Peoples’ Social Forum

Drumming ceremony at 2014 Peoples' Social Forum. Dennis Gruending photo.
Drumming ceremony at 2014 Peoples’ Social Forum. Dennis Gruending photo.

Thousands of Canadians converged upon Ottawa earlier in August for a Peoples’ Social Forum that attracted a diverse group of individuals from the Indigenous, labour and student movements, as well as churches and human rights organizations. Over four days, the forum featured about 500 workshops and assemblies — an overwhelming variety that made for difficult choices. Ultimately, I decided to focus on those that featured Indigenous people. The experience was intense while the emotions, at times, were raw.

An Indigenous Solidarity Movement Assembly at the forum packed roughly 200 people into a University of Ottawa classroom. The event was billed as an opportunity to build relationships and share ideas about how to become an effective solidarity activist for Indigenous people. The session was  blessed by an elder and introduced by drummers.

Dr. Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley, told her audience that “settlers” need to speak out in support of Indigenous people who are trying to protect their lands and improve their own lives. “Follow the turtle and put the most oppressed at the front of the line,” she said. “We want you to stand behind us, and you can do that because you have privilege.”  Gehl added that “settlers need to decolonize, not just their minds but also their hearts.” She said that people could begin by reading Volume I of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The commission was established in 1991, and its encyclopedic report containing many recommendations was published in 1996. But it has received little official attention to date.

Still, the Indigenous Solidarity Movement Assembly was largely overtaken by the crises of the moment. There were two people present from the Unist’ot’en Camp, a resistance community on the land in northern British Columbia. The campers here want to protect unceded Indigenous territory from proposed pipelines from the tar sands and from shale gas hydraulic fracturing projects in the Peace River region.

Also on hand was a representative, named Shannon, from the Algonquin Nation of the Ottawa River Watershed. They are opposing logging that is happening near the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue area of Quebec, which is several hours from Ottawa. Shannon told the assembly that a group comprised mostly of grandmothers is on the land to prevent clear-cut logging on unceded territory. Shannon even wept during her presentation and was comforted by an elder and several other women.

One of the young organizers of the Indigenous Solidarity Assembly said later that it was the first time that attendees were confronted so directly by the reality on the ground. “Many people were challenged to the core, and they want to do something,” she said. “The time is now.”

At the very least, the Peoples’ Social Forum provided an important venue allowing for Indigenous-settler solidarity to be strengthened.

This piece appeared on my United Church Observer blog on August 28, 2014.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament