Interview: Ann Collins on the challenges and opportunities for uniting Indigenous and settler struggles

October 1, 2014

From August 21 to 24, thousands of participants from social movements across the country converged in Ottawa for the Peoples’ Social Forum. Among its many goals, the forum aimed to bridge Canadian, Quebec and Indigenous struggles, conversations and ideas for how to transform Canada.

The CCPA took part in three PSF workshops on climate, gender, and governance and democracy. Executive Director Bruce Campbell shared his latest findings on the Lac-Mégantic disaster—a gross failure to properly regulate a dangerous industry. Kate McInturff, senior researcher, joined Lauren Ravon with Oxfam Canada in a workshop unpacking the concept of racial and gender inequality, and its impacts on Canada and around the world. And Stuart Trew, senior editor of the CCPA Monitor, took part in a workshop on confronting corporate power that was organized by the Polaris Institute.

In early September, the CCPA’s Caitlin Armstrong sat down with Ana Collins, Indigenous co-ordinator of the Peoples’ Social Forum, to talk about the gathering from an organizer’s perspective. Collins, 34, is currently based out of Ottawa, Ontario. She was one of three PSF co-ordinators along with Darius Mirshahi and Roger Rashi. 

Armstrong: Why did you want to work as an organizer for the forum?

Collins: I was actually asked by elders to take the job, or at least to apply for the job. I mean, I could have said no, and I was aware of what I was getting into, but we have teachings that [say] when you are asked to do something there is a reason for that and sometimes we don’t recognize our own skills or our own knowledge or we feel that we are not the right person for it. Because we have been asked, it is a good indication that we are the person to do that, and I kept having that re-affirmed to me through the process, like people kept saying, “It’s good that you are the one who is doing this.”

What, in your opinion, were the goals of the forum, if you can pinpoint them? 

I think the social forum structure and process as a global phenomena is intended to bring civil society together—different organizations, people and groups who make up society—and get them talking to one another and working together. So often we work in silos. You have the environmentalists over here and you have labour rights activists over there and you have Indigenous peoples over here, and nobody is really talking to one another, and by focusing on movements rather than silos the idea was to bring people together in new ways to work together.

As the Indigenous co-ordinator the language I use is that the social forum is designed to build relationships in that original spirit and intent of the first treaties… And then because the social forum focuses on alternatives to the structure we have now, and the society and the solutions that we have now, it’s still building on that good spirit of working together.

Now that the forum is over in a formal sense, is it possible to measure how close you came to achieving the original goals? 

Very close. I think we had about 4,000 people participating in the workshops and assemblies throughout the four days and maybe as many as 7,000 at the march and that’s pretty incredible. The feedback I get now has been about 99% positive. There have been a few people who have had a couple of little problems, but given the size of the event and the breadth of what happened, not just during those four days, I think it was incredibly successful.

Where is it going now? How is the forum continuing on? 

The original goal back in Edmonton [in July 2013] was that the [forum] in Ottawa would be the first and in two or three years there would be a second one, preferably out west (we are not really sure where yet). And so given that it was, I think, organizationally a success and socially a success and financially a success…there is certainly a sense, a positive feeling in the steering committee, that this is good, we can do this again, nobody has died, nobody is really damaged by the process or anything like that, and we can move forward. So, while we are not saying a specific date yet, there are definitely discussions about the next one and there is a core group of people who were committed two years ago to make this happen and they are still committed to making this happen…

On top of that there are actually regional social forums that are happening. So next week (September 19–21) there is one in Saskatchewan, which I am going to on behalf of the Social Forum, and there is one in Vancouver planned for June… Halifax and Prince Edward Island are talking about holding one, but they are thinking of combining it now. There is one in Hamilton. There is one somewhere in Quebec [and these] are going to continue happening, leading up to another big one.

Are there lessons to be learned from the forum on organizing the left?

One thing that I have been saying all along, and Darius would agree with me on this, is that it can’t be three individual organizers or co-ordinators. I think what worked really well in the U.S. social forum model is they had anchor organizations who took on the brunt of doing the local logistical organizing. So if it was in Ottawa [that] could be three organizations that already have large networks and some capacity—that would make a huge difference I think… And even though we had a phenomenal volunteer crew on the ground, they are still volunteers and there is still a limit to what we could expect them to do. I am not going to lie: we worked 72 hours straight one week, and the last month before the forum we probably got a maximum four hours of sleep a night…

And then certainly [with respect to] proposing the next site, let’s say it is in Saskatchewan or Alberta or Manitoba or wherever they decide out west it’s going to be, it has to be a proposal from the community itself. Because a lot of people here in Ottawa didn’t even know [the Peoples’ Social Forum] was happening. Even a month before, it was a big surprise for a lot of organizations and people and you just can’t have that. You need to have the community behind it before you start organizing.

Finally, as the Indigenous co-ordinator, I think the actual proposal needs to come from the Indigenous community of the territory that is proposed. So if Regina comes forward and says that they really want to have it there it’s got to be Treaty 4 Cree who actually put the proposal to the steering committee. I think it’s that kind of restructuring of the relationship that’s going to make a long term difference in seeing this as a valid process for other Indigenous communities and organizations to get involved with. It was very difficult for me to go to communities—and I did a lot of traveling for this—and say, “Hey, look what the settlers are doing.” And even though there has been an Indigenous caucus leading this from the very first meeting it still came across as a settler activity, and it was very hard to convince some people to get involved. 

Would you say this is an issue with Indigenous–settler organizing generally, even outside of a Peoples’ Social Forum?

Definitely. I mean that is a very difficult subject, and just for basic reasons. I have been to a lot of events where they have called in an elder to do an opening and a prayer and then that is kind of it, and it comes across as tokenism. It also puts a lot of demands on people—elders are people too—[who] have got stuff going on in their world and family and maybe jobs depending on their age. 

And so whether it be the social forum [or] any organization that is doing a lot work in a community there are ways to really actively listen and collaborate with Indigenous people. It’s got to be really different, and it will be hard because we have been trained, all of us have been trained for 200 years now, not to work together, and it is really hard to break down that divide. So you are right, it’s not just the social forum, but it’s also not a simple answer.

There is [also] the other aspect of Canadians being very focused in the Canadian way of doing things and a lot of Indigenous peoples who negotiate that structure constantly because we have to, but also have a whole other component of our realities, which is based on nationhood and sovereignty. Some people just don’t have time or energy to do that collaborative work and so that needs to be recognized, and the reasons why it exists need to be recognized.