Witnessing the PSF | Vanessa Sloan Morgan

A paradox of hope? Looking back on the Peoples’ Social Forum

by Vanessa Sloan Morgan
September 24, 2014

Image Caption: A patch from the Beehive Collective, one of the fabulous activist arts collectives on site at the PSF.

The Peoples’ Social Forum promised to be an interesting event, at the very least. Packed with hundreds of workshops, dozens of interesting information booths and equally as interesting NGO and collectives, and complete with film screenings around the clock, one of the main issues leading up to the events was: will there be a cloning machine on site?

On my travels to Ottawa I hit an infamous summer induced rainstorm – a few minutes of near flash flood conditions. I found the sound that my truck would make when it drove under a bridge quite entertaining. For a split second, the near deafening sound of rain pounding all sides of the truck was completely silenced. Notwithstanding being from the westcoast and finding great comfort in the sound of rain (a comfort that is hardly limited to westcoast-ers), I could not help but think about the PSF itself as potentially being that moment of silence in the middle of a storm. When a disturbing sense of clarity overcomes the reality that is around you. Hardly one to be an optimist, my thoughts quickly jumped to the idea that as someone who finds solace in the rain, perhaps it was actually that quiet that was uncomforting. After all, it was artificially produced by the guard of concrete looming above while being propelled 100kms+ an hour in a tin can fuelled by and made with petroleum products.

People have discussed the whiteness that was present at the PSF (Pinch, 2014). Whiteness is a privilege, a sense of entitlement, a cultural hegemony that goes often unquestioned in the settler colonial context of the Canadian state. And it was indeed present at the event. In full anticipation of this impending whiteness, it appeared that PSF organizers made a concerted effort to create non-white spaces. There were explicitly ‘safe spaces’ and spaces for people of non-hegemonic identities and ancestries. Some question periods were run in progressive form, with people who ‘looked’ like white, straight, males, were often placed lower on the question docket when the time came to engage with presenters, who themselves were often (at least in the sessions that I went to) white males. Politics of assuming identity aside, and I put these aside because it is a topic that warrants its own conversation in ongoing ways, I could not help but recall the paradox of multiculturalism that currently plagues Canada – a paradox that was indeed present at the PSF.

The paradox of multiculturalism, in its most simplistic term, is premised upon liberal-inspired notions of equality. That in a state such as Canada, people of various backgrounds and cultures can find a place for themselves in the ‘inclusive’, ‘equal’, and, dare I say, ‘tolerant’ society (note: singular society) that is Canada. The paradox, however, is in the fact that one must find a spot for themselves in the already established, and deeply entrenched, predominantly ethnocentric whiteness of cultural hegemonic ‘Canadian society’. If a person is of colour, they will, as the paradox goes, have an increasingly difficult time at attaining equality by value of their assumed racial identity. If someone is of a faith whose practices do not align with the work day schedule, then their periodic breaks for faith devoted purposes may be seen as unfair, even if the same person works on Sundays, for instance, when others don’t. For those who are not of colour, attributes that convey their ‘otherness’, such as an accent, may folly inclusivity. In other words, despite acts such as the Canadian Multicultural Act [1985] entrenching the values of inclusivity in Canada’s legal system, not withstanding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms [1982], whiteness and normativity prevails in our social structures and is reproduced through our interactions.

As mentioned above, the Peoples’ Social Forum anticipated this whiteness. Non-white spaces were created with intention. However the creation of space does not necessarily translate to outright rejecting of socially inscribed power and a lifelong sense of entitlement (whiteness). Exercises were done that shook up our reproduced structures of power, encouraging people to enter into uncomfortable spaces to address their privilege head on (see Rachel Hirsch’s discussion of the Blanket Exercise, for instance). This, however, does not mean that people walked away from these exercises cured of their chronic whiteness. They may have walked away, though, questioning themselves, ‘their’ society, and everything else around them. So, then, what the heck does a rainstorm have to do with this?

Leaving the PSF, I felt completely defeated – totally drained. Despite hearing from amazing speakers and meeting amazingly passionate and knowledgeable people, navigating the complexity of issues, including whiteness, so piled on our societies, our cultures, our lifestyles, everything, to create not even a utopic(s) society (a place that is no-place), but a truly inclusive society (environment and non-animals included) seemed insurmountable. Upon reflection, and keeping in mind that I had just relocated from northern BC to the heart of the urban trifecta of Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, my criticism (a portion of which is shared here) turned into a feeling of encouragement. It was encouraging to see people of all different age groups and, even if uneven, demographics converge to discuss things that they were passionate about. It was encouraging to see the amazing resistance, collaboration, and downright hard work that people were doing to walk the walk of their talk. People were, from what I saw, honest. They were open. They even looked at you, smiled, and said ‘hello’ when passing by. And there was space intentionally, and exclusively, created for the purpose of addressing the a-political perception of space in a society of ‘whiteness’.

I am a sixth generation settler from unceded Coast Salish territories on Vancouver Island in BC. This identity has fueled much of my work as a student that centres upon the relationship of settlers to land, and issues of transforming environmental and social relations. The PSF brought new, and potentially unlikely, allies together for the same reason – that they were fed up with current conditions, they were sick of being deafened by the rain storm. Having witnessed peoples’ respect for one another and willingness to shake up the normative (keeping in mind this is said by a white-settler), I have begun to interpret that deafening sound as the desire for change; it is the discontent that fuels passion and continues to motivate. Working towards those moments of silence – whatever they may be – is tough and heart wrenching work. Especially if one views this silence as artificially constructed, the bliss in ignorance perhaps?

My first inclination when writing this piece was to criticize what ‘lacked’, such as discussing the prevalence of unions, for instance, and the relative absence of discussions around capitalism; or to talk about how it would have been fabulous to see a session dedicated to activist burn out. Instead, I decided to offer some positive commentary for an event that was obviously and deliberately thought through with deep regard and best interest. And watching self identified settlers willingly enter into unsettling spaces to not foster a sense of guilt, but to create an ethic of responsibility. So to all of those who took the time away from their family, friends, and other responsibilities to organize, attend, and take part in the PSF, and the Algonquin Nations on whose unceded territories the event took place, thank you.

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