Sue Winn at a rally for the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.
Among the tens of thousands of activists at this year’s conference aimed at changing the world order, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was a small Canadian contingent including a priest from Prince Edward Island, a high school principal from Montreal, an art therapy student, an aboriginal rights activist, and a supporting staff member – all Anglican members of an ecumenical social action group.
The World Social Forum, described by church participants as a peaceful assembly designed to provide alternatives to economic issues, has grown from a small group of activists into a massive gathering of 140,000 strong in just over three years.
It included more than 6,000 workshops, translation services, a youth camp, and speeches from activists, academics, AIDS sufferers, economists and environmentalists, all determined to steer the world in another direction from its present course.
The volunteers said they were moved and excited by the experience. “I wish I’d had five students with me,” said Sue Winn, chair of the Anglican Church of Canada’s eco-justice committee and a high school principal in Lachine, Que. “Their whole vision of the world would have changed – once they heard the extent of disease, poverty and unjustified wars that they don’t even know about.”
Kairos, an umbrella group of 10 once-separate Canadian ecumenical coalitions, sent 17 representatives to the Brazil forum, designed as a response to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of business and government leaders held at the same time in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland.
Participants at Porto Alegre drew from trade unions, development and environmental organizations, academia and faith-based bodies; together, they searched for responses to what they see as destructive globalization of the world economy and an answer to crushing Third World debt.
Kairos staff member Jennifer Henry, a member of Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, said her group saw the trip as a “leadership development strategy. People strengthen their skills and knowledge to come back and work at the grassroots level.”
Several of the Anglican volunteers said the link to faith and church involvement was key in the battle to attack poverty and get the attention of a largely uninvolved middle class in Canada.
Rev. Heather Hamlin Gravells, a Port Hill, P.E.I., priest and former eco-justice committee member, said that in Porto Alegre she learned from what others were doing in Canada. “There’s a feeling that everybody else is doing (social justice) and not the churches, not the congregations.”
After five days of attending workshops, and listening to presentations on poverty and the privatization of drinking water and human rights abuses, Ms. Winn said she found it particularly difficult to get on a plane to come home and pick up a copy of the in-flight travel magazine.
It was all about going to a spa, eating at the finest restaurants,” said Ms. Winn. “I’d just heard testimonials from people who do not know if they will be alive in a month or people dying of AIDS. The Columbia disaster was all we saw or heard about on the news. Poverty, hunger and need is in the parking lot.”
Ms. Winn noted that the commodification of water was an issue for everyone at the forum. “Vendors were selling water everywhere,” she recalled. “Who was benefiting from the enormous sale of water? Water isn’t a right, it’s a need, and that frightened me quite a bit.” One of the forum’s outcomes was a petition protesting the commodification of water.
Anglican participants said they were struck by the sheer numbers at the event – 240,000 people in the opening march alone. Still, the gathering was peaceful and calm.
“The police were not there to provoke violence,” said Ms. Gravells. “The police were part of the community spirit. They had maybe a baton. They were smiling, happy, talking to the people. They knew the issues. There was no violence, there were no threatening situations, and I felt very secure.”
The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund sent Marion Bryan as its youth representative to the forum. A student at Montreal’s Concordia University, Ms. Bryan got involved in the Jubilee campaign to reduce Third World debt as an Anglican youth group leader in Kamloops, B.C.
She said her mission was to “collect information and experience.” She interviewed some of the speakers for presentations she intends to give in Canada about the work of the forum. Days after returning to Montreal, she spoke to the local Student Christian Movement.
Calling the gathering “much bigger than I expected,” Ms. Bryan said she found the Canadian contingent small compared to other nationalities at the conference. She was particularly affected by a talk given by youth activist Elicia Cono from Uruguay at an ecumenical youth meeting on the spirituality of resistance.
“It fit well for me because it showed how Jesus’ message fits well with giving something to the poor and disempowered,” said Ms. Bryan.
Ms. Winn said not only will she share what she saw with her students, but will help to plan a national Canadian forum.
The next social forum, scheduled for India in 2004, will not happen at the same time as the World Economic Forum, giving participants an opportunity to protest the latter. “Canadians also want to engage in resistance around the World Economic Forum too,” said Ms. Henry.