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Tony Clarke’s remarks at Canadian Dimension May Day Dinner

Social Movements

Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, joint recipients of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award were honoured at the May Day, 2006 Ottawa Annual Benefit Dinner for Canadian Dimension. Here is the text of Tony’s remarks on that occasion.

Thank you Jim and Morna for your introductory remarks, which were both thoughtful and humorous, and to you Chris for composing that song of yours on the spot. I also want to join with Geoff in thanking Gil and the rest of the Canadian Dimension collective here in Ottawa for organizing this evenings dinner. And, of course, I heartily endorse everything that Maude has just said about the Right Livelihood Award the two of us received and wish to reiterate that it really belongs to all our friends in the movement, both here in Canada and internationally.

As I recall, the CD annual dinner in Ottawa has been purposely organized to coincide with May Day every year. For many of us, May Day has a special meaning. Generally, May 1st is the day that workers around the world celebrate their struggles for workers rights and justice. More recently, it has also become an occasion in some countries when social movements of various kinds come together to celebrate their struggles for economic, social and ecological justice.

Morna was right. As usual, I do have three points, which I will try to make very briefly this evening.

First, about the state of our social movements I dare say that most of us, if not all of us, have participated in one or more movements during our life times, through which we engaged in struggles for economic, social, cultural, or ecological rights, or more specifically human rights, or global justice and peace at large. Id like to suggest that we all take a moment to recall the specific social movements that we have participated in as individuals in both the past and the present.

As I look back over my own life, for example, there have been several significant social movements in which I have participated and from which I have learned a great deal – the post-civil rights movement in Chicago which was organized around urban race and class issues; the faith-justice movement of the churches that was rooted in the theology of liberation; the aboriginal rights movement of the 70s and the struggle with the Dene to defeat the Mackenzie Valley pipeline; the workers rights movement of the early 80s and the struggle against rising double digit unemployment; the Action Canada movement that mobilized against the two free trade deals with the U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s; the global justice movement and its campaigns against the MAI, the WTO and the World Bank; the water justice movement which has mushroomed throughout the world in the past five years or so; plus the ongoing peace and security movement which has focused more recently on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and ballistic missile defence.

Its been a real privilege to have been apart of all these social movements. But, this is only my journey. Each of us here has had similar types of experiences. Before rushing off to get ready for the next round of campaigns, its important for each of us to reflect on our social movement experiences in terms of not only the victories and the losses, but also what we were able to contribute to these movements, what we have learned from these movement experiences and how they, in turn, have contributed to our own growth and development as individuals and as communities. I would therefore urge each of you to take the opportunity, especially as we approach May Day 2006, to reflect on your own journey with a view to assessing where things are at with civil society movements today in this country.

Second, about the political moment were now in. As you know, there appears to be increasing talk these days about uniting the left. Its coming, in different ways, from both NDP and Liberal circles. Just as the unite the right seemed to characterize much of what went on in Canadian politics for the past two decades, so we seem to be entering a period in which unite the left will be a major preoccupation.

Here, Im not so much concerned about whats going on in parliamentary politics with transplants like Bob Rae and Buzz Hargrove or the Liberal leadership race. My concerns have more to do with whats happening to the left in extra parliamentary politics and social movements. When the unite the left starts to take on a band wagon effect, the question arises as to whats left of the political left in this country. What are the common vision and principles that unite us together in the political left these days? Whats happened to our ability to fight for this vision and principles in terms of resistance and militancy? Except for that brief moment of extraordinary popular opposition to the invasion of Iraq [largely in Quebec] in 2003, there have been precious few examples of collective action or resistance on the left in recent years. Its as if we had been spooked by the events of 9/11 and have not yet fully recovered. Nor do I think has the left in this country really come to grips with the implications of the war on terror and the new security paradigm that now dominate political life internationally.

It is now five years, almost to the day, that many of us here were in Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas when Jean Chretien hosted George Bush and the other political leaders of this hemisphere along with representatives of the corporate elite. All this week, Ive been haunted by a lasting image from that experience. In an impressive display of potential resistance, over 65,000 people gathered for the main protest march against the Summit and the FTAA. Yet, when the march began, a major split occurred — some decided to march back to the wall of the citadel or fortress to support the ranks of youth protesters while the majority of the marchers, many unwittingly, followed the official march that moved away from the battlefront to a cow patch on the outskirts of the city. In some ways, I feel this incident is symbolic and symptomatic of what is going on in the left these days. Weve got some work to do on clarifying our own vision, strategy and tactics!

Third, about the challenges we now face. Well, Im sure that many of us here have a list of challenges we think ought to be priorities, including several that have already been mentioned this evening like universal health care and child care. As important as these and other issue priorities are, we must not lose sight of the big picture. Once again we find ourselves with a minority government in power and the question arises as to what civil society movements are going to do about it, if anything. There should be no doubt in our minds that the Harper teams strategic priority during this minority parliament is to maneuver itself in such a way as to win a majority government in the next election. And, if theyre successful, their new social conservative revolution could shake the foundations of this country as we know it.

Worse still, the Harper government will no doubt accelerate the process of assimilation with the U.S. at a time when the Bush administration is presiding over the resurgence of the American empire. Whats at stake is not only increasing economic integration but also closer alliance with the U.S. in terms of military operations, homeland security and foreign policy as well as greater harmonization of our social programs with the U.S. and guaranteed U.S. access to and control of our energy and water resources. This is the new imperialism. Meanwhile, countries in the southern part of this hemisphere, ranging from Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Peru, to even Chile and possibly Mexico, are rejecting the neo-liberal agenda and turning leftward. So, what does this say to Canadians in the northern part of the hemisphere? Are we going to buck these new political winds or are we going to join them in challenging the Harper governments accommodation with the U.S. empire?

In short, its time for us to get our act together on the left. Yet, we cannot do this without creating new political space. At the moment, as far as I know, there is no common space where civil society groups can gather for the purpose of sharing analysis of key issues, developing strategies and organizing campaigns. Yet, it seems to me, that if our social movements are going to begin measuring up to the challenges we are facing in this political moment, it is imperative that such a common space and vehicle be created. Unless we are prepared to do this, at the very least, we cannot expect to see a real and lasting revival of the left in this country.

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