09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde, September, 2012
The Action Camp
In early August, grassroots community members of the Wet’suwet’en people hosted an environmental action camp in the area known by its colonial name as northwest British Columbia, which is unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The camp was held to raise support and awareness in the ongoing resistance to a planned ‘energy corridor’ that would see the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) run 463 km from Summit Lake and the Horn River Basin, through Wet’suwet’en territory, all the way to the port town of Kitimat on the west coast. The ‘energy corridor’ which could end up being as much as three kilometres wide threatens to force its way through hundreds of kilometres of wetlands, waterways and forests, and farming and First Nations communities alike, carrying natural gas from fracking fields in eastern and northeastern BC.
Our hosts were the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en, who were hosting the action camp on this site for the third straight year. The Unis’tot’en or C’ihlts’ehkhyu (Big Frog Clan) is the oldest and most storied clan of the Wet’suwet’en, and its people the original descendants.
As we arrived on the eastern side of Wedzin Kwah, a large painted sign blocking the entrance to the bridge informed us to “Stop: No Access Without Consent.” Wedzin Kwah is the stream otherwise known by its colonial name, the Morice River. We were approached by Mel Bazil, Skiy’Ze of the Gitimt’en clan, who indicated that we would be subject to a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) protocol before being granted permission to enter the territory. He explained to us that the FPIC protocol was part of an ongoing process to transcend rights, because rights, he explained as he formed a small pyramid with his hands, come from a top-down structure, and that indigenous law does not recognize colonial laws and constructs. We were then asked to approach members of the Unis’tot’en, Gitimt’en, and Likhts’amisyu clans to engage in the protocol which consists of introductions and questions; What is your name and your history? Where are you from? Have you previously worked for government or industry? What are your intentions on the territory? What skills and contributions can you share with the community?
The Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol which is part of an ongoing process of decolonization serves as a reactualization of natural law and a manifestation of mutual freedom and respect in moving across land and territories without state borders. It also presents an opportunity to implement a new emancipatory standard of autonomy within first nations territories, re-establishing spaces free of the existence of the state. The grassroots Wet’suwet’en are not only implementing the Free Prior and Informed Consent protocol in their territory, they are actively encouraging other nations and clans to do the same.
As we settled in for the welcoming circle, hereditary chief Toghestiy explained to everyone that the large number of people present is an indication of how much support and solidarity the community needs moving forward in its ongoing fight.
From the very first afternoon the camp was buzzing everywhere with energy and enthusiasm. People gave all sorts of workshops during the daytime. Additional wash stations were constructed and latrines dug, banners were erected, and the kitchen began its perpetual motion which was sustained through a constant collective effort from the beginning of camp to the end. The ad hoc community was actively running the camp together.
The action camp has come and gone, but for several weeks now the Unis’tot’en and their friends and allies have transformed the site to the point where it can no longer simply be called a camp. With projects, ideas and organizing abounding, the site has transitioned from temporary installation to permanent community.
In early September, the days are marked with wildberry picking in the afternoons, the fruits of which will be canned and preserved for the winter months. All the salmon consumed at camp flows through a local, sustainable, ecological food system and is fished according to traditional custom and obtained from the rivers and tributaries of Wet’suwet’en territory. Likewise the hunting of wild meats follows traditional protocol which combines spiritual, traditional, and ecological elements. Moose meat is a camp favourite.
This past season a potato patch was planted by the river which soon promises to yield a generous harvest, and a root cellar is being built to that effect. The soil and different areas of the camp are slowly being explored and considered to maximize next year’s growing season.
Despite these early efforts, the camp still has ways to go in becoming self-sufficient in food production, but is making active strides in that direction. There is also talk of getting chickens for the winter as an egg source during difficult food times, and early planning for the building of a cob oven which will give the community the capacity to bake its own bread.
During the action camp in early August a smokehouse was built, the result of a day-long collective flash-effort that now allows the community to smoke and preserve wild meats on site. Shortly after camp, a banya steam bath was also built for relaxing down time in the evenings. Future planned projects include other cabins and structures, and a traditional pit house to be built in the pine terrace as additional sleeping quarters.
Traditonally, the Gitemden clan would construct fishing weirs across the shallow parts of Wedzin Kwah to catch salmon for their yearly sustenance. In fact, the word ‘gitimt’en’ in the Tsimshian language means “people who build weirs.” But they would not overfish and they would not burden the natural life systems that spawn the waterways. The Gitimt’en practised selective fishing where they would study each fish individually to gage its spirit and its energy, and trusted their intuition to determine whether to keep it or to let it swim free. Their custom was to let go the first fish of the season, so that he or she could carry the message to all the other fish not to be scared, that they could return along the same river path the following year. The Gitimt’en respected and took care of the salmon, so that the salmon would take care of them.
Today we drink directly from Wedzin Kwah, its water is pristine and crystal clear. It is this that the Unis’tot’en are defending; it is the river, the salmon, the forest, the moose and the berries that they are defending.
What is perhaps the most important distinction to make about the character of this community is that it is a community is resistance, yes, but it is also a community that is thriving, a community that is being cultivated and actualized. The Wet’suwet’en against the Pacific Trails Pipeline must defend their traditional and ecological territory, but they should not have to. Mother Earth should not be degraded and the ecological world should not be threatened by the greed and the destructive indifference of industry. Dini Ze Toghestiy explains that all this time resisting should instead be spent building and cultivating the elements of their culture. That is why the Unis’tot’en camp community has centered itself on autonomy and self-sufficiency, to free itself from the colonial grasp of the state and the industrial system in order to create space for itself. The building of this community is a profound process of decolonization where traditional territory is being reasserted and re-inhabited. Through an emancipatory historical reparation, the grassroots Wet’suwet’en and their friends and allies are carving out autonomous zones where life and culture can flourish in freedom once again.
What is now unfolding on the west bank of Wedzin Kwah is not simply resistance to a pipeline and the defense of a territory, but the building and rebuilding of a radical alternative and traditional living. That is why such a strong emphasis at camp has been placed on community building and empowerment, so that organizing and resistance can be holistically integrated into the spaces of everyday life. This is pre-figurative organizing that confronts an injustice by counteracting it with an alternative. The resistance community, therefore, is the illustration that building and creating is the most comprehensive form of resistance, that there is no separation between life, and the defense of life.
Moving forward Unis’tot’en camp needs committed support in materials, resources, fundraising, awareness, and people. To join the effort and contribute please contact email@example.com.
Republished from Rabble.ca
09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde, November 23, 2011
A few weeks ago I had with me a bag of food from the farmers market that I had filled up from there on my way to work. Before leaving to go back home I shared some of the contents with a couple of my co-workers. A sample of delicious ground cherries, and a glance at those beautiful pumpkin-shaped bright white and purple eggplants which they had never seen before, both of which, of course, grow right here in the GTA. I also had never seen this type of eggplant until this past summer; they are an heirloom variety indigenous to Italy called Rosa Bianca. I’ve made stuffed eggplant from them, and the late-season bloomers were great for Baba Ghanoush.
There are so many other varieties of local fruits and vegetables that fall well short of the mainstream radar. Not only have variety and diversity been casualties of industrial food production, but it has also created a huge separation between food and human beings; food has become drastically depersonalized. The supermarket variety of food that people consume en masse these days has very little to do with people. The point of production, most of the time, is very far away from them. The methods used in production are counter to, and aim to eliminate and delegitimize traditional cultural food practices. And, the production, packaging, and distribution of industrial food is unsustainable, and devastates the environment and ecology that support life and make the growing of food possible in the first place.
I remember talking with one of my friends a while back, we were talking about fruits and I was telling him how much I love mangoes, and mentioning how I was already a little bit older when I tried a mango for the first time. The mango was delicious, I was blown away so I remember it clearly. I was at my dad’s house, I was in Grade 8 or 9, I’m born in ’83 so 13 or 14 years old at the time, that’s ’96, NAFTA started in 1994, it all adds up. Free trade was making giant strides as the northern countries realized that they could flood and undercut third world local markets with cheap subsidized crops.
Prime example is ex-president Bill Clinton last year famously admitting that neoliberal economic policies in the ’90s had devastated Haiti’s rice sector. A similar situation took hold in Mexico, even up until recent years, with regards the accessibility and price of corn, and its adverse affects on local markets. These agricultural policies in Mexico also threaten small farmers’ ability to grow traditional corn varieties because of transgenic crops, a problem that is duplicated in many parts of the world. The Global South was swindled as food sovereignty and local producers were devastated, and North American and European supermarket shelves were suddenly overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables.
So there are, when it comes to food, some political and economic consequences of free trade and globalization that are unacceptable, but I’d like to zero in on one even more simple and fundamental reason: the environmental and climate consequences.
The industrialization and globalization of food production brings us food that comes to us from thousands of miles away, from other countries, and other continents. So, kiwis from New Zealand, and grapefruits from South Africa, and apples and salmon from Chile keep the carbon footprint of industrial nation consumers alive and way too high, disproportionately so, and create emissions that are rapidly warming the planet. These environmental impacts are happening with such speed and intensity that they have surpassed the earth’s regenerative and ecological capacity. In other words, the planet is now incapable of protecting itself from the industrial system; that protection is going to have to come from a radical redesigning of human activity. The environmental devastation currently unfolding on the planet, however, is not solely due to the industrialization and globalization of food production. It is due to industrial production in general, it is due to resource exploitation, it is due to the licentious waste of water by industry, it is due to petroleum extraction, and the list goes on, but food certainly is a large part of it. Eating regularly is a non-negotiable activity, and when seven billion people are involved, it is done at exorbitant volumes.
Recently, a friend and I were having a conversation, talking about an experience we had both had at the supermarket, at different times. Both occasions happened to be at No Frills, and similarly we described the feeling of standing in the cash-out line and being dumbfounded by the endless row of tellers, and the sterile, generic, mind-numbing continuous sound of scanned-item beeps. This is something that many people experience every day, but if you think about carefully, it can really begin to put things into perspective. Industrial consumerism is taking us farther and farther away from our humanity. It is a malignant phenomenon that threatens culture, and threatens life; it is deceitful, it is silent. Tumours are dangerous because you often become cognizant of their existence only after it is already too late. Materialism and over-consumption take us away from what is integral to life, and they leave void and decay in its place. We must be on our guard against too much decadence. We cannot lay the foundations to the future with something that holds no substance.
A few weeks ago I made and canned applesauce with green apples that came from a 225-year-old tree; 1786 the farmer told me the tree had been planted. I got the apples of course, from the farmers market. It is incredible to think that a tree, after 225 years of existence, can still be producing perfectly good food. It is amazing what nature can do, and the benefits, and health, and life that it can provide us, if it is properly respected and nurtured.
So the point is that, and now I’m speaking for our region, Ontario and especially southern Ontario produces a tremendous variety of beautiful and delicious fruits and vegetables; we can do without papayas and plantains and dragonfruit and lychees, and mangoes for my part, despite how delicious they are. Try pears and ground cherries, or purple beans, carrots, or potatoes instead. And now, with the outstanding organization and coordination of farmers markets, the resurgence of the local food movement, and the passionate, creative, and quality-oriented small producers of our region, the pieces are in place, and the community will is there to make it happen. Also, with a growing strategy that extends into the fall, improved methods for preserving produce for market later into the season, with certain vegetables extending well into the winter, and with canning to bring your local fruits and veggies with you into the winter, local year-round is gradually becoming accessible to everyone. There will not be fresh abundance in the dead of winter, and we will have to make small sacrifices, but we must learn to live with the environment around us. Our parents and grand-parents did just fine before Mexico starting blasting NAFTA avocados and tomatoes across the border; we can do so again. There is time and work involved, and there is certainly a transition period ahead, but it is a fun and challenging one.
So it is undeniable that we have to localize our economies, and absolutely necessary that we change our consumption habits, especially what we eat and where it comes from, and the irony of this giant problem of which we are all contributors, is that the first and most significant victim of climate change will be the food supply. So how will we feel 40, 50, maybe 60 years from now, or more importantly what will future generations think, if it becomes clear that our complacent eating habits of today were responsible for the food crisis of tomorrow?
It is strange to think that from one day to the next we have to stop eating certain foods that we have always taken for granted; it is a difficult reality to imagine, but one that is necessary if we would like to continue living on this wonderful planet. So next time you’re eating a mango or a banana, or any exotic fruit or vegetable that is not grown in your region, just consider that every bite you take, every fruit you consume is hurting the planet. It is a difficult and complicated thing to explain to your children maybe, and unfortunately, the forbidden fruit will persist on supermarket shelves long after local and sustainable have permeated mainstream consciousness, but it is a small price to pay for what is at stake.
Republished from Rabble.ca
09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde, December 8, 2011
As 2011 comes to a close, we can look back at the deepening of the economic and ecological crises, and one of the most socially and politically explosive years in the history of humanity. Most will remember the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring as the defining moments of 2011, but lets take a moment to reflect on the first chapter of the saga that will occupy the attention of the Environmental Movement in the coming decade; the Keystone XL Pipeline.
In the last few months there has been a lot of activitiy surrounding the Keystone XL, a mega-extraction infrastructure project with invetsment slated to come from Transcanada corporation. The proposed 1,700 mile-long pipeline would transport Tar Sands oil from Northern Alberta to Texas refineries in the U.S, a distance that covers two-thirds of North America.
What the Tar Sands consists of is not conventional crude, but a thick, dense, and difficult to extract and process bitumen. The primary method of extraction for the Tar Sands known as SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) is extremely energy intensive, wastes 3 to 4 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil produced, and this extraction is devatsating the Athabasca River system, the third largest watershed in the world. The Tar Sands is the most environmentally destructive extraction project in the history of humanity.
Furthermore, the sheer size of the Tar Sands makes it the biggest carbon pool in the world, and James Hansen, the U.S` top climatologist at NASA, has stressed repeatedly that tapping the tar sands via this cross-continental pipeline to bring it to U.S markets, would effectively mean “game over for the climate.”
An important aspect to note is that the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, as it was originally proposed, would cross through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, an ecologically sensitive area that supports the Ogallala Aquifer and water system for millions of people.
In late August, early September of this year, a campaign against the Keystone XL mobilized for two weeks in Washington, targeting the White House to put pressure on President Obama. Participation was high with a good turnout, siginificant numbers, and hundreds of arrests were made. Then, in early November, ten thousand people gathered to form a human chain, and encircled the White House several times over, again calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project. The action was very successful and drew impressively large numbers. This action came exactly a year before the 2012 U.S presidential elections, and the pipeline was shaping up to be a major political issue.
During this time, Obama announced that the final decision on the Keystone XL would no longer rest with him, but with the State Department instead, and then shortly thereafter reversed his position and said that the decision once again would be his to make. Most significant of all, about a week after the climate justice action that encircled the White House, President Obama made another important announcement in regards the Keystone XL pipeline; that there would be a new environmental review on the pipeline, and that the final decision would be postponed until at least 2013.
Some of the Environmental NGO reaction and narrative was as follows: Obama and the U.S administration have felt pressure due to the actions and campaigning to make a decision in favour of the environmental community. President Obama and the U.S government have postponed the decision in order to allow the environmental assessment to be done fairly and properly, and the delay will give the administration time to do it right. Surely, the delay will mean a more thorough scientific review and a truly public input process, free from oil company influence. This development sends a powerful message to the oil industry, and they now understand who they are up against. This is a tremendous victory, and we should all take a moment to applaud this decision and to send President Obama a letter thanking him for his leadership.
Technically, the Obama administration`s announcement was simply for a NEW environmental review of the Keystone XL, to reevaluate the ROUTE of the pipeline. Five days after the postponement was announced, TransCanada announced that it would agree to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills region of Nebraska. In response, Bill McKibben made a statement saying “we`re offly happy that the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be safe and the Sandhills, that only leaves the entire atmosphere of the planet to worry about.” This perceived victory was predictably shortlived. Why were we being told to celebrate?
Putting too much faith in that the U.S government will make the right decision on an environmental matter, and being under the illusion that the decision will be subject to a thorough scientific review and a `truly public input process` would be a mistake. Celebrating a perceived victory which is actually closer to a setback is not a good idea. We have seen for decades with the U.S government, and especially in the last year and a half with the BP Oil Spill that this administration also is far more likely to side with industry than it is to side with people and the environment. And finally, the only reason why the Keystone XL decision has been postponed is because Obama and company don`t want it to be an issue come election time in 2012. It doesn`t matter if the decision is made in 2013, 14, or 15, it is the outcome that matters, and sure as the sun will set, this pipeline is coming.
Those from the ENGO community overeacting to the Keystone XL postponement as a victory, misinterpreting the situation, are actually doing the Climate Justice movement a considerable disservice. “Game over for the Climate”, lights out for the planet, whatever you like to call it, this is THE environmental battle of the 21st Century, and way too important an issue to be off our guard, even for a moment.
Republished from Rabble.ca
09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde, December 27th, 2011
It is safe to say that the local food movement is currently going strong in Toronto, and in other regions of North America also. Things are going quite well, the level of organization is impressive, and access is starting to become very significant. Communities and local farmers alike are really starting to believe that this tranformation is a real possibility in the not-too-distant future. What is important when carrying out these chapters of social tranformation is to set up and organize the required foundations, and in this case for the Toronto area local food movment, the alternative structures are in place. There is still some way to go in terms of volume and capacity, but the alternative structures are in place and well defined.
One important issue that needs to be addressed in the face of this growing movement is the financial accessibility of farmers markets and local food. One common claim is that farmers markets are simply too expensive. Intimately tied with this question however is that the price of local organic food is a reflection of justice, equality, and horizontality from community to community. Unrealistically cheap supermarket prices are a reflection of abuse, exploitation, and wage-slavery. Before we start making black and white simplifications of these prices, however, we have to understand what they mean, and where they come from.
Of course, it is a central issue that a single mother, or a multi-children low-income family seems to be able to afford only supermarket prices, and these families should never be morally pressured or bullied to make a consciuos local choice that is not accessible to them. But, there is a misconception in the popular belief, farmers markets are not financially innaccessible as we are led to believe, and we need not abide by these fabricated standards. The reason why poor families fall into this pattern is partly because of misinformation, partly because the industrial system creates and imposes an unethical and exploitative status-quo. All families should never have to make a choice between the supermarket and the farmers market, and no one should be dependent on the industrial system; local, organic, sustainable, and community-driven horizontal food systems should be absolutely accessible to everyone, everywhere. It is the systemic and structural injustices that need to be transformed.
Before saying that farmers markets are expensive, or if we think supermarket prices are fair, we have to understand that industrial production prices do not represent the true cost of production. Without getting too deep into the nature of social relations within wage-labour and industrial production, take for example when you buy a sweater at Wal-Mart and you pay only $15 for it; the reason why you get it so aritificially cheap is because someone is paying the real price for it in Bangladesh with a miserable life. This is called externalising costs. In the North American food system, a very similar social relation of privilege and exploitation recreates itself on a local level, and while wage-labour conditions are not as exploitative, the true costs are instead more heavily outsourced and concentrated through devastation to the environment.
Furthermore, the financial inaccessibility narrative is overblown, and in many cases not properly examined. Firts of all, fruits and vegetables have similar prices at farmers markets and supermarkets; local organic fruits and vegetables can vary greatly in price depending on who and where you get it from, which is the same with supermarkets. Certain dairy products can be slightly more expensive, but even this is occasionally, not always, and the price really underscores the quality of the food you are buying and consuming. The price of bread is also relatively the same; at the farmers market, artisan bread is more expensive, which again is the same situation at the supermarket.
White bread and the generic whole wheat kind are less expensive of course, but they are more akin to paper and foam than actual bread, and eating artificial products is not healthy for anyone. This bread melts in your mouth like styrofoam melts in the microwave, that is not normal. This bread is white, bright snow-white; let`s bleach our food, let`s bleach all the natural colour out of our food, and try to make our food to be as unnatural as possible, that`s a great idea. So yes, food can be cheaper when its not real food, when its processed and broken down, but that should not be an incentive for anybody. A lot of it comes down to the fact that you`re either buying food that is healthy, vs. food that is not healthy.
And, selected cheaper items do not mean cheaper grocery bills. Cheaper grocery bills at the supermarket? Let`s think about this for a second. Most people who shop at the supermarket are not just running in to grab the essentials. You have the chips, and the ice cream, and the cookies, the Fruit Loops, and the chocolate milk, and the six different kinds of sugar-loaded juices, and the extreme fajita pizza-poppers, whatever that stuff is. I`m not saying that everybody rampages on junk food and rings up $200 grocery bills, but I am saying that most people don`t save money when they go to the supermarket with twenty thousand items to choose from, they just buy more stuff. Splurging at the farmers market involves buying a specialty cheese, those bright-orange beets that you didn`t really need, and a couple selections of wild garlic. Besides, it`s a good thing to spend a little bit extra at the farmers market because you`re supporting and sustaining a good, natural, positive food system, versus one that is destroying the planet wholesale, no pun intended.
And, for argument’s sake, if we’re really counting dollars and cents, let’s take time to rethink our general spending habits in this money-sponge consumer society. Starting with kids, absurd amounts of lavish toys, super-wardrobes, and the brutal and exacting world of video games. And then the adult world of leasing new cars every four years, expensive clothing, the service and entertainment industries, and modern electronics and technology that is so amazingly advanced with sufficient depth and variety to substitute life itself. This 21st century consumer society is insanity. I am not advocating a consumption-less idealistic fantasy world because I know that is not possible, nor am I against technology as long as it is used for the right reasons and for practical, productive purposes, but there are countless dozens of useless consumer products that we could easily do without, and subsequent hundreds and thousands of dollars wasted that could be spent on far more valuable things. If we factor that into the cost of living, then spending a few extra dollars on food seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do. The future requires a radical realignment and reprioritizing of our consumption habits.
Here’s to quashing the rumour that farmers markets are too expensive, or in most cases, even more expensive. And, even if they are sometimes slightly more expensive, maybe its time we start paying the true cost of production of the food we eat. Say hypothetically we pay 3 dollars for potatoes instead of 2, and in exchange we get small-scale, local, organic production that keeps the planet sustainable and the ecological systems safe and healthy for generations to come, which allows us to maintain our ability to grow food well into the future. I think thats a pretty reasonable trade off, one that is difficult to argue against.
With these growing methods, we also get an opportunity to operate horizontally in the spaces of everyday life. Horizontality exists first on these local farms where the food is grown and produced small-scale, organically, and sustainanbly, with a small group of workers who work together along collectivist principles; these micro-farms, workers, and cooperatives are creating an alternative non-hierarchical work model, a people-centric model that embraces creativity and food diversity. Second, horizontality takes place at the market level where people get a chance to talk to their farmers, and to obtain information about who makes the food, where it comes from, and how it is made; a relationship is built with transparency and dialogue through the exchange of food. Community is cultivated through an inclusive and reciprocal process.
A Local Experiment – Reclaim Power, Cochabamba, and the G20 Convergence – A Story of Grassroots Organizing and the Toronto People`s Assembly in 2010-2011
09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde and Brett Rhyno
Dec 15th, 2009. Copenhagen. The day before what CNN referred to as “the most hotly anticipated action of the summit”, nearly a thousand activists huddled together in a Danish squat – which became the focal point of grassroots mobilization against the United Nations’ annual Climate Change Conference [COP]. Lisa, an American activist and veteran of Seattle, gave a final pitch for the plan of action: “We will use the combined mass of our bodies to push through the police lines and then break through the fence. Once we are inside the U.N. grounds we will secure a safe space where delegates coming out from the conference can join us and together we will form a People’s Assembly.”
Cindy Milstein writes that “this prefigurative politics is, in fact, the very strength and vision of direct action, where the means themselves are understood to intimately relate to the ends.”3 In other words, this type of two-pronged action is not simply a direct action just for the sake of a direct action, but to generate through the action the types of alternatives we would like to see in everyday life. Hence, an occupation extends into a people`s assembly.
Maps were distributed. Blocs were in the final stages of formation. There was one last heated debate over the adopted consensus of ‘confrontational non-violence’. Participants filled with anticipation at the thought of being part of a plan to change the course of history.
These actions in Copenhagen were the beginning of the Toronto People’s Assembly. As much as has been written and said about the day of Reclaim Power, it was the two weeks of frantic meetings, alliance building, and constant striving to create an inclusive and horizontal process which created a new model for organizing that could be exported around the world. That model, which did subsequently make its way to several corners of the world in the two years following Copenhagen, is the People`s Assembly; a horizontal and collective dialogue and decision-making process made for diversity in community, and flexible to shape itself to the local specificities of all types of communities.
Next, seeds were sown for the People’s Assembly in Cochabamba, where Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April of 2010. Toronto activists in Cochabamba observed a conference that, while engaging the grassroots participation of 30,000 activists from across the world, was largely institutional in nature with one of its chief mandates as a drafting of declarations to present to the United-Nations by Bolivia, in the name of the world`s climate justice community. The working groups themselves, where these declarations were drafted, were profoundly democratic and participatory, even horizontal, aside from the small fact that the topics of the working groups were predetermined by the conference organizers, though their content was built by participants online for months leading up to the conference. Still, Cochabamba yielded a document that was the collective work of 30,000 people from around the world, and a manifesto-of-the-moment of sorts for the global climate justice movement at a time when that movement was making significant strides towards a generational rebirth. The People’s Assembly drew much inspiration from Cochabamba and the conference also acted as a compass for the Assembly to be critical of its own process.
The main development which came out of Cochabamba for Toronto was a collective understanding of the beginning of a new effort to answer the international call by building your local struggle. One of the lessons drawn from Bolivia, was the need to put in place impactful structures and formations to maintain and build a movement that is more substantial, consistent, and long-term. The call from Cochabamba was to begin the building of a worldwide climate justice movement. The Toronto People`s Assembly set out to do that in its local environment.
Back in Toronto, the weeks in May immediately following Cochabamba, and in June prior to the G20 were a crucial and transformative period for the social and climate justice community. Talks and discussions were ongoing to evaluate which elements could be drawn from Cochabamba. Raul Burbano, an organizer of the June 23rd Assembly, explains how “the People’s Assembly is an extension of the dialogue, organization, and mobilization that took place in Cochabamba. It’s an instrument through which local activists can create new spaces, and generate new possibilities.”4 As conferences, panels, and report-backs raged on, local organizers, young and old, converged with a fresh and renewed sense of purpose; an understanding that they needed to start building. Consciously or not, the People’s Assembly kept evolving through new and different channels.
In Toronto after the COP, during the early months of 2010, post-Copenhagen burn-out was a factor for many organizers, and initial attempts to reconstruct the People’s Assembly process never materialized. This was due partly to the need to convince Toronto-based organizers that an Assembly needed to be a priority, that one organized around a completely horizontal process could be successful, and partly because many organizers shifted their efforts to that other summit on its way to town, the G8/G20.
As June and the G20 grew closer, a call was put out through the Toronto Community Mobilization Network for a day of resistance for climate and environmental justice. Responding to this call, a circle of non-aligned climate justice and environmental organizers started meeting weekly in a park outside the 519 Community Centre on Church street. Two plans for action emerged. One was a rally that would become known as the Toxic Tour. The other was the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice. Together with allies as part of the growing community mobilization against the G20, the first People’s Assembly was formed on June 23rd, 2010, in the midst of the G20 madness unfolding in Toronto.
The G20 hit Toronto like a storm, and in the aftermath the organizing community suddenly found itself in a new environment, with new conditions. The collective response in Toronto was quick and widespread, and the resounding call to establish new relationships was not only heard, but understood. In July and August with the intensity of organizing remaining high, with action camps happening across the country, and with various groups in Toronto together stressing the immediate need for movement building, there was no longer any doubt that a second People’s Assembly would take place.
The People’s Assembly on Climate Justice
Enter the Toronto People’s Assembly on Climate Justice (PACJ). Taking elements from Reclaim Power and Cochabamba, the Toronto manifestation of the PACJ held two successful Assemblies in 2010, one immediately before the G20 summit as mentioned, and another on December 4th, 2010, Worldwide Day of Climate Action. The first focused on defining the meaning of Climate Justice, while the second focused on the collective work of building a stronger movement for Climate Justice in Toronto. For both Assemblies the starting point was the ‘Framing Question’, a direct importation from the Reclaim Power Assembly. The framing question is simply a general suggestion for direction, a starting point from which participants can begin to generate ideas.
The main innovation introduced in Toronto was an additional round of breakouts, which allowed more space for the Assembly’s horizontal process to both generate ideas and to orient itself for action. Beginning with the second Assembly, Toronto activists took the working group model that emerged from Cochabamba and re-framed it as a series of permanent action-oriented bodies known as People’s Councils. This was done with permanent community organizing in mind, to establish the people`s councils as long-term capacity and action building groups.
Inside the People`s Assembly: The Brainstorming of Radical Horizontality
The movement inside the Assembly was an open collective dialogue which organizers termed radical horizontality. Within the Assembly, radical horizontality was a two-pronged process which allowed participants, through two rounds of break-outs and intermittent plenaries, to first generate ideas, and then to develop and form them together in order to establish mandates for the People’s Councils. The idea with the concept of radical horizontality was to extend to everyday life, beyond the Assembly, and to seek to establish shared responsibility and accountability in the entire community in order to make local resistance and organizing more sustainable.
From the beginning the Assembly stressed the need for a point of convergence inclusive to a wide range of organizations, from women’s groups and anti-poverty, to environmental justice and food security, cyclists, migrant justice, co-operatives, collectives, etc. To effectively transform communities, the Assembly posited a lack of separation between activism and everyday life. Raul Zibechi, a Uruguayan sociologist, explains how “in the new pattern of action… mobilization starts in the spaces of everyday life and survival, putting in movement an increasing number of social networks or, that is to say, societies in movement, self-articulated from within.”5 The People’s Councils were modeled on the hope of facilitating the establishment of this sort of organizing on a permanent basis; to make the leap from simply activism to organized communities.
Unfortunately, the people`s councils were never able to coalesce long-term in the months following the second assembly, partly due to the organizing community in Toronto not fully grasping the substance of movement-building, and importantly because activists and organizers were still learning how to operate within a decentralized organizing structure with no leaders. Indeed, horizontal organizing under a collective structure was an idea that was still new to most; this open and floating space was still unstable ground to many.
Another main reason why the people`s councils were unable to materialize long-term was due to the absence of tangible ongoing projects. In the case of the experience in Argentina, Marina Sitrin writes that “many of the assemblies lacked concrete projects and ended up talking a great deal more than doing… without concrete projects to ground the assemblies,” and in this case the councils, “many people people drifted away.”6 The situation is very similar with the experience of the second and third people`s assemblies in Toronto where some mentioned and attempted to push for permanent projects such as a community spaces and kitchens, gardens, direct actions, etc, to extend a collective and ongoing participation beyond simple events and conferences. Marina Sitrin writes further, of the Argentine experience, that “of the assemblies that continue to exist, almost all are involved in a variety of neighborhood-based projects, and some continue to function in occupied buildings.”7
Unfortunately in Toronto, most were unable to grasp the relevance of organizing projects long-term and in the context of everyday life. The idea of community assemblies and alternative projects and structures was an attempt to move outside of a dizzying, repetitive, and often redundant cycle and barrage of emails, documents, events, conferences, manifestos, and facebook messages. Some have to come to look at this space of social justice organizing as `periphery organizing,`–an exercise that fails to bridge activism to real life–by no means doubting the sincerity and genuine intent of its work, but questioning its nature and the true impact of its substance. The Toronto People`s Assembly–together this collective expression of the climate justice community in the city–demonstrated a great deal of initiative and vision, but perhaps was attempting to take on a great deal of very complex work before the time was ripe.
The post-G20 realities of community organizing in Canada presented us with a challenge, and a dynamic that calls for activists to develop, out of necessity, new methods of organizing. This requires ingenuity, responsibility, and a long-term willingness to sculpt a new grassroots paradigm. Small beginnings of creative examples were observed in Canada during the following months.
Various action camps took place throughout the country during the summer of 2010 themed around climate justice, indigenous solidarity, non-violent direct action, and Tar Sands/pipeline resistance. Organizers worked to build links between cities and to strengthen regional networks. Simultaneous people’s assemblies were held in December, 2010, throughout the country, organizers in Montreal began to develop the idea of a climate justice co-op, and the climate justice community in Toronto started establishing the People’s Assembly on a permanent basis. Climate Justice organizers used the momentum coming out of the G20 to create their own grassroots infrastructure.
The People’s Assembly in Toronto emerged on the tide of a paradigm shift towards popular assemblies as an alternative to the complete failure of international institutions and nation-states to address the urgent global threat presented by the climate crisis. At the same time, a new and young Climate justice movement has grown organically in North America, determining its own shape through horizontal structures and differentiating itself from mainstream environmental voices through a deeply rooted anti-capitalist analysis.
The year 2010 also presented the organizing community in Canada with two major mobilizations to mount, one in Vancouver for the Olympics and one in Toronto for the G20. Toronto organizers took this confluence of factors as an opportunity, and the People’s Assembly was one element of the outcome.
By eschewing traditional hierarchical forms, the open and inclusive process of the People`s Assembly is an invitation for community members and organizers to come together in an effort to build solidarity, share skills, and develop increased coordination. The aim of the People’s Assembly in Toronto is for the climate justice community and its allies to utilize it as a vehicle or a space through which it can operate as a movement, a self-articulated space that will allow it to remain a movement.