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‘Alternative Summits’ Embody a Grass-Roots Strategy for Change

There will be no fences, no fake lakes, no photo opps.

But the alternative summits, forums and “Days of Action” happening in Toronto during the G8 and G20 meetings later this month will be bringing in world leaders of a different sort to share information and strategies for world change.

They aim to get the public interest — not the corporate interest — on the public agenda.

Such meetings and rallies are about power for more ordinary people, people who care about climate change, poverty, worker rights, and human rights. Their open gatherings are counterpoints to the closed-door sessions between the heads of the world’s richest nations, and their financial elite.

Take, for example, the Council of Canadians (COC) public Shout-out for Global Justice on June 25.

Relocated to Massey Hall from the University of Toronto because the latter will be shut down for security reasons, it gathers prominent international speakers such as COC chair Maude Barlow, author-activist Naomi Klein and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman who will call for climate, water, economic and social justice.

“These really are world leaders coming together — and we’re doing it for less than a billion dollars,” says Mark Calzavara, COC’s regional organizer for Ontario and Quebec.

“The richest countries in the world getting together to decide the rules that apply to everybody, and that’s wrong. That’s not democracy,” he adds. “We’ve got to make sure that everybody understands that it doesn’t have to be this way. The more people that know about it, the better the chance that it will turn into boots-on-the-ground change.”

That change involves everything from clean drinking water for aboriginal Canadians to fighting free trade agreements with countries such as Colombia, where the government systematically commits violence against its own people.

But, with journalists swarming the Metro Convention Centre, how much media attention will be paid to these grass roots events? How many will report on all the “Themed Days of Resistance” including “Crude Awakening: Tar Sands Blow...!” and “Tell the World the Truth About Canada’s Record on Indigenous Rights?”

Maybe quite a bit actually.

But only if the police show up.

“If protestors get killed, it gets covered; if protestors break windows, it gets covered,” says University of waterloo professor Kathryn Hochstetler, an expert on civil society and social movements with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). “If they’re simply calmly sitting in a room talking about proactive solutions that citizens can do, nobody covers it.

“It’s a quandary for activists because peaceful demonstrations don’t get coverage.”

Not that demonstrations bring about social change, she notes. Nor do these alternative events, at least not immediately. They’re all about networking and exercising democratic options on the local level.

“The point isn’t necessarily to directly influence the government summits,” Hochstetler explains. “The emphasis is on learning what others are doing and then emulating strategies and trying them at home. These are the kinds of things that come out of these conferences.”

That’s not to say that protests won’t happen.

After all, it’s hard to differentiate between a demonstration and an outdoor rally called “People First! We deserve better!” at Queen’s Park.

“We’re trying to frame all this in a way so that it’s about democracy and participation,” says Sharmeen Khan of the Toronto Community Mobilization Network (TCMN). “We’re trying to make it as positive as possible to get a lot of people out.”

TCMN, a collection of Toronto-based organizers and allies from diverse communities, is ground zero for activists. It’s maintaining an online hub of information and resources and has also rented a space at King and Dufferin Sts. where participants can congregate, as well as find childcare, food and workshops.

And there will be plenty of users. TCMN expects at least 10 busloads of activists from Montreal alone.

Still, Khan adds, “A lot of people are scared of protests.”

No wonder. We’ve all seen the tear gas, the riot gear, the smashed bottles and the balaclavas from past summits. Which is why organizers fear that most Torontonians will hunker down or flee the city, and miss an important to get informed and involved and make their voices heard.

And who can blame ordinary citizens for staying away, what with talk of armed guards, security checkpoints, traffic nightmares and deafening noise machines?

As social justice researcher Darren Puscas observes, a billion bucks buys not only security, but also intimidation.

“It is up to the public and dissidents not to let our own fear overcome us,” he says.

Puscas, who will be tracking events on his website G20Breakdown.com, says that the heads of the G20 countries would rather that citizens leave the business of government—and the government of business — to them.

“The summit organizers just don’t want any engagement in these issues; they don’t want us to even begin to be talking about these things,” he says. “But people need to be coming out to see what is happening.”

Here’s a list of the major alternative events. More listings, including information on the Themed Days of Resistance (June 21-24) and Days of Action (June25-27), can be found on http://www.g20.torontomobilize.org/

The Peoples’ Summit, June 18-20; www.peoplessummit2010.ca; at Ryerson University, pay what you can.

This is the big one, with the backing of the COC, GreenPeace Canada, the United Church, labour organizations, environmental groups and progressive think tanks. A countermeasure to the “self-appointed, undemocratic assembly of the world’s wealthiest countries,” the three-day program features some 100 workshops, film screenings, panels and lectures on global justice, the environment, gender and economics designed to get participants “educated and agitated.” It kicks off next Friday at the Carlu with speeches and music, all hosted by Mary Walsh.

The Oxfam Gender Justice Summit, June 18-20 www.oxfam.ca, at The Carlu and Ryerson U. Open to Oxfam members. New members welcome. Fees are $90, $0 for students

Running as part of, and parallel to, the Peoples’ Summit, this three-day event will gather Oxfam members, volunteers and donors, as well as academics, advocates and activists from around the world to explore the themes of gender-based violence, maternal health, poverty, security, climate change and food security.

“Most often when world leaders do talk about women and issues related to women and girls, they look at them as incubators, as victims, as survivors rather than women as leaders, change agents, as the people that produce most of the world’s food and do much of the world’s work,” Robert Fox, Oxfam Canada’s executive director, told the Star. “We want to shine a spotlight on women’s rights and these issues of gender justice.”

Themed Days of Resistance, June 21-24; The Shout Out For Global Justice, June 25 www.canadians.org/g20 and at Massey Hall

$14 for Council of Canadian members, $20 for non-members (includes membership) An evening of entertainment and inspiration with prominent activists hosted by Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chair of the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch.

The Human Summit, June 27; www.humansummit.com/joomla; at Woodbine Park, free

Neither about economics nor activism, the Human Summit, three hours of meditation and entertainment, is the calm after the summit storm. “We started noticing how much fear was being raised by all the security conditions being put on the people of Toronto, all the stories of protestors coming to town and all the thoughts of violence,” says Reverend Barbara Schreiner-Trudel, the summit’s spiritual director. “We wanted to come together to bring a greater sense of stability to the city, and a level of peace — while realizing that each one of us, we have the power. If we come together on any good idea, everything begins to change.”

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