This year's World Social Forum (WSF), which is being held in Montreal this week, is off to a rocky start as hundreds of international activists were denied entry due to Canada's restrictive visa policies.
Aminata Traoré, who is one of the candidates to replace United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was among those barred from attending. Traoré, an anti-globalization activist and a former minister of tourism and culture in Mali, called Canada's closed-border policy a "dreadful lesson in democracy."
This year marks the first time the annual summit, which aims to bring together civil society, organizations, and social movements who want to build a sustainable and inclusive world, is being held in North America and in a G7 nation.
"It is precisely these countries that are supposedly there to give lessons to our democracies," Traoré said. "In reality, the West is more and more afraid of debates on ideas ... We are bearers of ideas, not bombs."
The conference's co-coordinator Raphael Canet said hundreds of invitees had their visa applications rejected by the Canadian government, the majority of whom are from Africa and Latin America. Organizers are concerned that attendance could suffer at an event that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people in years past. So far, 15,000 people have registered for the event.
"If there are less people, it's probably unfortunately going to be the Canadian government that will... suffer a little bit," said co-organizer Carminda MacLorin, "because it taints Canada's reputation of openness and hospitality that is always put forward."
Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, who will be taking part in a series of workshops and panels at the summit discussing the Leap Manifesto, took to Twitter to lambast Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the policies that limit international visitors and speakers.
— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) August 9, 2016
In addition to Klein, there are more than 80 scheduled speakers, including Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and French philosopher Edgar Morin.
The 12th gathering, which is being held August 9-14, is focused on putting forth "concrete alternatives to the neoliberal economic model and to policies based on the exploitation of human beings and nature," with one of the key issues this year being nuclear disarmament.
Gordon Edwards, who heads the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and who is attending the conference this week, told Radio Canada International that the world has "turned a corner" with major powers, including the United States, spending "huge amounts of money in reconstituting and in fact modernizing the nuclear arsenals," which he said, "does not bode well for the planet."
The forum's emphasis on disarmament, Edwards said, "seems to be question of urgency because we're turning a corner here and it’s a very dangerous corner. Instead of getting safer and safer we’re heading towards a world where it’s getting more and more dangerous." Notably, the WSF kicks off the same day as the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.
On Monday, a delegation of Elders from the nearby Mohawk community of Kahnawake gave a talk about how "out of kilter" the world has become, in light of nuclear dangers and the potential for total destruction.
Yet, as Canadian journalist Nick Fillmore wrote in Dissident Voice on Monday, some of the original ideologues behind the summit are concerned over the direction it is headed.
According to Fillmore:
Some participants complain about the increase in attendance by Non-governmental organizations, which tend to be more or less comfortable operating within the capitalist environment. Meanwhile, participation by indigenous groups, which are usually more radical, has decreased.
The nature of the WFS event in developing countries over the years has been for large numbers of participants from the continent where the event is held to attend. However, with this get together in the North, Southern participation is expected to be down considerably.
Meanwhile, others want to summit to move beyond discussion into political action, to counter the prevailing systems of capitalism, militarism, and globalization.
Fillmore quotes Pierre Beaudet, founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, who said Monday that there is a "a recognized necessity for [WSF affiliated] movements to seize with both hands some major issues...At this moment, the Forum could open up the self-organized convergences and go further than just producing a mixture of ideas which has characterized it thus far."
Moving into the political arena, another point of controversy between the WSF and its host country is the event's support for the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. Canada, a key ally of Israel, reportedly withdrew the government logo from the list of event partners after two Liberal MPs voiced displeasure with a session about how Islamic extremists are "in the service of world Zionism-capitalism."
The panel has since been cancelled, but organizers stand by "non-apartheid," including Israel's apartheid of Palestinians, as being one of the key commitments of the WSF.