greenhouse gas emissions and that alone will increase methane values by 20 per cent. The province will need to follow suit, members of the Climate Action Secretariat told Ms. Polak.

Why are higher than admitted methane gas releases from fracking and LNG an especially big deal, and why would the BC government not want this to be public knowledge? Because BC has legally binding emissions reduction targets: the BC Liberals’ own legislation says they have to cut emissions by one third by 2020.

That’s simply not possible if the LNG boom goes ahead.

This Saturday’s Climate and Pipelines Assembly in Vancouver (April 26, 1pm-4pm at Harbour Centre, SFU campus, 515 W. Hastings) is an important chance to discuss this and other important issues, and to plan and debate how best to build the movement that can slow up and ultimately stop this fossil fuel juggernaut in its tracks.

This event is one of many taking place across the country in the lead up to this summer’s Peoples’ Social Forum.

The environmental movement in BC is in many ways very strong, particularly when it follows the leadership of First Nations defending their land, as is the case with the fierce opposition to the Enbridge pipeline. But for this movement to stop the juggernaut, it needs to be bigger, and more open, diverse and democratic.

I think the assemblies model promoted by the Social Forum could be helpful in getting us toward the kind of movement we need. Certainly this summer’s Peoples’ Social Forum will be an important chance for movements from across the land to cross-pollinate and discuss strategies and campaigns against our shared opponents.

Saturday’s Assembly will certainly have a diverse and committed group of people in the room to discuss these urgent matters.

Hope to see you there.

Get Intersectional! (Or, Why Your Movement Can't Go It Alone)

Bridging Divides

"Intersectionality" has evolved from a theory of how oppression works to a notion of how people can fight it.

by Kristin Moe

"There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives." –Audre Lorde

Here’s the scenario: This year’s epic drought devastates agriculture in California. Water use is rationed, so the cost of grain goes up, and, because cattle eat grain, the cost of beef goes up too. To cut expenses, the owners of a fast food restaurant cut a worker's wages and benefits by a couple bucks an hour. Next month he won’t be able to send money to his wife and kids back in Mexico, where the same drought is also decimating farms—and may be contributing to even more northward migration.

What’s the origin of the restaurant worker’s predicament?

"Intersectionality" is a way of thinking holistically about how different forms of oppression interact in people’s lives.

Is it climate change, which makes droughts more severe and more likely to persist? Is it the labor policies that allowed the worker's wages to be cut? Or is it that NAFTA has flooded the Mexican market with cheap, U.S.-grown corn since 1996, forcing him to leave his family’s farm and migrate to California in the first place?

The likely answer is that it’s a little bit of everything. “People don’t have one dimensional identities as human beings,” says Brooke Anderson—a Labor Fellow at the Oakland-based nonprofit, the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project—and the issues that affect them aren’t one-dimensional, either.

There’s a word for this kind of thinking: "intersectionality." And while the word has been around for more than 25 years, it’s being used more and more frequently all over in social justice movements today, from climate to reproductive rights to immigration. It’s a way of thinking holistically about how different forms of oppression interact in people’s lives. More recently, it's also led to a more collaborative form of organizing that reflects that, rather than taking on one issue at a time.

“Intersectionality” has become a buzzword in activist circles, at conferences, and in progressive media. Google searches for this term have gone up 400 percent since 2009. Last year’s Power Shift youth climate conference featured a workshop called “Why the Climate Movement Must Be Intersectional.” It’s a trendy word in academia, the subject of countless papers and panel discussions, and in the feminist blogosphere.

But is it more than that? Does adoption of this concept signal a sea change in social movement thinking away from single-issue platforms and toward a more holistic worldview, one that fosters strong alliances and therefore might help build a movement broad and complex enough to take on the myriad forms of economic, racial, and gender oppression we face?

Possibly—but first, it’s important to understand what intersectionality really means. The term has evolved since Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, first coined the term in a legal article published in 1989. In the article, she tried to contextualize a 1964 lawsuit against General Motors, in which five black women sued for discrimination. They were prohibited from working in the factory, they claimed, which was reserved for black men. But they were also prohibited from working in the front offices, which were for white women.

The workers' case was dismissed, Crenshaw says, because the discrimination they faced didn’t apply to all women, or all blacks—just to black women. It was a loophole in legal protection. But for Crenshaw, it also revealed a larger pattern: that individuals have multiple identities, and the oppression they experience is the interaction of all of those identities.

The meaning of the term has evolved from a way of describing the problem to a way of describing the solution.

Crenshaw was able to articulate what so many black women already knew: You can’t tease these identities apart, or prioritize one over the others. We are all of these things. A “single axis” approach to social change, then—advocating just for women’s rights, or just for racial equality—only addresses part of the problem.

Intersectionality grew out of black women’s lived experience, became a flashpoint in academia (where it is still heavily debated), and has since trickled back out into the world of organizing. The meaning has expanded over the years from a concept specific to black women to something applicable to all types of marginalized identities—Asian, queer, immigrant, trans, low-income, Muslim.

Bringing it to the movements

Some call intersectionality "divisive," because they believe it highlights the differences between people rather than the similarities. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The meaning of the term has evolved from a way of describing the problem—the interactions between different forms of oppression—to a way of describing the solution.

The challenge now seems to be to take the complex analysis of those problems, and create a movement that reflects that complexity. For Anderson and her colleagues at Movement Generation, intersectional thinking has been part of the analysis from the beginning. Of her work with labor unions, she says:

We can either keep fighting for the five cents here and the ten cents there … or we can view this as an opportunity to pick our heads up from those very small contract fights that we’re struggling so hard on and look around and say: What’s the broader system, the reason why our … wages are going down?

Maura Cowley, executive director of the youth-based  Energy Action Coalition, says environmental groups across the spectrum are realizing that not only does climate change disproportionately affect certain groups—predominantly low-income people of color—but “the same disproportionate impacts that we see in climate change … are prevalent across a whole spectrum of issues.” There’s a recognition that “simply advocating on any single issue doesn’t really solve the full spectrum of problems.”

Examples of issue organizing across issues abound: National Nurses United lobbying to stop Keystone XL; The Black Women’s Health Imperative taking on the myriad ways in which the bodies of women of color are put at risk; “Undocuqueers”—undocumented, LGBTQ immigrants—lobbying for citizenship rights for same-sex couples.

Imperfect intersections

Anderson and Cowley make a good case that Intersectionality can help movements think in new ways about long-term solutions to social and environmental problems. But the idea has been around for 25 years—why is it catching on now?

The task now is to create movements that reflect not just the complexity of issues, but of people’s lives.

For one thing, this might just be how young people think. “This is not a generation where people care about one issue or feel impacted by one issue,” says Cowley. Millennials don’t join one organization and read the newsletter every month, she says; they’re affiliated with multiple organizations. And, they’re on social media, a terrain upon which ideas converge. She says people scroll through their news feeds and think, “Wait a second. It’s not just climate, it’s also prisons, it’s also immigration, it’s also food justice … down the line.”

Another factor might be the Occupy Movement that began in late 2011, which brought citizens and activists from all sectors together in the same space. Many stayed for weeks or months, and regardless of the movement’s outcomes, those tent cities provided a physical intersection at which different people with different ideas converged.

Anderson and her colleagues at Movement Generation caution against giving too much credit to millennials, however. She points to a long, creative tradition of intersectional organizing. She also points out that the term intersectional might not be the best way to capture the complexity of systems thinking: “There’s two lines that cross, and there’s only one small point at which they intersect, which I think shrinks our vision of what’s possible,” she says, which is “to build social movements that are based not just on that one intersection but on an entire system.” The risk, she says, is that you focus on that one point of intersection “rather than a shared vision for a solution.”

She also emphasizes that intersectionality isn’t something that you can slap onto the surface of a particular campaign. “At worst, it’s symbolic and it’s transactional,” Anderson says—as in, “we’ll come out to your thing and you come out to our thing.” Solidarity is crucial, but “it has to go beyond the transactional … and become deeply transformative.”

The movements for social justice are at their own sort of intersection.

The Cowboy Indian Alliance, for example, has spent years building personal relationships between members of two infamously opposed groups: white, western ranchers and Native American tribal groups. Later this month, when they lead a five-day action to oppose Keystone XL in Washington, DC, it won’t be a one-off event but rather the result of intentional alliance building that goes beyond political convenience.

One way to take alliance building a step further is to reframe issues so that they’re no longer issues, which can be divisive, but values, which have more power to unite.

Eveline Shen is the executive director of Forward Together, an Oakland-based nonprofit that originally worked with Asian Americans around reproductive justice, but has since shifted toward a broader framework. Shen and her colleagues brought together leaders from different organizations and asked, “What are the core themes that intersect all of our work?” The answer was clear: families. Thus, the Strong Families Initiative was born—and it has since gone from 10 to more than 100 organizations and eight different sectors, each working to support strong families in their own ways, united not around an issue but around a value. This, Shen points out, is something that the Right has been doing well for decades.

But Shen also sees real structural barriers to this kind of organizing, the largest of which is funding. Recently, the Strong Families Initiative began work on a guide to the Affordable Care Act for LGBT people. When she tried to raise money from LGBT funders, they said, “We’re not working on health care.” When she turned to funders that do work on health care, they said, “We’re not funding LGBT issues.”

Since funders control the purse strings, they also to some degree control how social change organizations go about their work. And as long as funders are driven by single issues, Shen says, the work of social change will also be that way. Furthermore, short grant cycles of one to two years “keep us from thinking holistically” because the goals are by necessity short-term.

The movements for social justice are at their own sort of intersection. The nonprofit models that have flourished over the last half-century—foundation-funded, membership-based, and focused on tackling a particular issue in a particular place—are ready for a reevaluation, especially in the context of issues like climate change that are fundamentally global and intractably connected to diverse social problems.

Intersectionality may be a guide as organizers and activists muddle through the messy process of change. There’s a lingering idea, though, that intersectionality is divisive because it breaks up some long-held ideal of a “united front”—of women, of people of color, or of immigrants, each group fighting its own battles. It’s possible, however, that these united fronts never really existed to begin with, and that by erasing diversity, they also erased the complexity that gave them strength.

The task now is to create movements that reflect not just the complexity of issues, but of people’s lives. It may be that, as movements become more nuanced and interconnected, their strength will come not from a pretense of unity that erases difference, but an embrace of difference that makes their points of unity stronger than ever.

Kristin Moe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Kristin writes about climate, grassroots movements, and social change. Follow her on Twitter @yo_Kmoe.

Western Caravan "On to Ottawa" for The People's Social Forum this summer

The People’s Social Forum will take place this summer, August 21-24 in Ottawa. This promises to be an unprecedented convergence of social movements and activists from Quebec, First Nations and across Canada. The Social Forum will be an opportunity to share experiences, to learn, and to strategize and build practical alliances and coalitions in the struggle against the Harper government’s agenda and the systemic injustice it upholds.

To help get delegates to the Social Forum in Ottawa, and to ensure that the concerns of peoples all across this land are represented, we are organizing an ‘On to Ottawa Caravan’ from BC to Ottawa this summer. The Caravan is tentatively schedule to leave from Victoria and Vancouver on August 14, stopping in towns and cities across the prairies and Ontario, picking up more delegates on the way to the Social Forum.

Specific schedules and cost of transportation with the Caravan will be available shortly. For more information on the western Caravan, please email: Email: