The stakes are high. Their voices must be heard.

On July 13, 2009, contract negotiations broke down between Brazil-based mining giant Vale Inco and employees at one of its newest acquisitions – the nickel mines and smelters in Sudbury, Ontario (my hometown).

By all accounts, it has been an acrimonious strike, but this labour struggle is not limited to Sudbury and the consequences of this strike stretch far beyond my city’s borders.

At an information session on June 25, organized and hosted by the Toronto chapter of the United Steelworkers, Vale employees from Manitoba, Brazil and Mozambique shared stories of great promises made and broken, and hopes for a better future dashed. One worker, a coal miner in Mozambique, broke down in tears as he spoke. He told the audience that houses built by Vale are intended to stand only for two years, and that 50 per cent of the coal that will be extracted from the mine has already been sold, most likely to international buyers. Where, he asked rhetorically, are the benefits for the host community? The audience was moved. Several of us cried quietly into shirt sleeves or tissues.  

Another miner from Thompson, Manitoba spoke about unsafe working conditions, including excessive heat and sub-standard parts that are jeopardizing the safety of employees. In just one week in June, six people passed out because of the heat and one fellow quit. Vale, he said, is creating ghost towns as families seek work elsewhere.

“They’re destroying our people,” he told those assembled. He believes Vale is trying to set a precedent in Sudbury, because, “if you take down the big dog first,” the others will follow.

But strikers and their supporters are fighting back, and on June 26, United Steelworkers Local 6500 took it to the streets.  

“Essentially, Vale is the poster child for everything for which the G20 is criticized,” Jamie West, a flash furnace operator for the past eight years, told me in Toronto. “They have a horrendous environmental record; they treat their workers without dignity or respect; their treatment of indigenous people is embarrassing – especially in Brazil. Their corporate agenda, along with the complacency of government legislation, is the root cause of all of this.”   

With all eyes on Toronto, and more than 4,000 media delegates on the ground to cover the G20 summit from all angles, Local 6500 sent two busloads of strikers to march in the People First community rally. 

“We've vowed to shine the light on Vale’s corporate misdeeds wherever people will listen,” West said. “Let's face it, 3,000 people have been out of work unnecessarily for 11.5 months. The time for Dalton McGuinty (Ontario’s premier) to represent the people of Ontario – and not only the wealthiest shareholders in the world – is long overdue.”

West is proud to stand on the picket line with his co-workers and proud to be a Sudburian. Humbled by what he has seen over the past 11 months, he believes it absurd that some people think the strikers are being greedy. They are simply fighting for status quo.  

“It's a true testament to (the strikers’) commitment to keep the gains that were earned by our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” West said. “I feel honoured to be included in that group.”

Not surprisingly, the strike has been difficult; however, West told me he has fared better than some of his colleagues, including one who, as of May, had lost his marriage, his house and all of his savings.

“At that time, he said he was $20,000 in debt,” West said. “How can sacrifices like that be considered greedy? How long will it take for these people to recover financially? How long will it take them to recover their personal lives?”  

He admits Inco was an imperfect employer, but says at least the company, acquired by Vale in October 2006, cared about the community of Sudbury. West calls Vale heartless and says he feels bitter-sweet about its recent decision to drop the word Inco from their name in Sudbury.

“I lived in Sudbury for 38 years and Sudbury has always been synonymous with Inco and Falconbridge,” he said. “While I'm disappointed that Vale has chosen to drop the Inco name and end that strong history, I think it is appropriate too. Let's face it, Vale is not Inco. I think they've disguised themselves as the old Inco for too long and I'm happy that they've chosen to peel off that mask and show their true face. I sincerely hope that Sudburians wake up and recognize that Vale is not Inco.

“That's not hyperbole. I recently attended the First International Conference of Those Affected by Vale. It was a two-week conference held in Rio de Janeiro with 180 participants from 13 different countries. Whether the speaker was from Australia, Peru, Mozambique, Canada or Brazil, the story was consistent – Vale’s quest for greater and greater profits leaves workers, communities and the environment suffering.”

According to West, the company has a shockingly poor safety record in Brazil.

“Did you know that Vale averages 80 rail deaths a year in Brazil? Last year they killed 108 Brazilians with their trains,” he pointed out. “Their families’ only compensation was a free coffin.”

Make no mistake – this is not simply a labour dispute for better wages, better pensions and more statutory holidays. This is about life, limb and livelihood.  

Carolyn Egan, president of the Toronto District Council of the United Steelworkers, said hosting the Local 6500 crew is a matter of solidarity. She believes the final contract will set a precedent for workers’ rights and describes the strike as ‘a line in the sand,’ with the potential to set international labour standards.      

“You have a situation in which a very profitable company – whether it’s Canadian or foreign doesn’t matter to me – has come into a town and is trying to make massive changes,” she said. “They want to bring down the pensions and the wages of the Sudbury workers. We know the G20 leaders are coming and that they will be making huge decisions that will affect all of our lives. … I think it’s very important that the people who are affected, (who are) trying to maintain a standard of living, are here to show their concern. They want to make sure everybody is treated with dignity and respect. That voice is hugely important on the international stage.”

The strikers are resolute. They will not concede. They know what is at stake.

Steve Ball, a spokesperson for Vale, had no comment on the march, saying only, “this was nothing to do with us.”

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 27, 2010

G20 summit 2010 - Toronto

People assembled en masse June 26 at Queen’s Park, Ontario’s provincial legislature, for a day of demonstrations. There were an estimated 10,000 people on the legislature lawn and the march, which was deemed family-friendly by organizers, started out peacefully.

Photo taken at the G20 summit protests in Toronto, Canada 2010.

You can read the full photo blogs here: 

G20 photo blog day 1.

G20 photo blog day 2.

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown

A day of tactical diversity

It was the day we had been waiting for all week – the day the people came together to make some noise (and to break some glass, incidentally). It was the day the massive G20 security detail had planned for, the day they dreaded would come to fruition – some reports indicate officers worked more than 17 hours on Saturday – and the day that, for some Torontonians, would justify a monstrous price tag of one billion dollars to host the G20 summit.

People assembled en masse June 26 at Queen’s Park, Ontario’s provincial legislature, for a day of demonstrations. There were an estimated 10,000 people on the legislature lawn and the march, which was deemed family-friendly by organizers, started out peacefully.

I walked with about 200 United Steelworkers from all over the world, who stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Sudbury, Ontario (my home town) who are nearly one year into an acrimonious strike with Vale, the Brazilian mining giant. We arrived at Queen’s Park, from where the big march was set to begin, to an atmosphere that was quite friendly and hopeful. We were a community of communities. Women led the march, standing in solidarity with their global sisters, to campaign for universal access to abortion. There were representatives from national and international labour movements; groups calling for an end to the occupations of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet; an Ethiopian group calling for an end to Meles Zenawi’s rule; and dozens of civil society organizations.

At about 3 p.m. – two hours into the march – things started to get tense. I noticed black-clad individuals, their faces obscured by bandanas and balaclavas, assembling into increasingly large groups. I knew who they were and what they intended to do. The black block, which is really a tactical ideology rather than an organized group, is known to be destructive, militant, confrontational and fearless in the face of riot police.

But why do they do it?

“I’m participating in the anti-G20 protests because I think they're important historical events in which large masses of people mobilize to confront those in power – the ruling class – and out of which arises greater social consciousness,” explains a protester named John (not his real name), from western Canada. “This is especially important now as we enter a period of even greater socio-economic and ecological crises.”

But what about the issues of social justice? In speaking with several people this week while marching, I have become skeptical that they all understand why they are demonstrating – besides making some noise, disrupting traffic and telling off the security detail.

“I’m not really protesting any primary issue,” John says. “The fundamental problems of this system are capitalism and colonialism. I would like to have seen a greater anti-capitalist and anti-colonial analysis and practice in this mobilization, but as it seems largely dominated by NGOs, it is instead focused on single-issue campaigns.”

Ok, so it is not really about one specific issue or cause, but the systemic way in which socio-economic disparity is created and perpetuated, and the way it permeates societies in subtle and overt ways.

But why get destructive to convey the message?   

“Black block tactics are useful in countering the state’s promotion of itself as all-powerful and omnipotent, and in salvaging large protests from purely empty rituals and rhetoric,” John says. “Militant resistance, which has been a part of every successful radical movement, does not magically appear but must be itself promoted, organized and carried out, in order for greater resistance to emerge.”

Not all anarchists engage in Black Block tactics. On Saturday, before heading to Queen’s Park with the steelworkers, I spoke with Alex, a spokesperson for Common Cause, an Ontario-wide anarchist organization.

“We’re here to demonstrate our opposition to the G20 policies,” he told me. “We think these policies are destructive to the environment and to workers’ rights. They’ve engineered a global financial crisis. They got us to bail them out and by doing so, they bankrupted us. And now they’re coming back for more through austerity programs.

“At Common Cause, we decided only to march in the two major marches. We decided against splitting off and joining the more confrontational march. We’re here to get our ideas out and to demonstrate our opposition.”

For Common Cause, raising awareness of urgent issues is more important than raising fists, fighting riot police (who seemed hyper-vigilant and increasingly tense as the week wore on) or shattering glass. Alex told me his group is invested in doing front-line, grassroots activities in their own communities, but that it respects the diversity of tactics others may employ.

I think John makes a good point and his statements are thought-provoking. I appreciate the anti-capitalist and anti-colonial sentiment he expresses, but I remain ambivalent to the Black Block hijacking what was a peaceful and festive demonstration. They were all over local and national media last night, which portrayed Toronto as a ‘city under siege’ (according to the Canadian Press) and overrun by ‘thugs’ (said the Prime Minister’s Office). In fact, it was only a very small area in downtown Toronto that was shut down and by 6 p.m., people were jogging and walking their dogs along the march route. I also saw many folks strolling along Yonge Street, curious to know what had happened earlier in the afternoon. 

The images – of windows shattered by projectile and police cars engulfed in flames – are certainly striking, but they do not tell the real story – of injustice, disparity, inter-generational poverty and dependence, disenfranchisement and, perhaps worst, hopelessness.   

I enjoy many civil liberties. I live in a place where I can speak up, question and dissent. Clean water and food are plentiful. These struggles did not come freely or without sacrifice. Despite the shock value of Black Block tactics, there are underlying causes and circumstances that lead activists to believe they have no other recourse.

“There has never been a radical movement that has achieved any substantial social change without using a diversity of tactics, including militant, violent resistance,” John points out. “The pacifist myths about Gandhi and (Martin Luther) King are just that – myths. Both the Indian independence struggle and the Black civil rights movement in the USA had militant resistance and used a diversity of tactics, including armed struggle, rioting, arson, etc. It is only the pacifists and the state who promote these struggles as purely non-violent.”

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 27, 2010

Toxic tour hits Toronto

An amateur video surfaced recently on The Huffington Post, showing what appears to be oily rain running into street sewers in Louisiana. The video is shocking and, if it really is an oily downpour, it will, for many people, give new meaning to the term climate crisis.

With this spirit of urgency in mind, protesters gathered at Alexandra Park on June 23 to take a winding, three-hour Toxic Tour through downtown Toronto.

Activists have mobilized heartily for a week of anti-G20 action, and at Wednesday’s rally, scores of protesters showed up to lend their voice to the fight for environmental justice, and to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples in North America and those living in the majority world. 

“I’m hoping to raise awareness (about fossil fuels, the tar sands and the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico),” Mike Muscat, a Toronto musician and bitumen folk, told me. “I think the general public tends to have a negative view on protesters – people voicing their strong opinions on strong matters. People are dying in Alberta and in the communities surrounding the tar sands, from cancer and toxic water and things like that. ... People that are really affected have no voice. It’s all about money. If you have money, you can lobby the government. It doesn’t seem like the term indigenous land means anything to (the G20 leaders).”

The rally was a festive gathering, replete with several bitumen folk – bodies covered in an eco-friendly mixture resembling oil droplets (actually an edible, though unpalatable, mixture of cocoa, vegetable oil and corn starch); a human-powered dump truck; floats (all made from recycled materials) depicting the effects of oil spills on water-reliant animals and the Alberta tar sands gigaproject; an imposing economic dragon, reminiscent of a blackened, oil-soaked river; and, of course, a band to keep marchers motivated in the sweltering noon-hour heat. The Raging Grannies, a quartet of silver-haired dames, also enchanted the crowd with a collection of witty protest songs. 

“With these mobilizations, we’re hoping to bring people together to show leaders that ‘we are many, you are few’ (a chant heard often this week),” explained Maryam Adrangi, a representative of the G20 Toronto Community Mobilization Network and one of the event’s organizers. “They’re not people who are connected to their communities; they’re quite separate. They’re sitting on big piles of money and not using it to benefit the countries they ‘represent.’ I think that’s the issue. The issues that are being brought up during the G8 and G20 aren’t new. They’re struggles people live through every single day. The leaders don’t live through that every day and they’re not getting together to talk about that. They’re not talking about the struggles. I don’t think the summits are legitimate forums to be discussing global issues. The G8 and G20 have made many promises in the past, but they haven’t kept those promises. They really can’t be trusted.”

During Wednesday’s Toxic Tour, which all but halted traffic along the University of Toronto and University Avenue corridors, marchers visited three hot spots – where members of the crowd shared their stories and experiences, and made vocal declarations of disapproval of some of the nefarious deals taking place behind closed doors. First stop was the Royal Bank – targeted for financing the Alberta tar sands project. Next up was the University of Toronto, which in April 2010 accepted a 35 million USD donation from Barrick mining company. Lastly, we ended the afternoon at the Toronto Superior Court House, just across University Avenue from the American consulate, where inside officials were debating whether or not to allow the use of the LRAD (long-range acoustic device) sound cannon.

Strong police presence

I’ve attended three protests so far. Each has been bigger than the last, and the police presence (and hostility) at each has grown – exponentially, it seems.

At an afternoon demonstration on June 21, anti-poverty activists gathered to decry the money spent on the G20 summit – in the absence of adequate social housing and economic policies that create ever-growing disparities between the rich and the poor. The crowd that gathered at Allan Gardens was surprisingly small and it seemed the police far outnumbered protesters.  

Testament, a hip hop artist based in southern Ontario, told media on Monday he believes police have been using intimidation techniques to keep protesters away.

“They’ve been announcing all these new weapons they have,” he told reporters. “They make it seem like there’s going to be a war and they’re preparing the public for a war. It doesn’t have to be that way. They’re doing that to justify the billion dollars they’re spending – a billion dollars worth of repression and violence against Torontonians who may want to stand up and say, ‘hey, I don’t like this meeting taking place in my city.’”

He may be onto something. One woman who hurried by the Toxic Tour on Wednesday referred to the increased police presence as a cancer on the city. In March 2008, Michelle Couture, who lives in North York, attended a rally in Montreal to protest against police brutality. Ironically, things did not end well for her that day.

“Things started out peaceful at first,” she recalls. “I remember we were walking and people were chanting. My friend and I were walking on the sidewalk and an officer in riot gear walked right into me and pushed me to the ground – that was my first time ever experiencing something like that. We eventually reached an intersection and we were standing on the corner for awhile, with the cops on the other side of the street all lined up in a row. Finally, my friend said to me ‘get ready to run’ and next thing I know, the cops were counting to three and they started running after us. I ran as fast as I could, but they caught up with me. I remember seeing the sidewalk curb as I was falling and thinking that I would hit my face right on it, but I fell to my side instead. Next thing, three cops in riot gear with steel-toed boots were kicking at me and yelling at me. I was freaking out and crying and yelling at them that I couldn't move because they were kicking me. I think my friend or someone else picked me up from the ground. I blacked out for about three seconds.”

It was the first – and last – time Couture participated in direct action. Although she would like to lend her voice to the democratizing platform demonstrations provide, she is afraid something similar may happen in the lead-up to the summit.

“If only there wasn't this fear of getting shot at with rubber bullets, hit by security, having your ear drums shatter because of the sound cannon or having tear gas in your face, more people would probably go,” Couture says.

Kind humanity inside the perimeter

Despite the stern police presence, and the tension around the perimeter areas, there has been an abundance of humanity on the frontlines of the protests so far. On June 21, a group showed up with platters of food for participants – crispy greens, freshly-cut ripe tomatoes and decadent homemade sandwiches. Bottled water was distributed to those who waited out the nearly three-hour affair.

On Wednesday, I ran into a member of a group providing support services for activists.

“We are providing peer support – with general counselors and psychologists – to individuals who experience sexual assault or other forms of trauma during the G20 summit,” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, explained. “Men can get counseling for sexual assault or trauma, as well. All are welcome (the centre is queer-friendly) and we work from an anti-oppressive framework.” 

To reach counselors, individuals can call 1-416-556-6256. Callers will be directed to the centre, or counselors will meet with them at an off-site location. Individuals who have been assaulted may also contact the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre at 1-416-597-8808.

Onward we marched on Wednesday, with the climate cliff growing ever-closer, in an era of negotiations gone into ‘overdrive’ (according to the Pembina Institute), inside an impenetrable security perimeter police had created with their bodies and bicycles. As we moved south on University Avenue, organizers sang out, “Whose side are you on, people?” to bystanders and passers-by. It must be a rhetorical question, right? I mean, what’s the alternative?

Read more: day 2.

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 24, 2010

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