Thousands opposed to globalization prepare to raise a ruckus at the coming round of trade-liberalization talks
Battleground QUEBEC CITY
Canada Special Report
Thousands opposed to globalization prepare to raise a ruckus at the coming round of trade-liberalization talks
Nrinder Nann gets things going by passing out paper and asking her group, a dozen University of Ottawa student activists and one hip professor gathered on a recent afternoon, to draw their impressions of the Battle of Seattle. For the next few minutes, the classroom is filled with the scent and squeaking of Mr. Sketch markers. Then Nann, 24, the Canadian Labour Congress’s national representative on youth issues, asks the participants to discuss their drawings. Each one holds up a variation on the same theme: stick-figure demonstrators squaring off against stickfigure cops. “Seattle is no longer a city to me,” says one wide-eyed young woman. “It’s like a movement.” Everybody nods. The goal on their minds—one shared by thousands of opponents of globalization who are attending all sorts of mobilizing meetings these days—is to take that movement to Quebec City for the April 20 to 22 Summit of the Americas.
Creating a Seattle-on-the-St.
Lawrence, though, will be no easy task. The summit’s federal organizers are taking extraordinary security measures, preparing to cordon off much of the old walled city to keep out anybody who might cause trouble for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and 33 other heads of Western Hemisphere governments. But the anti-globalization hordes will be raising a ruckus nearby (page 34). In fact, it would seem odd if they didn’t show up in large, loud numbers. Ever since the World Trade Organization endured its 1999 debacle in Seattle, every major conference with trade liberalization as its goal has taken place against a scrim of demonstrators confronting black-clad riot police—a backdrop more arresting than any meeting room filled with suits. Nann took part in demonstrations last year in Windsor, Ont., and Washington. “Those experiences will keep me going for some time,” she says with a broad smile. “They totally rattled my spine.”
Others are just as rattled, but not so exhilarated. Marc Lortie, the usually smooth-talking
diplomat overseeing Quebec City preparations as Chrétiens summit “sherpa,” looks pained when he discusses the prospect of “hooligans” causing trouble around the event. But he vows that, unlike Seattle—where peaceful demonstrations spawned riots and the WTO meetings were left in disarray—Quebec City will not be seriously disrupted.
For all Lome’s self-assurance, however, there seems to be plenty of potential for things to get messy. Some 9,000 official participants are expected to attend the official summit in the city’s historic core. Organizers of a parallel People’s Summit expect more than 10,000 opponents of the official summit to congregate down in the old port area for six days of panel discussions, speeches and other events culminating in a big protest march.
Sorting out exactly why so many people are so stirred up is not easy. Its opponents denounce the summit as representing the perpetuation or promotion of evils from environmental degradation to sweatshop labour. What could possibly pose such a wide-ranging threat? The answer, according to its critics, is the summit’s first order of business: the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations. The sweeping plan, hatched in 1994, would cut trade barriers from Alaska to Argentina. Only Communist Cuba would be left out. “We are building the world’s largest free-trade area,” crows federal Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew. “It already generates more than one-
third of the world’s economic activity, $ 17 trillion a year in combined gross domestic product.” That a grand bid for trade liberalization would spark bitter debate is nothing new to Canadians after the 1988 battle over Canada-U.S. free trade, and then the 1994 extension of the deal to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiation is even more ambitious (page 36). Nine negotiating groups were set up in 1998 to come up with rules in areas from agriculture to investment. A good starting point for grasping why the FTAA is so controversial is its aim of liberalizing trade in services—not just goods. That has raised fears Ottawa might not be able to protect public services like health and education. Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, goes so far as to warn that if the FTAA turns out the way she fears, “all public services at all levels of government would have to be opened up for competition from foreign for-profit service corporations.”
But Pettigrew denies anything of the sort is in the works. While no detailed Canadian bargaining stance on services for the FTAA has been made public, he recently released Ottawa’s closely related position in separate World Trade Organization talks. “Let me be clear,” Pettigrew declared in announcing his WTO strategy. “We will not entertain any proposal that would weaken our health-care system, our public
education system or our social services.” His officials say the same no-compromises guarantee applies to the FTAA.
With critics making apocalyptic claims about the FTAA’s menace to the Canadian Way, and politicians countering with blanket reassurances, real dialogue is scarce. Still, there’s plenty of time for this debate to grow more constructive: the official target is to complete FTAA by 2005. Pettigrew says Ottawa is asking the other 33 governments in the talks to agree to release a hill text—still a very preliminary draft—for the first time when trade ministers meet at a key pre-summit session in Buenos Aires on April 7 and 8. Some tentative supporters of the FTAA wonder why its entrenched critics have already denounced the whole idea before seeing that document.
“Why reject it,” asks Nobina Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, a think-tank known as FOCAL, “before you at least see a report card?”
Many preparing to make the pilgrimage of dissent to Quebec City are clearly not much interested in poring over the FTAA-in-progress. Anxiety about the power of international corporations—not the mind-numbing minutiae of, say, antidumping codes—is motivating most who will show up with sleeping bags. The Seatde inspiration has been distilled in many budding activists’ imaginations into a sort of good-versus-evil cartoon. And the term “anti-globalization” has become verbal shorthand for a bewildering range of causes, from helping indigenous people to combating global warming. If this can be called a movement, its leaders tend to shy away from trying to define its common denominator. “There’s a newness to it all,”
Trade’s defenders see
no alternative to faith in free markets
Nann says, shrugging off a question about any underlying ideology. “The more people who decide to voice their concerns, the better.” For some, those concerns are just taking shape: several participants at Nann’s University of Ottawa seminar admitted that all they knew about the issues they had learned a few days earlier watching a campus screening of the Battle of Seatde documentary This Is What Democracy Looks Like.
But Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate-power bestseller No Logo and one of the People’s Summit’s star attractions, says the fact that many who will be taking to the streets in Quebec City won’t know much about the inner workings of the FTAA is beside the point. What they do understand, she contends, is the broader economic and political climate the FTAA fits into. “What people are objecting to is the pressure that every country in the world is under right now to make themselves tradeready,” she says. “The recipe that everybody is following is cut taxes, liberalize, deregulate, get out of the way of the market and make room for trickle-down economics. What we’re doing is trading away our social-safety nets to make ourselves hospitable to foreign investment. It’s the model that people are protesting, not just the trade deals.” Klein argues not so much that the FTAA would somehow compel countries to weaken domestic regulation on, say, environment or labour standards, but that trade liberalization in general is just one manifestation of a misplaced faith in free markets. Others see no plausible alternative. While FOCALs Robinson stops short of unequivocally endorsing the FTAA, she says trade is far too important in boosting living standards
in poorer countries not to give the proposed deal a chance. “It is about poverty,” she says. “And I don’t see any other model to help most of these millions of poor.”
The FTAA’s defenders naturally miss no chance to tout trade as the path to prosperity. But selling the summit as preoccupied with the voiceless poor may be tough when the event itself will be buzzing with corporate executives who paid handsomely to mingle with the hemisphere’s political elite. A sponsorship program gives companies a chance to display their logos around the summit, and attend its social functions. The Bank of Nova Scotia paid at least $500,000 to be a lead sponsor, while Alcan Ltd. anted up $250,000 or more. Federal officials defended the scheme, noting that it does not buy the sponsors formal meetings with politicians—just a chance to rub elbows during coffee breaks and other social events.
Innocent or not, the sponsorship makes the Quebec City batde lines all the more stark: politicians, trade mandarins and corporate heavyweights inside the security zone, seasoned activists and newly energized students outside. Where does everybody else stand? There are signs the People’s Summit organizers—including the Canadian Auto Workers, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Canadian Federation of Students, among others—have a long way to go before they can claim wide public support. In last year’s state-of-the-nationalpsyche poll for Macleans, The Strategic Counsel, a Torontobased opinion research firm, found that 71 per cent of Canadians favour free-trade deals with many countries.
Still, even if Canadians are comfortable with free trade, the federal government is anxious for the summit to be seen as being about something loftier than greasing the wheels of commerce. There is much talk of a so-called democratic clause being signed that would set minimum standards for countries to qualify for the FTAA. “It is important for the leaders to send a strong signal about the profound importance of democratic rule, human rights and fundamental liberties,” says Lortie. “That could be translated through a clause that says those countries that are going to benefit from the privileges of hemispheric co-operation must belong to the democratic family.”
The summit’s critics scoff at the democratic clause as political garnish on the summit’s less-palatable main course of free trade. But an avowal of grand principles promises to at least give 34 nervous prime ministers and presidents some fresh rhetorical ammunition to fire back at those chanting outside the gates. Governments may have learned in Seattle that they cannot necessarily control the streets, but in Quebec City they will try to prove they have not yet given up the battle for the high road. ED
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