Interview with the Workers' Liberation Coalition
by loljapes (With thanks to WLC members Joel and Klaus)
The workers’ liberation coalition (WLC) is a newly founded group focusing on mutual aid work in Alberta. Justice internationale sat down with (actually, Zoom-called) two WLC members to discuss the work they’ve been doing. This transcript of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justice Internationale: It’s great to meet you both, can you tell me; what was the catalyst that led you to found the WLC?
Joel Dmytrow: The majority of us came from other organizations. But we saw a need for something else because the organizations we were a part of, while we had no political disagreements, we felt their methods weren’t working or being as effective as they could be. So, we saw a need and attempted to fill it.
JI: And specifically, what is the need you see yourselves filling?
JD: A lot of the issues we had with previous groups was a lack of organization, there wasn’t a lot of communication between members. That was a big reason I left the organization I was previously a part of. But we also saw a lack of effort to actually get out into the community and do mutual aid projects to help people. One of us can’t do anything. If I want to make a change in the world, I can’t do it by myself, but if I get a bunch of like-minded people and we work together – that’s the way we’re going to make change. And in order to make change we have to make an effort to go out into communities and be there to offer help and aid to people where they need it. Ultimately, if we want people to listen to our message we have to get out there into the community and give them a reason to listen to us. If we’re just going around and talking to people every few years, it’s not going to do much because we’re not making a difference in their day-to-day life, and they won’t want to listen to what we have to say. So, our main mission is; go out into the community, show people what you’re about and give people a reason to listen to you.
JI: What are the things you’ve found about WLC that are the most fun or exciting? Or that wouldn’t have been possible in other groups?
Klaus Fanta: Our big motto is; “Show, don’t tell” and I think that sets us apart from other leftist organisations. Rather than just arguing all day with people about how socialism works, we would prefer to just show a bunch of socialists doing positive work in the community, which is difficult for opponents to criticize. That’s pretty much what we’re about. We found a lot of the groups we were part of in the past were more focused on ideology, which is less important to use. We’re predominantly Marxist-Leninist, but one of our founding members is more anarchist and we welcome people of all tendencies. We’re more about showing that there is an active radical left in Alberta, and in Canada, and they’re doing things that are actively helping people.
JI: One of the things you’ve focused on is mutual aid for homeless people. Why is it that you call it mutual aid as opposed to describing it in other terms?
KF: Mutual aid has a history within leftist discourse, primarily anarchist thought. I’m sure you’re no stranger to the argument that altruism goes against human nature. We tend to think otherwise, it’s merely that often people don’t have the time to help others. We focus on making the time. I think when we use the term mutual aid it primarily describes that we help people in the community and they help us by allowing us to experience what is going on in the community, where things are going economically and politically so we can better articulate our methods going forward.
JI: What is the main difference between mutual aid work and other types of work that might be done to help homeless people?
JD: We don’t believe in charity, because we see it as dehumanizing. Because a lot of the time it’s a way people make themselves feel better about a problem by just throwing money at it and pretending that makes the problem go away. We’re focussed on a deeper type of change, we want to help people empower themselves, we want to empower community, we want to address the root causes of this problem. We also know homelessness will always be an issue until we change the system. But we currently live in this reality and these problems won’t go away unless we do something about it. So we’re trying to make sure that these people have the tools and the ability to help themselves, they just need the support to do so, and that’s what we want to provide.
One of the things I looked at a lot when we were preparing this project was the Seattle tiny house villages project, and we used some ideas from that. We’re not just focused on just giving these people a hostel room to go to, we want to set up temporary, transitory housing where these people can stay and have a bathroom, a communal kitchen and a place to store their belongings. We also want to make sure they’re getting help from the community in the form of job placements and access to mental health resources. So, when we’re doing something like this we want to make a real difference to allow people to help themselves and determine what happens in their own life, we don’t want to just push this idea of charity, we want to address the root causes of these issues at the ground level.
JI: Is the idea here that your work just provides more holistic help for homeless people? Or do you think taking the approach of mutual aid changes the equation, more broadly, in terms of how society deals with homelessness?
JD: I think it brings the community together. You’re bringing all these people together to work on this thing, and you’re showing that regular people can make a difference in other people’s lives. There are current services for homeless people, like shelters, but what we’ve learnt from working with organizations on-the-ground like the Bear Clan patrol is that people don’t necessarily trust those institutions and there’s a lot of problems with the current support available. So, we just want to offer something that works better, where people can feel safe and give them something they can call their own.
JI: Another project you’re working on is tree planting. Why was that an area you wanted to get involved with?
KF: We have a government that clearly isn’t prioritizing climate change so what tree planting demonstrates is that, if our government isn’t going to fight these problems, then it’s our responsibility to show people that, united as a community, we can do something about it. So that’s the main driving force behind our environmental activism, if no-one else is going to do it, then we’ll be the people that do it.
JI: And as part of this you’ve partnered with the Peachland Watershed Protection Alliance. It seems like that organization doesn’t have the same radical politics that WLC does. How have you found working with organizations that are less overtly political than WLC?
KF: I’d say that every action you take in this world is political. I know you run into people who say “I’m not interested in politics, I’m happier to remain oblivious to this stuff” but even doing that is a political act. Even if the organizations we work with are less radical than us, we could care less about their ideas, this is one of the big principles of our organization, we don’t really care about ideology, it’s more about what we can do now, as opposed to what can we do to remain ideologically pure. You can be as ideologically pure as you please, but if you’re not doing anything to effect people’s lives, what you’re doing is essentially worthless.
JI: On a practical level, what do these organizations think of you when you get in touch with them? And do you find yourself presenting a particular angle of what you’re doing?
JD: I’ve been the one mainly contacting the PWPA. I originally reached out to them because I came across an article that was talking about clear cutting in Peachland and how bad it was. All the residents were getting boil-water advisories because the clear-cutting and deforestation has been so bad, which leads to agricultural run-off getting into the water supply. That story made me sick to my stomach, so I messaged PWPA and asked them what they would suggest we do to help them. The organizer was very grateful that we reached out and they couldn’t wait to work with us. It turned out they had run tree planting campaigns the last few years, but it was mostly attended by seniors and it was always small numbers which limited what they were able to do. So, we volunteered, and we’re going to try and bring out a busload of us from the WLC and spread the word. I did send our 16-point program to the PWPA and they had nothing but praise for it. I think people need help, and if you put your name out there and offer help, coming from a place of respect and asking “What can we do that would help you?” people will respond to that. When you come at it from that angle, your politics don’t really matter because you’ve stepped up to the plate when most other people have failed. Which goes back to our motto of show, don’t tell.
JI: Alberta has a socialist tradition, but it’s been somewhat overshadowed by a big conservative resurgence that was centered around the development of the oil industry in the province. Do you have a favorite bit of Alberta socialist history?
JD: I was really stoked when I saw this question. We just finished recording our latest podcast episode and it was the first time we spoke about a historical event on the podcast. We had a local musician called Joe Vickers and he talked about the 1919 Drumheller strike. He has a friend who works as a curator for the Atlas coal mine so both of them came on our show to talk about it. Basically, a mini civil war took place there.
JI: What happened there?
JD: It was a huge coal mining town, it started out pretty small with about 50 people living there and within a few months or years they had a population boom to 12,000 people because of the coal in the area. A bunch of stuff went down between the corporate owners of the mine and the workers when they tried to organize and unionize. There was a lot of violence, the coal mine owners hired strike breakers including people from the Pinkerton agency. That took place in Drumheller and across the ‘hell-hole’ as the area is called and this took place up until 1936. It’s a really fascinating story.
JI: Why is it your favorite bit of socialist history?
JD: Just because it’s something you would never expect coming from Alberta. In our schools we’re never taught about workers’ history or past. The fact that right here in Alberta we had a labour movement strike that was so huge just blew me away because I only found out about it this last year when I was in Drumheller and saw a sign talking about it. It just blew my socks off, and I think it’s crazy that this happened all over Canada and we never get the chance to talk about that.
JI: It’s amazing how much unrest there was during the first few decades of the 20th century.
JD: Yeah, they referred to Drumheller as the ‘third front’ after the First World War because the conditions were so bad.
KF: I think there’s significant ruling class interest in Alberta in not proliferating this information about labour history. You see this everywhere, just like America, Canada used to be a real haven for organized labour, but the red scare completely destroyed this and it took it’s history with it. You can see this in some of Alberta’s biggest unions today, a lot of them are not willing to be as militant as they were back in the day.
JI: Thanks for talking with me.
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