After days and days of dark, cloudy, cold mornings in April of 2013, the tulips, daffodils, cherry and pear blossoms became confused and were not blooming in their usual splendour. When my daughter Fariah, a first year PhD student at The University of Toronto asked me to join the May Day demonstration, I became excited. Fariah is an organising member of “No One is Illegal” an organisation fighting for migrant justice struggles in Toronto.
I became especially excited to go because she said one of the goals of the march this year would be to highlight the Rana Plaza tragedy that took away over a thousand lives and maimed hundreds of others. The incident had garnered international attention, and on May Day in Canada, activists were adamant that they would voice their opposition to the forces that lead to this accident – forces such as capitalism, western greed and exploitation of the global south, corporate unaccountability, and a basic disregard for the lives and dignity of the working poor.
As I put on my running shoes and jeans, I was saddened by the huge number of dead, maimed and still trapped in Savar and I was burning with a desire to contribute, even if a little, to this gigantic cause. Something had to be done. Anything. We could not stand by, in any part of the world, while the minimum level of safety was not being ensured for our workers. The 8th Annual May Day of action (2013) was to start at Toronto’s infamous City Hall at the end at Little Norway park at Queensquay and Bathurst. From 1pm to 4pm, crowds were encouraged to go to Occupy Gardens at Queens Park, a movement of activists who continued to build around the spirit of the Occupy movement that started in New York a year ago against the big banks and corporations that made poverty the reality for hundreds and thousands of Americans. Crowds were then encouraged to attend the rally and march itself, which was scheduled to start at 5:30pm.
As we joined the growing crowd at city hall, I felt rejuvenated with the activity, excitement, and action. There was a mobile stage parallel to Queen Street and organisations. Participants were taking turns making fiery speeches, spoken words (poetry to inspire), aboriginal (Native Indian) songs and music. I took a deep breath, the golden sunshine and the crisp, sweet, spring air enveloped me in a magical mist. Amongst the thousands of people I looked out for Bangla signboards and banners and I proceeded there.
The South Asian Women’s right organization (SAWRO) along with various student groups from different Universities in Toronto, Bangladeshi women, men and activists had their own particular corner asking for protection and just compensation for Bangladeshi workers and their families. A petition was being circulated demanding that the Canadian government, Canadian companies based and international corporations manufacturing goods in Bangladesh take responsibility for the workers who were so diligently producing goods for the Canadian market. The Bangladeshi groups and associations strongly supported by all the other activist groups, especially “Women’s Liberation-Iran,”were demanding a 3-fold action plan. This included the right to unionize, the right to earn a live-able wage, the right to safety, security and health at the workplace, and just compensation for the families of those who died or were injured in the collapse. I read the words on the leaflet being distributed to thousands of May Day marchers. Some of the demands included that:
-Companies directing the manufacture of garment products in Bangladesh for Canadian markets should create a 10 million dollar fund for victims of the Savar disaster and their families: 6 million for the families killed, and 3 million for those injured, and 1 million for medical care, rehabilitation, retraining, and prosthetics for those injured.
-Ensure that all goods entering Canada from Bangladesh have been produced by workers whose employers are covered by insurance which provides just an expeditious compensation in the case of workplace injuries and death.
-Ensure that all goods entering Canada from Bangladesh have been produced in factories which the international label organisation has certified are in compliance with building codes and fire codes and that compliance is monitored regularly and rigorously.
The banners which we held made by Projonmo Canada, said “Save the garment factory workers in Bangladesh,” and other pickets said “Save Life-Save Livelihood,” “We are all Savar,” “Stop Workers Deaths in Bangladesh” etc.The Canadian multicultural mosaic was remarkable. Thousands of people from all over the world, citizens united with roots from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and Arabia, migrants immigrants, refugees, workers, and students, all were there. There were drummers, singers, dancers, speakers, marchers, food, drinks, and most of all an intangible and united spirit, and unifying souls.
As we stopped in front of Loblaws (Shoppes on Queen West) which also houses the Joe Fresh brand of clothing manufactured in Bangladesh, their vicinity had closed down with security and policemen both inside and outside the premises. Chants and speeches were given by us marchers. The indigenous people (a group of 6/8 performers) firstly sang a haunting, melodious tune and poignant lyrics for the departed souls killed in the Rana disaster and then another song for solidarity. I praised the unique songs which go back hundreds of years reflecting the original inhabitants of Canada and their exceptional, traditional culture to one of the team members. She had melancholy eyes and she explained to me the profound meaning of this particular song, along with its lyrics and tune. I especially noted the very basic, traditional instruments used and its implications. I felt an angel had come silently and touched the spirits of those deceased so unfortunately. But what was most beautiful to me was the way in which so many had gathered for the people of Bangladesh, and I wondered how many Bangladeshi people have put forth this type of solidarity for tragedies in other parts of the world?
The Bangladeshi group chanted slogans and Farah Kabir, the country director of Action Aid Bangladesh gave a very effective and contextual speech. Then an official letter with all our demands was ceremoniously handed over to the management and administration of Loblaws and Joe Fresh. The procession then continued and ended up at Little Norway Park in solidarity with the striking workers at Porter Airlines.
As we all know, with the exception of Canada, America and Japan all countries of the world observe May Day. Legally and officially the Canadian government does not observe it. It was this organisation “No one is Illegal” which unofficially started this May Day march 7 years ago in Canada. Within these eight years of observance, many other groups and organisations also began to learn of the political history of the true May Day and began to support in organizing efforts. Groups like AIDS Action Now, Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), Common Cause Toronto, Greater Toronto Workers Association, Independent Jewish Voices, Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network, Refugees Without Borders Socialist Party of Ontario, The Mining Justice Solidarity Network Toronto, New Socialists, Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, and others – such a versatile range of organisations coming together to celebrate the resistance and history of the working class people.
Of course there is always the other side of the coin and many people do not see the need for a May Day in Toronto, a place where oppression of workers is arguably not as common as it would be in the global south. Yet, as my daughter always reminds me, rights are never just given, they are demanded and fought for, and we have what we have in Canada because of the struggle those before us went through. May Day is still relatively a small gathering of people in relation to the number of people that are actually a part of the working class. May Day had humble beginnings where a couple of hundred people would come out to support a small rally and march out. Now, there are thousands of people who look forward to this very important time of year. The movement for workers’ rights and a consciousness for justice seems to be growing in Canada, particularly as we face increasing rates of job loss, inflation, debt and other hardships related to global and seemingly never-ending recession. With protests against the G20, then the Occupy Toronto movement, and with the spirited actions that now take place on May Day, it all boils down to personal convictions, beliefs, and commitments.
Rummana Chowdhury writes from Toronto, Canada.