Scott Harris meets with students to discuss successful activism

Prairies regional organizer of the Council of Canadians Scott Harris spoke to students at the U of M about organizing activism and politics in the Canadian prairies on Mar. 12. The workshop intended to give resources and tools for students interested in activism.

The Council of Canadians was formed in 1985, and started with a group of individuals discussing sovereignty issues under the Conservative government. The five campaigns that the organization focuses on are: healthcare, trade, water, energy, and the Blue Planet Project, a movement that works to protect water and the democratic control of it.

Harris began the presentation by presenting the argument of Bob Sass, who asserted that the aphorism “knowledge is power” is false, and that, instead, “power is power.” This means that people may have knowledge, but may not be able or know how to do anything with it. The trick, Harris says, is to know how to use the knowledge to create power.

Harris told the students that the history of social movements has been skewed and often represented by a single individual mobilizing leader – often creating the perception of a successful movement as being led by one key figure. An example he gave was Nelson Mandela as the leader of the Apartheid movement in South Africa. Harris stressed the importance of moving away from elite control of a social movement, since they are a collective entity rather than individually-led.

The key to a strong social movement, he said, is sustainability and pressure. The movement does not give up in the face of victory or defeat but rather builds from these moments.

According to Harris, successful social movements thrive on tensions between several factors. Two recent examples he cited were the Occupy and Idle No More movements: both started out strong but hit a plateau. Harris said that if the Idle No More movement finds a balance between knowledge, structure, and sustainability, then it has potential to be a society-changing movement. He argued that the Occupy movement failed to achieve sustainability.

Harris also claimed that some challenges for activism stem from the need for equity between the social movement and electing government. In Manitoba, there is an opportunity for a change in the governing political party every four years. In places like Alberta, however, there is only one prevailing political party and less chance of a change.

The range of choices of political parties has decreased, said Harris, and therefore the method used to shift power is gone. Traditional activism strategies are not being approached anymore.

Harris argued the Harper government is “changing the rules of the game” with regards to laws and legislation, while forgetting why they were made in the first place. He also said that corporations have become more powerful and should be targeted by movements, since some businesses have taken into consideration issues raised to them.

There is an ever-increasing need, he said, for grassroots movements, which start with a base and find a solid ground to gain momentum.

Two of the main issues facing activism are raising awareness and finding avenues to give people skills that will allow them to engage with social issues, according to Harris.

He also spoke about the spectrum of allies in social movements, which ranges from active allies to neutral allies and active opponents. The key is to move an individual in the right direction. Providing information can help, but not always, and it is possible to overwhelm individuals.

“The point is to move people in action,” said Harris. “By figuring out where people are at in the stages of awareness, you can move with them on the scale of consciousness.”

“When trying to shift power, you have to know where the power lies.”