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2011: Reflecting on Social Movement Successes in Canada

Social Movements

With uprisings spreading across the Arab world and North African subcontinent from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to Bahrain and Yemen, as well as states in the US including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, revolutionary fervour has inspired progressives across Canada in the first few months of 2011. On the face of it, the protests in the Middle East are opposed to dictatorial regimes, while the mobilizations in the US are opposed to budget bills that aim to slash public services and wages. Yet these movements do have much in common with one another. The anti-democratic nature of Mubarak and Walker are intricately linked to the wider political structures and systems of global capitalism. Millions of people from Tahrir Square to the Wisconsin Capitol building are opposing these two men as much as what they represent: a neoliberal capitalist system and the nepotism of US-backed political and financial elite. The current global economic crisis has only served to widen the gaps of inequality, further erode social services including healthcare, public sector jobs, and education, while military occupations from Iraq to Afghanistan continue to expand.

In Canada, we have yet to see any significant opposition to Stephen Harper’s war-mongering agenda or his attacks on working people with his austerity budgets. Instead, this past year has largely been marked by unprecedented police arrests during the G20, relentless military occupation, daily state and oppressive violence in the streets and in homes, mass detention of Tamil asylum seekers, social service cutbacks parallel to corporate bailouts, catastrophic environmental degradation through theft of Indigenous lands especially the Alberta tarsands, growing societal poverty and social isolation, and movement despair, trauma, fear, disillusionment, frustration. Despite that, the following list does pay tribute to some modest social movement successes in Canada over the year 2010. This list comes with the usual disclaimers–it is not comprehensive, is urban-centred, is arbitrarily defined by geography and time, and is limited by the author’s experiences. Still, it provides a glimpse into increasingly effective, community-rooted, emancipatory, disruptive, and transformative movements in our political landscape.

G20 and Olympics convergences

The No Olympics on Stolen Land convergence in Vancouver and anti-G20 mobilizing in Toronto marked resurgence in coordinated movement organizing. The logistics of the convergences were victories in themselves: coordinating billets and food; creating infrastructure including legal, communications, and medics; and prioritizing accessibility needs such as sexual assault and child care. Despite state surveillance and intimidation, the convergences saw an escalation in tactics and confrontation, including two riots in downtown cores. One of the greatest strengths was the refusal to dilute an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial analysis. Rather than a fleeting moment, these two mobilizations have educated people across the country on Indigenous issues and linked global anti-capitalist movements in era of austerity to local community resistance. It has been critical for organizers to understand Indigenous self-determination as necessarily flowing from all social, political, and environmental struggles.

Organizers also grappled with the challenge of bringing out tens of thousands of people to the daily struggles against poverty, racism, violence, exploitation and oppression. In BC, anti-Olympics lead-up organizing was strongly grounded in antipoverty organizing and Indigenous communities. The rooting of the Convergence itself in anti-poverty and anti-gentrification struggles in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through the Olympic Tent Village and also mobilizing to express solidarity with Indigenous women during the Annual Women’s Missing and Murdered Women’s Memorial March helped strengthen alliances. In Toronto, diverse actions by Indigenous defenders, queer and trans activists, environmental justice organizers, anarchists, rankand- file labour, disability rights organizations, migrant justice groups, and anti-poverty activists took place during the one-week convergence. Both convergences seem to have left organizers, especially young people, with greater conviction, courage, commitment, and creativity despite the intense criminalization.

The Olympic Tent Village is worth expanding on in greater detail. Organized primarily by women residents of the DTES, the Tent Village brought together hundreds of residents, housing activists, and anti-authoritarians to defend an autonomous, decentralized, and self-determined space amidst a climate of intense state security. It was an affirmation of community, deemed “paradise” by several DTES residents. As a direct result of the month-long grassroots campaign and the popular support for the Tent Village amongst incredibly diverse communities and social justice groups, the government was pressured to house over 80 homeless Tent Village residents.

Environmental justice

As part of the international movement under the banner of “system change, not climate change”, a growing number of environmentalists are rejecting green capitalism. Green-washing attempts such as the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement and the Ontario Far North Act were challenged by anti-capitalist environmentalists, as well as by Indigenous communities who saw such efforts as continuing to marginalize front-line voices. An inspiring example of anti-colonial environmental justice organizing has been resistance to the Alberta Tar Sands and Enbridge Pipeline in BC. Campaigning at various levels, grassroots voices from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Lubicon Cree to Wet’suwet’en and Carrier Sekani have participated in international speaking tours, called for the boycott of the Royal Bank of Canada and Royal Bank of Scotland, and coordinated with environmentalists in climate camps from Ottawa to Cancun to organize healing walks and direct actions.

Shutting down industrial projects: “Leave coal in the hole, leave oil in the soil, leave tar sands in the land”

A number of localized movements have confronted corporate development and environmental degradation: Mohawks in Kanesatake rejected a niobium mine; the Okanagan Indian Band blockaded against Tolko Industries logging in their watershed; fisherfolk in PEI filed a lawsuit against BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill which affected tuna’s northern migration; Halalt First Nation blockaded the Chemainus River to protect their aquifers; environmentalists repeatedly opposed the Raven Underground Coal Project in the Comox Valley; Innu communities blockaded against New Millennium Capital and Labrador Iron Mines Holdings; and highway developments from Gateway in BC to the Humbolt Highway in Saskatchewan have been resisted.

A large number of industrial projects have actually been delayed or completely halted as a result of community resistance engaging in diverse tactics, most notably: the rejection of Taseko’s proposed $1 billion Prosperity mine at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake); the stalling of the largest proposed run-of-river private hydro power project in Canadian history by GE and Plutonic Power in the Bute Inlet; and thousands of Nelson, Kaslo and Invermere residents rallied against the Glacier/Howser power project forcing the cancellation of the AXOR contract. The successful and long-standing Sutikalh camp against resort development and Grassy Narrows clear-cut logging blockade marked their 10 and 8 year anniversaries, respectively.

Boycott Divestment Sanctions: “Fight the power, Turn the tide, End Israeli apartheid”

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement continues to gather steam across sectors by providing a platform where activists can effectively engage in international solidarity activism by operating through their own local communities and institutions. Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto successfully reversed the censorship of “Israeli apartheid” from the Pride Parade. Consumer-oriented BDS campaigns including flash mobs and pickets continued against Indigo/Chapters, Ahava, and Mountain Equipment Co-op; an open Artists Against Israeli Apartheid Declaration was signed by 500 artists; and BDS resolutions were passed by CSN-Conseil Centrale and Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Several campuses and cities participated in Israeli Apartheid Week events and in the global day of action for the campaign to boycott Israeli apartheid on Land Day. The year ended with a national conference in Montreal “Carrying forward the momentum against Israeli Apartheid.”

Prefigurative politics: “Building a new world in the shell of the old”

Though often less glamorized, it requires tremendous commitment to create social organizations and to reinvent social relations beyond the ruminations of political rhetoric. The past year has witnessed the strengthening of a range of spaces where dynamic revolutionary change is manifesting: independent media including participatory media through media co-ops, anarchist bookfairs from Victoria to Edmonton, community acupuncture and herbology, childcare collectives in Vancouver and Montreal, legal defense networks such as the Movement Defense Committee, organic gardens and farms, autonomous peer-run safe spaces and drop-ins for street and queer/trans youth, communal houses and squats, Indigenous language and food revival, independent bookstores and infoshops, radical educational alternatives such as the Purple Thistle Institute and Cinema Politica, publications encouraging debate such as Upping the Anti and the Bullet, and the nurturing of cultural spaces for progressive artists and social gatherings. Meanwhile, the ongoing–and largely gendered–work of supporting and sustaining each other through skillshares, interpersonal relations, and coalition and community building continues to challenge norms of productivity in social movements. African nationalist Amilcar Cabral once said “Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.… Our experience have shown us that in the general framework of daily struggle, this battle against ourselves, this struggle against our own weaknesses is the most difficult of all.”

Strikes and workers assemblies

With unemployment and outsourcing in an era of austerity, a number of prolonged labour disputes have marked this past year: the nine-month Sudbury strike against mining giant Vale Inco despite court judgements declaring the strike “illegal,” the six-month picket by warehouse workers against Sears, almost 10 months of conflict between real estate developer Cadillac Fairview and maintenance and skilled trades workers, the striking administrative workers at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine trying to achieve a first collective agreement, and the vibrant and consistent organizing of thousands of hotel workers under the banner “Hotel Workers Rising” across cities in Canada in protests and strikes against no less than ten hotel chains. Particularly inspiring have been wild-cat strikes by migrant agricultural workers. Despite the repatriation that many faced, over 100 migrant workers in Simcoe came together across racial, linguistic and ethnic lines to organize work-stoppages to demand thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. On Thanksgiving weekend, migrant farm workers and allies undertook a historic 50 kilometer “Pilgrimage to Freedom.”

As the leadership of many unions continues to stagnate in social democratic reforms and passive unionism, Workers Assemblies are attempting to orient working-class movements around anti-capitalism, movement solidarity, anti-oppression, and internationalism. Beyond the traditional industrial proletariat, the working class is understood as including precarious and flexible labourers, the invisible labour of women in the domestic sphere, part-time youth workers, those who work to protect and defend the land, and those whose labour and contributions are undervalued simply because they are on social assistance or disability or are unemployed. Capitalism has not only affected wages and quality of life, but has commodified and stratified entire cultures and communities. As we recognize that a majority of us work to live, not live to work, a vibrant working class movement must embrace the full humanity of our potentials, capacities, dreams and desires.

Anti-Racism and migrant justice: “No one is illegal, Canada is illegal”

The sustained mobilizing of the Education Not Deportation campaign and Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign won major victories in Toronto. The Toronto District School Board provided guidelines to ensure that students without immigration status are not denied access to schools. Similarly, organizing with migrant women has successfully pushed immigration officers out of spaces for women surviving violence. In Montreal, a sanction-busting campaign in support of Abousfian Abdelrazik has openly defied the United Nation’s 1267 no-fly list. Amidst a national border panic, thousands of people in eight cities took to the streets in support of the 492 Tamil refugees aboard the MV Sun Sea. For three months in Vancouver, weekly demonstrations took place outside the detention centre where mothers and children were detained. Widespread opposition to Bill C49, tabled under the banner of combating “human smuggling,” has thus far stalled a parliamentary vote.

Based on historic movements like Anti-Racist Action, activists across the country prevented the spreading of hate propaganda. Calgary residents opposed the invitation of anti-Six Nations crusaders Mark Vandermaas and Gary McHale to Mount Royal University, while students at University of Waterloo protested anti-native author Christie Blatchford by chaining themselves to the podium. Victoria anti-racists countered a rally by white supremacist Paul Fromm days after the MV Sun Sea landed. Over 2,000 activists rallied to effectively force American conservative Ann Coulter to cancel her appearance at the University of Ottawa. On March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, over 300 anti racists showed in a force of strength to confront an announced neo-Nazi rally in Vancouver, though no white supremacists showed up.

Justice for missing and murdered women

Three decades since Indigenous women started raising the alarm about missing and murdered women, living in extreme poverty and predominantly Indigenous, the issue is at the forefront of feminist organizing. Ten communities organized Memorial Marches this year, with 5000 people attending in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside from where a disproportionate number of women are missing. A National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in October saw countless vigils and marches, as well as an occupation of the Vancouver Police Department. Walk4Justice walked from Kamloops to Winnipeg to raise awareness about the Highway of Tears, while communities across Saskatchewan, Québec, Alberta, Ontario, BC, and Manitoba are coming together to strengthen grassroots communication. Public pressure and international attention has finally forced a public inquiry into police misconduct, racism, and sexism in the Robert Pickton investigation.

Police and prison abolition

Escalating police repression during protests; daily police impunity including beatings, taserings, sexual assaults, and murders of homeless, low-income, and racialized people; and increasing incarcerations with prison expansion has burgeoned the resolve towards abolition. While thousands demanded accountability for police actions during the G20, radicals pushed an analysis of social control as inherent to these institutions. After two queer activists were arrested for a Trans Day of Remembrance banner drop, local organizations issued a statement about the Ottawa police. The proposal to shut down prison farms was met with massive civil disobedience in Kingston. Marches against police brutality and prison noise demonstrations occurred in ten cities. In Montreal, both the Forum against Police Violence and the Justice for the Victims of Police Killings were powerful efforts to bring together families of people killed by police with allies organizing for systemic change.

Political participation

Thousands of Ontario and British Columbia residents from diverse political backgrounds opposed the HST. Similarly, tens of thousands gathered for over fifty No Prorogue rallies, representing an impressive level of political consciousness. While mobilizing around “democratic deficit” is limiting and often relegated only in opposition to the Conservatives, there is growing disillusionment more generally of governments and corporations with anger directed against bank bailouts, Olympic spending, environmental disasters, military expenditures, public service cutbacks, and political party cronyism. In Montreal, thousands of students, labour activists, and anti-capitalists marched to protest the Liberal’s provincial budget which raised tuition fees and forced cutbacks. Young feminists have formed a large network under the theme of Toujours RebELLE (Waves of Resistance) and identify against all “neoliberal, conservative, reactionary, authoritarian and macho ideologies.”


Across Canada this past year we have seen continued growth of social movements and collaboration amongst grassroots groups. Anti-poverty coalitions, Indigenous defenders of the land, and migrant justice groups have been at the forefront of organizing within an array of social causes, though advocating for and consisting of some of the most marginalized communities. These movements have also prioritized alliances within and amongst each other. More than simply building coalitions across single-issues or lowest-common denominator politics, what has been inspiring and encouraging is the deepening of an interconnected and intersectional analysis that draws strength from each movement and flourishes more than the sums of each of its parts. As stated by Chris Hedges, “Hope is about existing in a perpetual state of rebellion, a constant antagonism to all centers of power.” Working through and across differences–while maintaining the diversity of an inter-generational anti-oppression and radical politics–has strengthened the terrain for inclusive, participatory, and revolutionary struggle in Canada for the upcoming year.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She is active in a variety of different social movements, particularly migrant justice, anti-racism, Indigenous solidarity, Palestine solidarity, and anti-imperialist struggles. She can be reached at harsha[at]resist[dot]ca. An earlier version of this article was originally published on Vancouver Media Co-op.


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