Program - Social Justice Movements in the Changed Reality of the Pandemic and Beyond

Responding to the Crisis Unleashed by the Pandemic

Thursday, February 11, 2021
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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We face a global biomedical crisis but also a huge economic downturn and, looming over this is a rapidly intensifying climate crisis. Even in an historically privileged country like Canada, dominant political agendas will seek to impose the burden of these crises on Indigenous, racialized, poor and working-class people. In the Global South, however, the implications are catastrophic.  The speakers in this session will offer perspectives on the nature of the period that has opened up, on the challenges faced and directions that need to be taken by social movements and popular struggles.

Opening Remarks: Carlo Fanelli (Assistant Professor, Social Science; Program Coordinator, Work and Labour Studies, York University) & Rhonda Lenton (President, York University)

Moderator: A.J. Withers (Anti-Poverty Organizer)


John Clarke (Packer Visitor in Social Justice, York University) - "The pandemic has unleashed a deep crisis in society"
The official discourse suggests that the pandemic will pass and everything will return to normal. However, a serious global economic crisis was already developing before the virus spread and the present downturn will not be so easily remedied. Moreover, looming over all of this, is an ecological crisis with even more serious implications. The need for powerful and effective social justice movements will be greater than ever in the period ahead.

Kavita Krishnan (Communist Feminist Activist; Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association) - “How India's Hindu supremacist government is using the pandemic to spread Islamophobia and lock up critics”

Charlie Post (Instructor, Borough of Manhattan Community College & the Graduate Center of the City University of New York) - “Political Polarization in the US: Challenges and Paradoxes Facing the US Left”
Since onset of the prolonged global economic slump in 2008, the US and the rest of the capitalist world has experienced a sharp political polarization. Across the world we have seen the rise of both a more aggressive populist right—with a minoritarian fascist wing of street fighting thugs—and the episodic explosion of anti-capitalist, anti-racist and working class struggles. The US has been no exception. On the right, we have seen the rise of the Tea Party and Trumpism in the electoral sphere, and an aggressive nucleus of fascists willing to take extra-legal action against people of color, immigrants, workers and even parts of the capitalist state itself. On the left, we have seen the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, a wave of teachers’ strikes, the anti-racist uprising of last summer in the streets, and the 2016 and 2020 Sanders Presidential campaigns. While the right’s growth appears fairly steady and fairly well consolidated organizationally, the left faces a paradox. On the one hand, explosive mass struggles have revived popular interest in socialism, leading to the astronomical growth of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA). On the other, DSA and the new radical left has been unable to help consolidate to play a consistent leading role in mass struggle or consolidate mass, independent organizations of struggle—in particular in relationship to the anti-racist uprising of 2021. This talk will explore the challenges and paradoxes of the US new left and its inability to negotiate the contradictory logics of electoral politics and building mass, disruptive social movements.

Struggles for Racial Justice

Monday, February 22, 2021
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a huge social upsurge in the US that spread internationally. This has led to calls to defund or abolish the police. In Canada, we have seen new momentum in confronting police violence against Black communities and an intensified challenge to the forms of racist policing faced by Indigenous community, especially at the hands of the RCMP. Speakers will look at the present challenge to police violence and consider how it relates to broader struggles for racial justice in the new reality unleashed by the pandemic.

Opening Remarks: Dennis Pilon (Associate Professor, Politics, York University)

Moderator: John Clarke (Packer Visitor in Social Justice, York University)


Rajean Hoilett (President & Vice-President Equity, Ryerson Students’ Union; Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario; Member, Toronto Prisoners Rights Project)

Haley Pessin (Member, AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America) – “Fighting for Black Lives in the Biden Era”

Wanda Whitebird (Member, Mi’kmag Nation from Afton) - “The RCMP as Canada’s Colonial Police Force”

Facing the Threat of Mass Evictions

Wednesday, March 3, 2021
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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The need for lockdowns has created huge economic hardship. In various countries, including Canada, one of the temporary measures put in place in response was a partial ban on evictions. The removal of these protections threatens to create a situation of mass housing evictions. In Toronto, in fact, this is already unfolding. Bold forms of action are being taken by tenants facing eviction and their allies. Also in this city, people who are already homeless and who have taken refuge in tent encampments face dispersal. Speakers will look at the struggles that are unfolding, discuss the support and solidarity those who are facing attack require and look at the broader demands around housing that have to be pursued in the next period.

Opening Remarks: Luann Good Gingrich (Director, GLRC; Associate Professor, Social Work, York University)

Moderator: John Clarke (Packer Visitor in Social Justice, York University)


Greg Cook (Steering Committee Member, Shelter and Housing Justice Network) & Simone Schmidt (Volunteer, Encampment Support Network)

Butterfly & Anna Kay (Representatives, Jane Finch Action Against Poverty) - "The Epidemic Before the Pandemic: Jane Finch Housing Crisis"
Zoom out: Knowing the structural and historical consequence of poor urban planning and systemic racism.
Zoom in: Learnings on organizing, collaborations and resistance on the ground actions before the pandemic and the fight ahead against development and austerity.

Samuel Nithiananthan (Representative, People’s Defence)

Workers’ Struggles

Thursday, March 11, 2021
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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The reordering of the workforce during the neoliberal decades has hugely increased the scale of low wage precarious work and the present pandemic induced economic crisis is likely to pose even greater challenges for workers and their unions. The dislocation posed by worsening climate change will create further enormous difficulties. Speakers will explore the present situation, look at how workers are organizing in the face of it and present their views on new approaches and directions the labour movement must take in this changed reality.

Opening Remarks: Ethel Tungohan (Assistant Professor & Canada Research Chair, Politics, York University)

Moderator: John Clarke (Packer Visitor in Social Justice, York University)


Gabriel Allahdua (Organizer, Justice for Migrant Workers) - “COVID Exposed all Migrant Workers Vulnerabilities in Canada”
This talk will answer the following questions: Who is a migrant worker in Canada? How are migrants made weak without any rights in Canada (i.e. how are our vulnerabilities are created)? What is the situation during the pandemic? How are we dealing with these struggles? How can you support the movement?

Pam Frache (Coordinator, Fight for $15 and Fairness; Organizer, Workers' Action Centre) - “Fighting for Decent Work: Lessons from the Fight for $15 and Fairness”
The global COVID pandemic has revealed the invisible labour upon which the economy depends. While corporations earn record profits before and during the pandemic, workers struggle without paid sick days in low-wage, dangerous work. From farms to grocery stores and from long-term care homes to warehouses, it's clear that none of us are safe unless all of us are safe. Building a united, multi-racial, working class movement to raise the floor of wages and working conditions here and around the world has never been more urgent.

David McNally (Instructor, University of Houston) – “Can the Labor Movement Reinvent Itself for an Era of Crisis and Austerity?”
This presentation examines the limits unions and other working-class organizations have encountered under neoliberalism. It argues that the model of labor organizing that dominated for the past 75 years is entirely inadequate to the challenges of this period. Drawing on the past, as well as on recent history, alternative models of working class organizing and activism are highlighted.

Basic Income: Does it Take Us Closer to a Just Society?

Wednesday, March 17, 2021
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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The impact of the pandemic and the high levels of economic dislocation it has brought with it, has considerably sharpened the ongoing debate on whether basic income offers a way of reducing poverty and ensuring a decent and secure income is available to everyone in society. Many see this policy approach as a progressive measure that can move us towards those important goals, while others suggest that it would fail to deliver such improvements while furthering the agenda of austerity and privatization. Both of these perspectives will be presented and discussed on this panel.

Opening Remarks: Viviana Patroni (Associate Professor & Graduate Program Director, Social Science, York University)

Moderator: A.J. Withers (Anti-Poverty Organizer)


John Clarke (Packer Visitor in Social Justice, York University) - "Basic Income as neoliberal trap"
The economic hardship and uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic has generated hopes that a system of basic income might reduce levels of poverty and inequality in society. However, a basic income system would be subject to the same pressures to render it inadequate as have been faced by other forms of income support. By embracing an approach that would commodify social provision to a far greater extent, basic income advocates are pressing for a system that would assist, rather than impede, agendas of austerity and privatization.

Sheila Regehr (Founding Member & Chairperson, Basic Income Canada Network) – “Basic Income - A Foundation for a Healthier Society and Economy”
The presentation will provide an overview of key reasons why a basic income is becoming more imperative as a solution to societal ills and challenges, from racism and poverty to a changing economy; the principles that need to guide its design; what the evidence tells us; and pragmatic options for Canada.

Speaker Bios

Gabriel Allahdua
is a former migrant farm worker from St. Lucia and is now an organizer with the collective Justice for Migrant Workers.

Anna Kay Brown has lived in the Jane Finch community for over 12 years with her husband and three children. She is the co-chair of the Jane Finch Education Action Group which supports parents navigating the educational systems, advocates for equity and resources to be allocated to our schools, and works to eliminating systematic barriers. She works part-time as a Housing Organizer for the Jane Finch Housing Coalition which advocates for more deeply affordable housing, improved renting conditions, and policy changes with all levels of government. Anna Kay Brown also works at the Jane Finch Family Centre as a Community Outreach Facilitator. She has a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice from Humber College and a diploma from Centennial College in Community Justice Services. In the last 10 years she has been an active lead working with various grassroots and community organizations for the advancement of the Jane Finch community.

John Clarke spent 28 years working as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and was involved in an ongoing effort to challenge austerity, poverty and homelessness. He is presently the Packer Visitor in Social Justice at York University.

Greg Cook is a white settler who has lived most of his adult life on the Dish With One Spoon Territory: the lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee. He holds an Honours BA in History and Political Science from the University of Toronto. Greg has been a drop-in and outreach worker in downtown Toronto for over 12 years, and at Sanctuary since 2009. Greg partners with other community groups and agencies to advocate for more just and equitable policies in Toronto. He is on the steering committee of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, and he volunteers for the Toronto Homeless Memorial. Greg was part of a group of activists who agitated for a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of people without housing. He has worked on two documentaries: Bursting at the Seams about the housing crisis and What World Do You Live In about police brutality. To relax, Greg walks downtown streets and remote wooded trails.

Pam Frache is the coordinator of the Fight for $15 and Fairness and an organizer with the Workers' Action Centre. Previously, Pam has been on staff with the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Federation of Students. She is a longstanding labour and social justice activist based in Toronto.

Butterfly Sabrina GoPaul is a mother, frontline worker and resident member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), the longest standing political grassroots action group in the Jane Finch community. JFAAP consists of community residents, workers, and members from different organizations in the area and across the city. Butterfly is the eldest daughter of immigrant parents from Guyana. Born in the late 70’s in the community of Regent Park in downtown Toronto, the family moved to the Jane Finch area in the early 80’s. On her own by the age of 14, Butterfly experienced homelessness as a youth, living in a group home, shelter system, and precarious housing until securing social housing with her son in Toronto Community Housing in 1997 and has been living there since. For more than 11 years, Butterfly works at Black Creek Community Heath Centre in the role of a Community Health Worker with a focus on community development, advocacy, and community mobilization. She also supports residents one-on-one with moving through interconnecting systems/institutions, and building trust and relationships in the community of Jane Finch/Black Creek. Butterfly’s lived experience allows her to authentically connect with people to advocate for issues related to children/youth, women, access to education/employment, food and the food system, policing/community safety, immigration and migration, social justice using the arts, and issues related to housing. She is a proud mother of two Suns, a 24-year-old and an eight-year-old, and a grandmother to her seven-year-old granddaughter. She voices passionate viewpoints about the experiences shared by the community and her vision for a stronger, more organized and mobilized Jane Finch community.

Rajean Hoilett is a community organizer based in Toronto on the traditional territories of the Mississauga's of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, and the Anishinabe on Treaty 13 lands also subject to the Dish With One Spoon Treaty. Rajean has spent the better part of the last decade supporting outreach, community advocacy, mutual aid support, meeting facilitation and direct action organizing for social justice movements. Rajean has a long history in the student movement serving as President and Vice-President Equity of the Ryerson Students’ Union and Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. Rajean is a member of the Toronto Prisoners Rights Project, focusing on abolition and prisoner justice. Through his work with the Toronto Prisoners Rights Project, Rajean coordinates the Prisoner Emergency Support Fund with dedicated volunteers. The support fund is a mutual aid program that offers monetary support to people impacted by incarceration. He also is one of the contributors to the We Keep Each Other Safe project, which has brought together community members across Toronto to organize community-led safety initiatives not reliant on prisons or policing. He is now working on the Abolitionist Book Club, a community learning space for activists to come together to learn about prison abolition, prisoner organizing and prisoner justice. While organizing within these movements, Rajean also offers engaging workshops and discussions on issues including, but not limited to, racial justice, current issues in post-secondary education, food security, direct action and mutual aid. These workshops bring participants together to learn from their own experiences and the community around them. Throughout the pandemic, Rajean has also supported grassroots movements (e.g. the Scholars Strike, No Pride in Policing, Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, Prisoners Justice Day organizing committee) to take their meetings, events and actions online using a wide range of tools.

Kavita Krishnan is a communist feminist activist, Politburo member of the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist, and Secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association.

David McNally teaches history at the University of Houston and is involved in socialist and anti-racist activism. An editor of Spectre journal, his most recent book is Blood and Money: War, Slavery, France, and Empire (Haymarket Books, 2020).

Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her writing has appeared in New Politics and she is currently on the editorial board of She frequently speaks on the topics of mass incarceration and the Black Liberation struggle.

Charlie Post teaches sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is active in his faculty union, is a member of the Tempest collective ( and the editorial board of Spectre ( Post has published in Jacobin, International Viewpoint, Historical Materialism and other journals and websites.

Sheila Regehr is a founding member of the Basic Income Canada Network and Chairperson since 2014. She is a former Executive Director of the National Council of Welfare. Her 29 years of federal public service spanned front-line work, policy analysis and development, international relations and senior management. She has expertise in areas of income security policy and taxation, with a focus on gender equality and race in particular. She is co-author, with Chandra Pasma, of Basic Income: Some Policy Options for Canada (2019).

Simone Schmidt is a musician, dishwasher and community thinker who currently organizes with the Encampment Support Network and UnRealLife Initiative. Schmidt is a white settler who has been active in racial justice, anti-poverty, Indigenous sovereignty solidarity movements for the past 20 years.

Wanda Whitebird, of the Bear Clan, is a member of the Mi’kmag Nation from Afton, Nova Scotia. She currently resides in Toronto.

Dr. A.J. Withers is a long-time anti-poverty organizer in Toronto. They are the co-author of A Violent History of Benevolence: Interlocking Oppression in the Moral Economies of Social Working (with Chris Chapman, UofT Press, 2019) and author of Disability Politics and Theory (Fernwood, 2012) and