Friday, May 22, 2009

Canadian Social Forum

The Canadian Social Forum, hosted by the Canadian Council on Social Development, took place this week in Calgary from Wednesday to Friday. About 600 people were in attendance, representing the mind-boggling diversity of social justice work in Canada. I found it energizing and informative, but at the same time disappointing and frustrating.

Maybe it`s an age thing. Maybe I`ve been to enough of these gatherings that my patience for once again poking through the huge pile of junk that is the minutiae of poor Canadians` daily experience of poverty has completely run out. We know. We know. We know. We don`t need to waste hours and hours at a national forum that cost thousands of dollars and added all that carbon to the atmosphere to describe, ad nauseum, the daily humiliations and privations of homeless people, the working poor, the welfare poor, the immigrants struggling to start a new life, the people who have disabilities, First Nations peoples, etc. I get it.

I find it so hard to sit and listen to this after having done it hundreds of times already. Is it important? Of course it is! Do we understand racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, etc.? Of course we do! Do we need to go over it again? No! Stop!

We need to strategize! We need to negotiate the terms of our activism. We need a plan! We need to throw our energy and passion into all those tasks we do to inform people and press governments to redistribute wealth and opportunity in this incredibly wealthy country.

I was struck by a conversation I had with a woman from Toronto who pointed out that we have a two-tiered welfare system in Canada. I said, "Meaning what? ...The Indian Act and our provincial/territorial welfare systems for everyone else? system of homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the destitute and a welfare system for the people in grinding poverty? .... one welfare system for people with major barriers to employment and another, much meaner one for `employables`?" "No," she says, "One system for the poor, and one for the rich." Ahhhh. I see. Right on. Corporate welfare, fat salaries and expense accounts, vastly superior schools and neighbourhoods -- all those perks and benefits flowing to the well-off. Nobody complains much about that.

Another aha moment took place yesterday in the workshop, "Voluntary Organizations and the Provision of Social Services -- Are we in trouble?" I couldn`t believe that three expert presenters could spend almost an hour talking about the people working in the voluntary sector -- in child care, in community organizations and services for vulnerable people, in advocacy groups, and the like -- working for low wages, precariously employed, under stress, burning out, and all those things that sound so terribly familiar, yet not once did anyone point out the striking gendered nature of this workforce! When I pointed that out, everybody said "Oh, for sure!" One of the presenters said this is a workforce that`s 76% female. Thank you. But why did I have to raise that after politely sitting through an hour of bla bla bla? Why have these people been skating around something so obvious?

The workshop on housing and homelessness that I went to on Wednesday was almost entirely a re-hash of information I`ve been reading and hearing about for over two decades. As I mentioned above, I`m not saying it`s a bad thing to talk about all that stuff. But I`m ready for action. We need a strategy and we need to get at it. How are we going to mobilize people to help us convince governments that developing affordable housing through community organizations is a worthy investment? Do we all agree on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done and by whom? If so, lets say that in one loud voice. If not, let`s figure out how we can work together. I`m also completely sick of hearing about issues that have nothing to do with rural and small town Nova Scotia. Everything is about big cities.

We apparently have four provinces with poverty reduction strategies now, with Manitoba announcing on the last day of the Forum, the launch of one after ten years of pressure from advocacy groups. Like Nova Scotia`s new strategy, it`s far from perfect. It`s a start, but we are all going to have to work hard to keep pushing it in the right direction. We must recognize and react strongly against `chronic incrementalism` if we find government is trying to pass off measures that are too little, too late as though they are a reasonable and adequate response.

I was so inspired by Francoise David, the woman who led the first Women`s March in Qu├ębec in the mid-90s. She was very clear in a plenary session when she reminded us all that women pay taxes and we make our contributions to the economy and we deserve to get the full benefit from our contribution.

I had the pleasure of meeting some people who`s Internet resources and research reports have been a great help to me over many years: Penny Goldsmith, Nick Falvo, Gilles Seguin, and Katherine Scott. Richard Shillington and Sherri Torjman were there. It was nice to be among my fellow Nova Scotian movers and shakers too: Paul O`Hara, Sharon Murphy, Peggy Mahon, Madonna MacDoanld, and Stella Lord.

The conference opened and closed with a smudging ceremony, which was peaceful and grounding. There are so many people doing incredible work in this country. I very much appreciate this opportunity to be among them for a few days.

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