Youth voices of resistance at the WSF: how young activists are overturning austerity in the Americas

Youth voices of resistance at the WSF: how young activists are overturning austerity in the Americas


By: Maia Kelly
Date: 17 August 2016

7262623188_d642588c00_kWe were in Montreal Quebec, at the 12th World Social Forum. There is certainly a lot of learning that youth-led social movements in the UK can take away from the struggles across the pond. Quebec has a progressive political culture. And no, I’m not referring to Trudeau’s electoral win. His pro-austerity politics represent a shift to the centre, not the left; as he is often branded when compared to his predecessor Stephen Harper.

Rather, I’ve discovered that there is a visible generation of students still radicalised by the protests in 2012, which led to the rolling back of tuition fees. I’ve been privileged to meet those involved in this uprising, and learn about how the demonstrations erupted when education fees increased under Liberal Premier Jean Charest.

An incredible 300,000 post secondary students went on strike in the city that spring. They planted red maple trees at the foot of Mount Royal Mountain, and wore red squares pinned to their clothes; symbolising the fact they would be indebted and ‘in the red’. These symbols gave the movement its name; the Maple Spring. It still remains the largest and longest student strike in North America today.

There is also a lot of wisdom to glean from other youth movements who have come to the forum to share their stories of resistance. It was really encouraging to meet young activist Maria from TerrActiva, who had been central in agitating the successful youth movement in Peru.

Maria explained that in Lima, a mega city of 8 million, 30% of the population is below 28.  There are 1.5 million young people neither in work or study, and 9/10 young people work in the informal sector. In December 2014, the Peruvian government passed the ‘Youth Labour Law’ or ‘Lay Pulpin’.  This law aimed to bring young people into the formal sector, by cutting away employment benefits in order to make it affordable for small businesses to hire more young workers. The law destroyed workers rights such as unemployment compensation, life insurance, family bonuses, and holidays for working young people between 18 and 24. Following this, the youth movement mobilised between 50,000 to 100,000 people on the streets across 11 cities in Peru, leading to the law being retracted.

Seeing parallel struggles being fought across the globe, makes the reality really sink in: It is a systemic and structural form of violence, that fundamental provisions such as fair employment and affordable quality education are being sacrificed for the juggernaut of Neoliberal orthodoxy.

But the scale of these youth-led mobilisations in Peru and Quebec is remarkable. Not only have these events added huge weight to the global anti-austerity movement, but they also give hope to other youth movements fighting to defend our rights, liberties and planet. The historic importance of these events lies in the fact that both youth movements didn’t stop there. It was inspiring to hear that these politicised and victorious campaigners went on to mobilise again, in opposition to Keiko Fujimori’s election campaign in Peru, and some alongside the separatist movement in Quebec.

Reminding myself of these victories, gives me fuel for some of the youth organising work we are doing in the UK. This September Global Justice Now is launching a new youth network that aims to empower young people to fight the power of corporations and the 1%. That includes fighting against free trade deals like CETA, stopping privatisation of our public services, and demanding meaningful action on climate change. We also want to build solidarity with those at the sharp end of this capitalist system – especially refugees and migrants.

If you’re under 28 and want to campaign for a world run in the interests of people, not profit, please get in touch by emailing: [email protected]. We will be running a free day of activist training in October and will send you more information when the date is confirmed.

Photo: Maple Spring protest in Quebec Credit: G Morel/Flickr