Founded in 2001 to bring together progressive activists to discuss ideas and strategies for building a better world, the World Social Forum was held in Montreal, Canada this past week in its North American debut.
Montreal was chosen because of the "Maple Spring" protests in which tens of thousands were mobilized against tuition hikes and budgetary cuts, and which led ultimately to a tuition freeze and change in provincial leadership.
On Tuesday August 9th, conference participants staged a march from Lafontaine Park in the city's east end to Place des Arts in the downtown core, followed up by cultural events and concerts by artists promoting a social justice message.
Hundreds of panels over the next three days addressed topics ranging from the militarization of Canadian foreign policy and dangers of a new nuclear arms race, to climate change, to the Quebec and Cuban revolutions, NATO, the ravages of neoliberal capitalism, women and sustainable development, fair trade, indigenous peoples' rights, mining exploitation, the need for banking and monetary reform, the Syrian civil war, forgotten Yemeni war and Arab Spring and its legacy and many, many more.
Green Party leader Jill Stein and former democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders were supposed to give talks at the forum and gave their endorsement though couldn't make it.
A main source of controversy centered on the Canadian governments' refusal to provide visas to dozens of speakers and the handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
On the eve of the event, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chairman of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) penned an editorial in the English language Montreal Gazette denouncing the bias against Israel and claiming the conference gave a forum to 9/11 conspiracy theorists and anti-semites. Allegedly one of the panels was accompanied by offensive imagery which was removed from the programs' website and included a speaker who blamed Israel for causing ISIS.
The Gazette focused most of their coverage on the Israeli issue with articles quoting local representatives who echoed Poupko's critique. The Thursday August 11th and Friday August 12th issues had no substantive coverage of the forum's opening march, film screenings or panels. The lone article focused on minor protests involving ten or twenty pro-Israel advocates and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement who were active at the forum.
While the controversy about Israel and BDS was worthy of attention and I believe the organizers should have made the effort to draw Jewish groups to the conference, The Gazette's coverage subscribes quite well to Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's argument about the "Manufacture of Consent." It had the effect of stereotyping left-wing activists while underplaying or ignoring the substantive social criticism and tremendous energy and idealism guiding the conference and its featuring dedicated human rights and social justice and environmental activists from around the world, none of whom were profiled in The Gazette.
The panels I personally attended were very informative.
A session on nuclear weapons at McGill University included a talk by Dr. Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Services Committee, who emphasized that the U.S. nuclear weapons buildup is designed not actually for deterrence, but provides a "strategic umbrella" that enables the U.S. to carry out covert actions and other aggression around the world. Discussing Obama's trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program, Gerson invoked the memory of Dr. Joseph Rotblat, a Nobel Prize winner and the lone scientist to quit the Manhattan project for moral reasons who said that nuclear abolition was the only way to human survival.
Another session featured an Egyptian-Canadian rights activist and the head of Ottawa's Rideau Institute think tank discussing Canada's military support for Saudi Arabia and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who has perpetrated wide human rights atrocities while presiding over Egypt's counter-revolution. Economic interests appear to be overriding as el-Sissi recently granted a contract to the Canadian company Bombardier to build a $1.5 billion mono-rail through Cairo.
Thursday morning I attended a talk focused on mineral exploitation in the Eastern Congo and efforts by young activists to challenge the political ruling class and international interests which have contributed to the civil war that has caused millions of deaths.
A highlight of the WSF was a film screening of Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis' This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, followed by a Q&A session with the directors.
The inspirational documentary centers on the struggles of local activists fighting back against mega-projects and the fossil fuel industry and its political backers in Canada and around the world.
The screening was followed by a panel which included testimony from a Syrian refugee based in Paris who spoke of the brutal repression of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising by the Assad government and hijacking of the revolution by jihadi elements.
The dividing lines of the civil war were recreated when a Tunisian man who had spent five years in Habib Bourguiba's prison critiqued two of the other panelists for representing solely the viewpoint of the Syrian opposition.
Emphasizing Saudi Wahhabist and Western intelligence services support for the opposition, he said that Assad, however brutal, was a nationalist as he had stood up to the U.S. empire and Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, and had taken measures to industrialize Syria's economy. (The exchange got heated, Tunisian man shouted down one of the speakers and had to be removed.)
In this time of rampant global inequality, climate change, mass shooting and terrorism, right wing nativism and endless war, we need the WSF and many other exchanges of its nature to educate the public and foster public dialogue and ideas for solving our pressing societal crises.
In the future, organizers should take pains to be as inclusive as possible, which means offering the opportunity for groups on different sides of conflicts to be involved in open dialogues so that mutual understanding could be fostered.
Strides should also be taken to draft a political manifesto encompassing a vision for a new world order that can unify disparate peoples into a common struggle against corporate-capitalism, militarism, and tyranny as it exists in all forms around the world - a new Internationale perhaps striving for a "global green new deal" and end to imperialism and exploitation of every form.