In the rush of city life, it is exceptional for a large gathering of people to get together to discuss, face-to-face, concerns that affect their quality of life in their neighbourhoods and urban environment. In discussing their experiences and comparing notes as to what can be done to improve their daily lives, such conversations can be a transformative. A subtle process of empowerment begins changing people into citizens.
There is nothing mystical about the problems of air and water pollution, heavy traffic on residential streets and public transportation, the lack of social housing, green spaces, urban poverty, gender discrimination in hiring practices, community economic development vs. mega construction projects that disrupt, the lack of public consultation and local democracy, the inadequacies of our electoral system…the list of our concerns is long. There are solutions. But faced with our human need to balance our private lives and a public life, the challenge can be daunting.
How exciting then that in Montreal, there is a current of citizens who over the years, having been laying the foundations for a multi-issued urban movement. The attempt seeks to bring individuals and various community organisations together with the view of sharing insights, experiences, networking and thus establishing a human link of solidarity with which to face together the political and economic elite of Montreal to say, yes, no, or maybe if…
Past and Present
Since 2000 a series of citizen summits have been organised on ‘the future of Montreal’. The social forum format was adopted, which meant that these summits did not have decision-making powers like a formal assembly. Instead people as citizens have gotten together to converse, debate and determine their common concerns on a whole variety of public issues with a view towards establishing horizontal links as a means of working together on various campaigns. The citizen summits have been local gatherings in the style of the magnificent World Social Forum which in January met for the fifth time in Belem. Some 100,000 people came together from all over the planet and talked and embraced each other in hundreds of workshops and panels on a wide variety of issues. From 2000, when the first citizen summit met some 248 people came together from across the island, here in Montreal. It was such an enriching experience that participants immediately wanted another summit a year later. The second citizen summit brought together 335 people, the third summit 528, and the fourth, last year over 600.
The idea of a new urban movement has been slowly and steadily gaining ground as those with active concerns seek to break their isolation as individuals and neighbourhood associations, to express a common desire to reach out to others across the city. Each summit has contributed to the larger public debate. From the different summits, came the idea of Montreal’s city council adopting the Kyoto protocol on climate change and starting a sustainable development plan , the idea of a Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities (a local Declaration of Human Rights). This remarkable document was adopted by city council– the idea of democratizing democracy by advancing the practice of participatory democracy and most recently the idea of a participatory budget as practiced now on the Plateau and in scores of cities around the world. All of this political mulch and much more has emerged from the Montreal citizen summit process.
2009 is a municipal election year. November is when we are called upon to vote. What is our place, apart from casting a piece of paper in a box? We can set the agenda! The agenda of public debate can be influenced, but more so by drafting our common demands of what we want changed, improved, or dropped. Thus we can tell the political and economic elite what our priorities are. The political parties parade their promises during elections, we can reverse the process and oblige them to respond to our citizen’s demands.
How? The fifth Montreal citizen summit will be held from June 5-7, 2009 where over 1000 citizens are expected. There will be scores of workshops and panels on such themes as: democracy; the environment, economy, social justice, and culture all set within the urban context of our city. But most importantly as of now, a Citizen Agenda is in the process of being drafted. Hundreds of people and organisations from across the city are in the process of contributing their ideas on what Montreal’s priorities should be. By visiting the citizen summit web-site at www.5sc.ecologieurbaine.net or by picking-up a well designed postcard at the Urban Ecology Centre at 3516 av. du Parc, corner of Milton, everyone is invited to submit their concerns. Hundreds are doing so already. The draft of the Citizen Agenda will be presented to the June summit for discussion, and the politicians are going to be called upon to make their choices accordingly. In this way, we set the parameters of what we, as citizens want in a pro-active manner. On June 7th in an assembly concluding the citizen summit, we hope to tie the ends together and launch an ongoing new urban movement of solidarity.
In the meantime, all associations are invited to hold activities of their own to discuss the future of their neighbourhoods and the city, in relationship to the June summit. Resource people are available to help in whatever way is needed. The Citizen Agenda project could be discussed at all such occasions. One of the exciting pre-summit activities is the holding of the first environmental film festival on “The Environment and Montreal”. From May 22 to June 4, at Cinema du Parc. There will be a series of very interesting films shown, every evening with resource people present and all sorts of documentation. All this culminates with the opening of the 5th Citizen Summit, June 5th which happens to be U.N. World Environment Day. There will also be people from other cities and countries attending giving us their insights and experiences.