Our School of Activism has several years of history behind it and roots going back decades.

The following is from a discussion document that was circulated as part of developing the coalition of the Activist School between 2003 and 2006:

A Centre for Living Democracy

November 29, 2004



Canada, like much of the world, is in the midst of a profound crisis of democracy. Voter turnout is low and declining. Fifteen years of privatization, cutbacks and deregulation have promoted private gain over public control and debate; cutbacks and media marginalization of advocacy groups have meant a narrowing of voices heard in the public arena; and professionalization of politics has made political participation less and less accessible to ordinary people.

At the same time, at the grass roots level there is a lot of interest in political participation. Non-traditional political activism has grown over the last few years through the anti-globalization, anti-war movements, anti-poverty work, the “no one is illegal” movements and others. Many people are getting involved in their communities for the first time. However, unlike the social movements of the 1960s, these new movements have not yet developed structured organizations that can train and retain new activists. In some important ways, social movements are losing ground. [more on page 4]


The time has come to create a space and a sustained, supported process in which social movements, community organization and trade unions can more effectively cooperate to build lasting capacity through political education, support for skills development, and the creation of a common political principles based on mutual respect and democratic practice. In other words, a democracy school project for community organizers and activists from social movement groups, labour unions and individuals who want to develop the collective knowledge we need – a school that will provide tools, training, and education in strategic thinking and planning, and a network to support people’s continued education in their activism locally, regionally and across Canada. [more on page 6]


The initial Steering Committee for the Democracy School has representatives from labour, social movement and community organizations.  Some organizations are acting as “lead agencies” – taking on responsibilities to organize and mobilize Democracy School projects in their regions.  There are representatives from Quebec and almost every province as well as a growing diversity of culture and ethnicity.  [more on page 5]


Our focus this year is on dialogue,  research and curriculum development. We are visiting communities conducting “consultas” to listen and learn and change what needs to be changed. We have held consultas in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and British Columbia and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We are developing curricula and will be piloting schools across Canada and Quebec in 2005.  [more on page 9 and 11]


We envision a project that supports local, regional, national and even international activities and learning exchanges. The “school” will have lead regional agencies across Canada, Quebec and in Indigenous communities. The Democracy School is not a place but an organization for social change. Special emphasis in designing this project is being placed on the participation and leadership of youth, people of colour and other marginalized communities. There will be a number of ways for people to participate in the school. Each year we will offer national programs. There will be a core program that is developed cooperatively and offered annually. In addition, school curriculum will be shared at conferences and gatherings of community and labour groups and will be available to participating organizations for their own purposes.  The practice and theory of popular education will play a key role in the programming, which will be developed cooperatively. Each regional lead agency will host the national school in different years. There will be continuity through a small national staff. We see a long course and a shorter course and the possibility for a youth camp. The school will also provide support for local trainings, workshops, and organizing. Web-based downloadable resources will also be explored. [More on page 6]



Canada, like much of the rest of the world, is in the midst of a profound crisis of democracy.

From low voter turnout[1], to a rise in privatization (limiting public control over much of our lives) to cutbacks in advocacy groups, there is a growing disenfranchisement with civic engagement.

The public influence once enjoyed by social movements is in serious decline. Social activism has been marginalized by the media and portrayed most often as periodic confrontational protests. The idea that citizens can engage in a sustained struggle for equality, social justice or deepened democracy has become more and more remote to most people.

A few of the elements of the decline in democratic space include:

  • The triumph of neo-liberalism, a philosophy that promotes the individual over the collective, the private over the public and profit over social need;
  • The ongoing exploitation by powerful corporations and international financial institutions of Indigenous peoples, people of colour and their resources around the world. The impact of this exploitation has its historical roots in slavery, colonialism, and imperialism and continues to manifest itself today through globalization and neo-liberalism;
  • The intensification of consumerism as the major contribution of the individual to society, e.g. George W. Bush’s exhortation to Americans to shop as a way of combating terrorism;
  • The power of corporations and international trade and investment deals as well as international economic organizations that put restrictions on government action and citizen influence;
  • Cutbacks, privatization and deregulation reducing the role of the state as a positive force in peoples’ lives;
  •  Cutbacks in public funding to advocacy groups and media marginalization of these groups and their efforts that have limited their ability to organize and reach out to the broader public.
  • The gap between rich and poor is increasing, aggravating other forms of oppression and promoting a culture of competition in and amongst communities

However, there is always resistance and hope. Great education, organizing, and community development work is happening in every province. Non-traditional political activism has grown over the last few years through the anti-globalization, anti-war movements, anti-poverty work and “no one is illegal” campaigns, and many people are getting involved on a wide range of issues in their communities (from community safety to voter activism) for the first time. Many, in fact, would not call themselves “activists” but are active to promote community development, representing not just the “usual suspects” of a narrow definition of “activism”.

Yet, unlike the social movements of the 1960s, these new movements have not yet developed structured organizations that can train and retain new activists. In some important ways, social movements are losing ground. Furthermore, the strong education work of unions and social movement groups tends to be isolated, with little sharing of ideas, programs and resources amongst sectors or even within sectors.

Community groups want to improve their practice and thinking but are only able to do so piecemeal, in crisis mode through a hodgepodge of workshops on facilitation, conflict resolution, strategic planning. These efforts are often isolated and difficult to fund and sustain. Frequently, costly repetition of these efforts is also necessary due to the chronically high turnover of volunteers and staff.  Community members may come for a course in these programs but their learning is not reinforced by continued contact, continued education or further reflection on their experience.

Many individual activists who have the means enter the academy to satisfy their need to better understand their world and, for too few, to improve their practice. But how many end up leaving the movement when they make this choice? There is a history of sharing: coalition work, collaboration, study circles, study groups and more, which has effectively promoted community change. However, political pressures and changes in social movements since the 1980s have made such collaboration more difficult. We have forgotten many of the lessons learned in the coalition work of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. What sharing exists now is disorganized in most regions and especially nationally.

The consequences of not building strategic capacity include: endless fight back, continued burnout (especially in the communities resisting oppression), competition between allies for resources, duplication of effort, exclusion of marginalized and oppressed communities, inefficient spending, and a failure to think and act strategically. In other words, an inability to effectively embrace the democratic opportunities that Canada provides.

We have a vision to promote democratic community solutions across Canada, Quebec and Indigenous communities[2].  To achieve this we will link activists across sectors, regions, and cultures, build sustained relationships and networks, develop collective skills and political understanding, and facilitate the creation of collective political visions and strategies. This vision will come to be through the Democracy School.

The Democracy School will promote democracy and social change through community education and organizing.  The school will create spaces where new activists and community organizers can learn skills and deepen their political understanding, where experienced activists can share their successes and failures and acquire new perspectives on their work; and where people can discuss and develop new strategies and resources for organizing for social change.

Special emphasis in designing this project is being placed on the participation and leadership of youth, people of colour and other marginalized communities. This school recognizes the specific histories and needs of different communities and cultures. The needs of new activists as well as long-time activists will be served. Activism at local, regional, country and international levels will be addressed.

The Democracy School will build an infrastructure to promote and support local education and organizing activities across Canada.  The school will connect people virtually and physically across regions, across sectors and across cultures. The school will collectively develop and share resources. It will be both a network of existing resources and a centre for developing and sharing new resources.  The ultimate goal of the Centre is to vastly expand the capacity of progressive social forces to promote democratic change in Canada.

The school will operate from a human rights and anti-oppression framework, including operating in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, provincial human rights codes and other human rights declarations, codes and laws.



No single organization or even sector is capable of creating or owning this project. It requires the participation and accountability of multiple interests with a strong commitment to participation from a diversity of organizations, geography, background, and community affiliations.

In early 2003, the Democracy School began as an ad hoc group[3] discussing the concept with a number of people and organizations across Canada.  In March 2004 the inaugural Steering Committee was formed.  This Steering Committee has representatives from labour and social movement and community organizations.  Some organizations acting as “lead agencies” are taking on responsibilities to organize and mobilize democracy school projects in their regions.

Social movement and community groups currently represented include: Alternatives (lead agency -Quebec), Black Student Advisory Centre at Dalhousie University, Catalyst Centre (lead agency – Ontario), CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Check Your Head, Chinese Canadian National Council, Council of Agencies Serving South Asians,  Council of Canadians, Fédération des étudiante collegial du Québec, Grassy Narrows Blockade Group, Hollyhock Leadership Institute (lead agency partner in BC), La Fédération Canadienne des Étudiantes et Étudiants-Section Québec,  Tatamagouche Centre (lead agency Atlantic Region), Regroupement autonome des jeunesse, Ryerson School of Social Work, Women in Resource Development Committee (Newfoundland), Winnipeg Youth Activist Camp.

Labour is currently represented by:  British Columbia Teachers Federation (lead agency partner in BC), Canadian Auto Workers, Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Communications Energy and Paperworkers, Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the United Steelworkers of America.  The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour has expressed strong interest to act as the lead agency for the prairies. Furthermore,at least one lead agency will be an Aboriginal community or organization

In the development phase of this project the Catalyst Centre is acting as the staff of the project, with recognition that staffing may change as the project develops.

The governance, implementation and administration of the school will be key to its effectiveness and success. This will be an ongoing discussion as different groups join the project. How the Democracy School will ultimately be structured (e.g. a coalition-supported project, a lead-agency consortium, or some other format) has yet to be determined.



1. Participation

To be successful the school must support different forms of participation. The democracy school will serve the needs of a broad spectrum of community members:

  • Individuals who have become interested in political activism (defined broadly) through their education, work or community participation and want more political education and skills training
  • Experienced activists who wish/need to come together to share experience and strategy with each other and with new activists in order to do political education and build shared frameworks;
  • Individuals or specific social movements and community agencies who seeking education and support for the specific needs of their moment;

We envision that most participants will be in some way linked and accountable to an organization or group, as staff, volunteer, member, client, board member, etc.  This will increase the capacity of participants and accountability of (and to) social movements.

We envision a format of a mix of short-term participation (e.g. attending a one-day workshop or weekend-long course, often in conjunction with another event or educational program), long-term participation (e.g. enrolled in a one to two-year program which would include a substantial residential component combined with sustained work in a local community), and work-study participation (e.g. internships, or activists-in-residence, that would carry local, regional or national organizing responsibilities).

Large cross-Canada gatherings and trainings will be hosted by lead agencies (see below) on a rotating basis, possibly moving every two years.  For example in 2005 and 2006 Quebec could host the cross-Canada trainings with British Columbia hosting in 2007 and 2008.  This process will allow for a higher diversity of participation as well as supporting local/regional social movements.

All regions will have activities locally. The regional coordinators (see below) and local organizers, working with affiliated institutions and programs will identify relevant activities that will both support the ongoing education of activists and further locally and regionally identified priorities. These activities could include annual activist education workshops, activist summer youth camps, local campaigns for municipal reform, trade union organizing efforts, and many other types of social movement action

As much as possible, participation in Democracy School programs will involve a combination of learning, peer-teaching, popular education and opportunities for leadership. The Democracy School will seek support to fund paid positions that will contribute to program and coordination capacity. Each region will have to determine how it will structure and support participant coordination.

During the development phase we will develop a method of participant selection and of ensuring a commitment to participants being active in community development and organizing in at least the year after participation in the school. Methods of continuing the education work of the school could include: Democracy School groups in every region that conduct political education and/or training locally, networks of democracy school graduates on-line, a web site for discussion of issues among faculty and graduates, among others.

2. Programs and services

a. Core Programs

Core Programs will be created throughout the development phase and will be made up of regular annual programs offered nationally as well as programs offered regionally.  Programs and services of the Democracy School will likely include:

  • A substantial residential program for approximately 60 participants who will be enrolled for a two-year cycle.  These 60 participants will include one regional coordinator for each participating region and a team of activists-in-residence who will assist with national coordination.
  • A one-week open workshop that hundreds can attend from across the country
  • A one-week activist youth camp for between 30 and 60 youth
  • Downloadable curriculum resources from the Democracy School website
  • Democracy School workshops at conferences and gatherings of community and labour groups
  • Democracy School workshops contracted by community or academic agencies and departments
  • Local and regional education and community organizing events sponsored by lead agencies and other regional partners
  • Four day, cross-sectoral curricula meeting. This is a general meeting which acts as participatory research and information sharing for potential partners and participants

 b. Curricula, Faculty and Participant-Facilitators

The curricula for Democracy School activities will draw on the best practices of labour and popular educators, community artists, community based educators and academics committed to social change. Through curricula developed by cross-sectoral representatives, participants will develop skills, share practices, debate and develop theories of organizing, share tools and models of education and organizing, and plan for local and regional activities. The steering committee will decide on the overall direction that the curriculum will address.

There will be an emphasis on popular education theory and practice. We understand popular education as an educational practice and philosophy that is based on recognizing community knowledge. It connects teaching and learning to our everyday lives and applies that learning on social and political levels. In other words, popular education is used to assist people in identifying, understanding and addressing community needs. The practice of popular education draws on the experience and knowledge of the participants. In addition to using traditional forms of learning popular education also draws heavily on popular arts practices such as popular theatre, drawing, mural making and other ways of learning and teaching that are not common in traditional educational forums.In addition to a diverse and experienced faculty of educators and activists assembled from the ranks of social movement groups (including, whenever possible, international guests) the Democracy School will support participants (including alumni), whenever possible, as facilitators and instructors. Most faculty will be involved on a contract basis.

The process of curriculum development for the school has begun. On March 5th and 6th, 2004 the Democracy School hosted a historical gathering of adult, popular and union educators from across Canada to begin the curriculum development for the school.  Many of these educators had never before met (as individuals or as organizations) around the issue of curriculum.

Thirty participants spent the two days reporting on curriculum resources and designs, discussing curriculum philosophy, and generating ideas for the democracy school.  Some themes of curriculum which emerged included:  Arts & Culture, Design Process and Delivery, Real Links/Coalitions, Training Methods, Reframing Activism, Analysis of Power, Personal/Community Healing, Debating Across Difference, Think Strategic/Plan Strategy, Vision, Activities, Movement History and Current Issues.

Other topics for the school could include issues of theory and practice in regards to tactics and strategy, communication and media training, political theories and policy issues, histories of social movement struggles, relationships between social movements and political parties, core skills in facilitation and conflict resolution, exploring different political forms (parties, decision-making structures, etc.) as well as exploring different models of social change.

This meeting focused on generating a range of curriculum choices and ideas.  The focus was not on determining final curricula.  There was great enthusiasm for the project and the possibilities of developing cross-sectoral (and intra-sectoral) curriculum and materials.  The curriculum conversations will continue and the Democracy School will host additional meetings on curriculum.

3. Organizing structure

Some aspects of the structure of the Democracy School are still in development.  Key organizational components of the school include the steering committee, lead agencies, regional coordinators, activists-in-residence, and staff.

  • Steering Committee A cross-country steering committee made up of representatives from the lead agencies, labour organizations, and community and social movement groups.  Staff for the Democracy School will likely continue to have representation as well on the steering committee. The Steering Committee will set general policy, fundraise, and promote communication amongst all members.
  • Lead Agencies Institutions that are responsible for organizing Democracy School events and trainings in their regions.  The cross-country trainings will be hosted by all lead agencies on a rotating basis.  Financial support will be provided to the Lead Agencies to assist in this task.  The lead agencies are: Tatamagouche Centre (Maritimes), Catalyst Centre (Ontario), Alternatives (Quebec), Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (Prairies), Hollyhock Institute and British Columbia Teachers Federation (British Columbia).
  • Regional Coordinators  Paid part-time positions, likely hosted at a lead agency, to promote communication, provide support, and organize local/regional trainings for Democracy School participants.
  • Activists-in-Residence  Paid position(s) to assist with national organizing of the Democracy School. The activists-in-residence will be placed with national staff. This position will be specially targeted to young people who are participants in the school.
  • Staff A small administrative staff will maintain operations of the Democracy School.  This staff will remain as constant as possible to ensure the administrative continuity of the school.

Each region will have to determine how it will structure and support participant coordination.



We are part of a rich history of activism here and abroad. In all sectors of  civic life (from trade unions to youth, aboriginal people, to women, Quebec to Nunavut) there is an abundance of experience, practice and skills in the fight for social justice, deepened democracy, human rights, environmental justice and much more. Canada also has a particularly rich history of struggle for justice by Indigenous peoples,  and the women’s, anti-racism, LGBT, and disability rights movements, among others.

This project will create something new in Canada. There is a strong history of supporting community and labour activist education here and around the world.  The school will draw on these many current and past successes[4]. All are worth learning more about and examining for best practices, curricula and models of organization

Consultas to date

Listening to the views of diverse community members regarding the Democracy School continues to be a priority.  We have hosted a number of “consultas” to meet this end.  These consultas are usually about two to three hours and involve a short presentation on the history of the project to date followed by a facilitated conversation exploring what a democracy school should look like (from content to location(s) to cost, participants, support and so on).

Consultas have been held in Vancouver, British Columbia; Halifax , Nova Scotia; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Sioux Lookout, Ontario; Hamilton, Ontario the Centre for Social Justice Retreat in Ontario, Hamilton Ontario; St. Joseph’s Centre for Immigrant Women; Hamilton; Guelph, Ontario and a meeting with Black activists in Toronto.

We have also held meetings with community leaders in a number of locations including in Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Sault St. Marie.

Community input has been very positive and enthusiastic.  The vast majority of consulta participants have expressed the need for democracy education and the importance of sharing experiences and teachings across the borders of sector, language, identity, culture, and land.  Key questions raised at consultas have included issues of cost, childcare, time, and diversity.


The Democracy School will pilot its practice in a “wave” of Democracy School initiatives across Canada, hosted by the lead agencies. These initiatives will in some cases build on existing schools and in other cases (such as in Ontario) create new programs. These local/regional pilots will create a base of participants (and practice) that will be built on for national gatherings. The curriculum committee and staff of host agencies will work to develop and share curricula for these local/regional schools.

We anticipate week-long schools hosted by the Tatamagouche Centre in Nova Scotia in June 2005, in Ontario hosted by the Catalyst Centre in July 2005, and in Quebec hosted by Alternatives in the summer of 2005.  We are also exploring a mini-school (weekend) in Ontario or Quebec jointly hosted by Alternatives and the Catalyst Centre in late summer of 2005.

The Democracy School will also be working with the Chinese Canadian National Council to develop ESL curricula for Mandarin speaking immigrants. These curricula will focus on civic education, human rights, and promote community involvement.


Our vision is of a sustainable, cross-sectoral, cross-country Democracy School that will serve the needs of both activists representing specific social movement and civil society organizations as well as individuals.

This is not a kiss and run project – participants will be supported in their work beyond formal training and workshops. Youth will be given opportunities to take leadership in their communities. Participation levels will be flexible for all people. We need to better connect our theories with our practices, mobilize the abundance of experience and talent across this country and dare not only to imagine a more democratic and just political, economic and cultural life, but also to make it happen.


[1] The 2004 Canadian Federal election had the lowest electoral participation since Confederation, putting Canada’s voter turnout rate at  109th of UN member states.  [Richard Gwyn, Toronto Star, July 4, 2004 ]

[2] The Democracy School operates under a framework of the right of self-determination.  Therefore we have a  “multi-national” perspective (Canada, Quebec, First Nations and other Indigenous communities). For simplicity’s sake,  in this document, the term “tri-national” is used to reflect this perspective. When we use  the word “Canada” it refers to the geographic space which incorporates these nations and national contexts.

[3]The initial organizers included: the Catalyst Centre, a popular education worker co-op, Judy Rebick, the CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Corvin Russell of the New Politics Initiative, Akua Benjamin, a professor of Social Work at Ryerson University, Michael MacIsaac and Winnie Ng of the Canadian Labour Congress, Annahid Dashtgard, a young anti-globalization organizer, D’Arcy Martin, Coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Education and Work, Barb Thomas, a popular and labour educator, Jim Stanford and Peggy Nash of the Canadian Auto Workers , David Shulman of the Democracy Education Network and others.

[4] A very incomplete sample includes: The CAW’s Port Elgin facility and programs, The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour Summer Camp, The Hospital Employees Union of British Columbia (similar to other unions) popular education summer school, The Institute in Management and Community Development in Montreal , the Community Development Institute in BC annual summer trainings, Grindstone Island centre for social change education (located in rural Ontario 1972-1990), The Naming the Moment Project in Toronto which brought together a diverse cross-section of interests for over 10 years (1986-1996), The Tatamagouche Centre and the Prairie Christian Training Centre, Solidarity Works (a CLC/OFL Youth Action Project), United Steelworkers of America Leadership Program, The Centre de Formation Populaire (in Quebec) annual popular education trainings, Alternatives in Quebec and the Centre for Social Justice in Ontario annual summer gatherings of activists, The Democracy Education Network’s Democracy Skills workshop offered through Centennial College in Toronto, The Catalyst Centre popular education courses and curricula (offered in the community and the academy and including organizing popular education community development initiatives), Hollyhock, a Vancouver Island education centre that runs a leadership institute, Highlander Research and Education Centre programs including the Children’s Justice Camp (run for 17 years), The BC Summer Institute for Union Women, and many more.

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