Anti-globalisation World Social Forum reboots in Montreal

Thousands participate in a festive march through downtown Montreal for the opening the World Social Forum (WSF) on August 9.
Thousands participate in a festive march through downtown Montreal for the opening the World Social Forum (WSF) on August 9. PHOTO: AFP

MONTREAL (AFP) - Fifteen years after the World Social Forum (WSF) began with a huge gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, organisers are hoping to breathe new life into the anti-globalisation movement.

But critics say the latest edition being held in Montreal is a pale copy of the original, with attendance hitting an all-time low.

A mere 15,000 committed anti-globalisation activists have registered for this year's event, which runs until Sunday, compared to 100,000 at its height.

"When I talk with Montrealers, no one is aware of this forum and so few people know about the WSF in general, whereas everyone knows Davos," said Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, contrasting the WSF with its nemesis, the World Economic Form held each year in the posh Swiss Alps resort.

"It's less in tune with the times, we hear less about it than before," sociologist Andre Drainville told AFP.

This first edition of the WSF in a Group of Seven nation (Canada) is also now competing with several upstart social movements that have been more agile and focused.

"In 2011, (Spain's) Indignados movement or Occupy Wall Street in the US did not look to the social forum. Instead they took to the streets," said WSF organiser Raphael Canet.

The WSF's struggle for relevance is also linked to a lack of cohesion among its supporters, according to experts.

"At the World Economic Forum in Davos, business leaders approach problems together" despite their competitive tendencies, said Mintzberg.

Conversely, a spirit of cooperation at the WSF all too often has given way to sectarianism.

"People who are left of me are extremists and people on my right are just opportunistic," said Mintzberg.

There are "constant tensions between those who have a political agenda and those who see the WSF as a social movement," said Drainville, a professor at Laval University in Quebec City.

WSF co-founder Chico Whitaker of Brazil acknowledges that the organisation has much less visibility, largely because it is no longer juxtaposed with the World Economic Forum (early WSFs took place the same week as the WEF).

"We would have to return to the same dates as Davos in order to be seen as a serious alternative" to globalisation, he said.

Organisers of the Montreal event reject any suggestion that the movement is waning, noting they welcomed several new social movements at its last two meetings in Tunis in 2013 and 2015.

"We went to Tunisia because there was something afoot there, and we came to Montreal to build on that momentum," said Canet.

"The path to renewal is through Montreal with its dynamic youth who are greatly involved in the forum," said WSF organiser Carminda Mac Lorin.

According to Drainville, the Forum still has a future as the standardbearer of a movement against globalization.

"The Forum punctuates the story, it is one event that is part of a larger movement and it is the movement that gives importance to the WSF," Drainville said.