I was invited to the Canadian Social Forum 2009, hosted by the Canadian Council on Social Development — it took place in May in Calgary. Pam Shime, the founding director of the Global Advocacy and Leadership Initiative and I spent some time getting to know each other via Skype as we were co-faciliating a workshop on advocacy in hard economic times.
The forum organizers had made some serious effort to bring together diverse communities working in the anti-poverty field. They particularly made a point of offering subsidies to advocates and poor people in marginalized communities. But, as Athena McKenzie Lothian asks in her blog post, “Where are the People Living in Poverty”? There were real attempts to give marginalized anti-poverty participants a voice in plenaries and workshops, but the roots of the problem lie deeper and are grounded in the kind of event it was. I had tried to talk a couple of anti-poverty organizers from Vancouver into attending, prepared to do the negotiating re: subsidies, because they would have been a dynamite addition to our workshop, and to the conference as a whole. But they both politely and extremely firmly declined. They were too busy on the ground.
And so, my thoughts on why a conference (or a forum) is not the best way to go when you’re trying to alleviate poverty:
ARRIVING AT THE HOTEL: I didn’t have a working credit card (although my room had been paid for, there was a mixup with information being faxed) and so immediately was put in the position of most people attending conferences without credit cards, of being told to sort it out before I moved into my room.
THE RECEPTION AT THE TELUS CONFERENCE CENTRE: Massive, alienating space, lovely to see some friends from all over Canada (and BC), free h’ors d’oeuvres (my fellow advocate from BC and I cursed having already had dinner!). Went to line up for a ticket for a glass of wine. Eight dollars. I clearly reacted; a friend behind me offered to buy me one. I declined; the wine suddenly wasn’t the point.
THE FOOD: After our first lunch, when it was clear that there was going to be a pile of food left over, I talked to the staff at the hotel about what happened to it all. “It gets thrown out.” I asked if there was any way it could be redistributed. The person I talked to said that the conference centre used to have the food distributed to poor people, but someone got sick and so they don’t do it any more. Apparently there’s no organization in Calgary that picks up food. I could have gone and got plastic containers, at least for the sandwiches (we’ve done that before in Vancouver). I didn’t. Someone brought it up at the town hall at the end of the forum; she was talking on behalf of a co-worker in a local organization who was too angry to speak herself.
THE STAFF: One of the issues that came up over and over again at the conference was the Living Wage Campaign. It’s a campaign that points out that a minimum wage is not a living wage, and that:
“A living wage allows lower-income families to avoid having to make impossible choices, such as whether to buy food or heat the house, feed the children or pay the rent. The living wage calculation includes basic expenses for a two-earner family with two young children (such as housing, childcare, food and transportation), and government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies. It finds that each parent would need to work full-time at an hourly wage of $16.74 in Metro Vancouver and $16.39 in Greater Victoria in order to pay for necessities, support the healthy development of their children and participate in the social and civil life of their communities.” (from a September 2008 press release from CCPA).
There was much enthusiasm and support for the Living Wage Campaign (and indeed it’s one that makes a lot of sense.) Someone got up at the town hall and observed that the staff at the Telus Conference Centre were not making a living wage.
It’s easy to criticize after the fact. It’s clearly important to engage all levels of concerned people when it comes to alleviating poverty. That includes researchers, academics, community workers, advocates, workers (both organized and unorganized) and poor people. And they were all there. But it’s hard to make that engagement real when the power balance isn’t equal. And it’s usually money that tips that balance, be it wages or glasses of wine. A friend and I talked after the conference about the idea of holding “A People’s Forum” across the road (metaphorically speaking) like they do at international consultations. But then, how do we cross the road?
Something happened on my way back to my hotel after the conference was over. I was walking up the hill from the C-train, and I saw a homeless man (I assumed by the shopping cart) also struggling up the hill. Two cops on bicycles accosted him as we all reached the top. They started asking him questions about where he was going, what he was doing. He tried to cross the road as the light changed, and they told him “they weren’t done with him yet.” I stopped. The cops looked at me; I made a snap decision that I wasn’t going to get directly involved because I could leave town, and the homeless man couldn’t – and they knew his name. Brian, it was. I crossed the road and stood watching on the other side, making sure I stayed in their line of sight. Eventually, they let him go and he crossed the road. The police officers got on their bikes and took off. So did I; I figured Brian likely didn’t want to talk about it.