during the first four months ofthis new year, we'll be hearing a lot about Quebec City and the summit of presidents and prime ministers taking place there in April, the largest international gathering of its kind ever to take place in Canada.For activists fighting business-friendly trade pacts, it will be the perfect place to parade their fears and alternative formulations before the 3,000 international media expected in la belle province.
The object of their wrath is one item on the agenda -- the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, FTAA for short. It would bring the 34 countries of North, Central and South America (everyone except the Cubans) together in the largest trading bloc in the history of the world. Goods and services would flow through the western hemisphere as if there were no borders at all.
As usual with these trade agreements, there's no requirement that countries adopt labour rights or environmental standards. Trade meetings are no place for that kind of talk, the member countries insist. And, as they have done in Seattle, Prague and points between, demonstrators will take to the streets to try to make them see the error of their ways.
Preparations have already begun: teach-ins, civil disobedience training and planning for a pre-summit shutdown in Ottawa on April 1. In fact, the calendar between now and the April 20-23 summit is already pretty full (see sidebar).
But there's angst among the protestors. They know that the challenges facing them go beyond the 8-foot-high barbed wire fence that will seal delegates in a protest-free vacuum. The chance of actually shutting down this gabfest a la Seattle is nil.
Merely having another "people's summit" and an accompanying demonstration will only be fun for participating diehards. After all, how many people have actually heard of the FTAA? And how many will care, especially when they find out that the deadline for signing it isn't until 2005, and observers figure that even that far-off date will be hard to make?
Activists must trump their earlier antics to avoid being trumped by savvy Canadian government handlers who are adept at appearing consultative, open and understanding -- even when they're not.
And those interested in proposing an alternative to the current style of trade agreements -- fair trade, as they say -- must work with and not be distracted by those more radical elements who see them as sellouts blowing an opportunity to take on capitalism straight on, instead of merely tinkering with it.
FTAA foes thought they had figured it out. Then, just before the holidays, the federal government proved they can pull a few tricks, too.
Many things can go wrong in the course of planning an activist extravaganza bringing together thousands of people from more than 30 countries where four languages are spoken. In Canada, the movement includes Common Frontiers, an umbrella group that grew out of opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. It includes unions, environmentalists and social justice groups. It, in turn, is affiliated with the Hemispheric Social Alliance, whose members also include the Quebec Network on Hemispheric Integration (RQIC) and ORIT, the Spanish acronym for the Interamerican Regional Workers Organization.
They'll be staging a "people's summit" in a big tent not far from the fortress where the Canadian PM and his 33 colleagues will be meeting. The people's meet -- featuring delegates from most of the 34 countries -- will be a logistical accomplishment in itself, no doubt filled with the networking, bonding and good vibes that accompany such events.
But it will not necessarily be news. Nor will the other antics that have become commonplace at this kind of gathering. As the Montreal activist group Salami points out in a strategy paper prepared for the Quebec summit, the Seattle shutdown model has been a disappointment at later international events -- for example, at the Organization of American States meeting in Windsor and at the Republican and Democratic conventions in the U.S.
"We will not checkmate a fast-learning opponent twice with the same move, much less if we repeat this move three, four or five times."
That's why FTAA opponents have decided to adopt a media strategy that plays up the secrecy of the discussions. They see this as a way to create some resonance with the broader public, whose eyes would only glaze over if presented with a technical analysis of trade discussions.
Philippe Duhamel of Salami laid out the strategy at a meeting in Toronto last month that packed the NOW lounge on a Friday night.
"The trashing will probably happen in Quebec City, but it won't help us," he warned.
Instead, he called for a strategy that helps elucidate the issues for the uninitiated but doesn't get bogged down in technical detail. Ergo, the story will be secrecy. "Nine hundred people are working on this agreement, but no one has the right to see the document (i.e., the negotiating text)."
As a prelude to the big show in Quebec, activists will demand that before noon on March 20 the federal government publish whatever version of the agreement now stands and distribute 5,000 copies in French, 10,000 in English, 1,000 in Spanish and 500 in Portuguese.
The citizens will announce their intention to pick up the hard copies of the texts at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in Ottawa on April 1. If no documents are forthcoming, a non-violent blockade will shut down the Lester B. Pearson Building (home of DFAIT) on April 2.
If, as Duhamel predicts, the feds don't cough up the papers, "people will have an idea that something fishy is going on. Why are they hiding the document from us?"
Nathalie Dube says releasing the docs just won't be possible. "The bracketed texts (documents with unresolved issues in brackets) will be worked on until the very last minute," she says. There just won't be time to have them distributed.
But a funny thing happened just before the holidays. The international trade department posted its bargaining positions on its official Web site, hailing the move as an unprecedented move toward transparency.
And, as if that weren't mischief enough, trade minister Pierre Pettigrew publicly vowed that he will not sign any trade agreement that has any version of the notorious Chapter 11, the section of NAFTA that allows corporations to sue governments that treat them any differently from Canadian companies.
That announcement took NDP trade critic Bill Blaikie by surprise. "It looks like they might be barely teachable on some things," says Blaikie, Pettigrew's parliamentary sparring partner, sounding more resentful over the minister's PR triumph than happy over the good news.
Meanwhile, Quebec citizen summiteers were thrown off balance trying to respond to pages and pages of eye-splittingly technical text dumped on the Internet. Patty Barrera of Common Frontiers explains that they're merely Canada's opening gambit, not where the negotiations stand now. "It's not what we want," she insists.
"You wouldn't believe the number of calls we've received asking if these are the bracketed texts," she says in exasperation. "No!"
Barrera and company, faced with hours and hours of mind-numbing reading, skipped the drudgery and issued a press release expressing "cautious optimism" at the release of official data but insisting that it is not enough.
The federal government's info drop threatens to aggravate some of the tensions that were evident in the jammed event at the NOW Lounge, where some activists called for a more boisterous civil disobedience strategy rather than the made-for-TV talking points about transparency and environmental safeguards.
Jaggi Singh is one of those with an air of I-told-you-so after the federal government's manoeuvre. Singh, an activist widely known for his role in the APEC pepper spray scandal, is one of those frustrated by the reformist logic of the NGOs organizing the people's summit.
Singh is part of something called the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, which wants a more no-holds-barred condemnation of global capitalism. "We're not talking about lobbying and social clauses."
"Transparency is just one element -- it's something the government can easily respond to, and they have."
Singh says the other NGOs merely want to reform capitalism, not challenge it, because they themselves are bureaucracies that are getting government money to stage their event.
The government of Quebec has thrown in $200,000 for the groups organizing the people's summit and related events (as well as emptying the Orsainville jail in case demonstrations get out of control). Josée Desharnais of RQIC says the feds are throwing in about the same amount to look after airplane tickets for delegates to the people's summit and for simultaneous translation for the teach-in and forums that begin on April 17.
Though relations are cool between fair traders and anti-capitalists -- "They are isolated, with vague ideas and violence and stuff," says Duhamel about the Singh school; "They have a condescending view of the autonomous protest movement," Singh complains -- they do meet.
They rendezvous around the "convergence table," periodic meetings to update each other on their plans.
"It's not a coalition," Desharnais says of the relationship with the other protestors. "We don't do the same thing together. We're just trying not to interfere with each other."
But perhaps the best sign that the reformist NGOs are having some impact on the negotiations is the exasperation in the voice of Sam Boutziouvis of the Business Council on National Issues over the suggestion that labour and environmental standards be included in a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. That's the bottom line of the NGOs, including the powerful U.S. labour federation the AFL-CIO, and perhaps the biggest obstacle to an agreement.
"It's not insignificant that the president of the United States called for inclusion of labour and environmental standards in the WTO process at the launch of a new round, and then it fell apart.
"I don't think you'll find many Latin American countries that will agree (with labour and eco standards). They fear the sanctions that might be applied."
There may be hope for us yet. firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT IS IT? A free trade agreement between the 34 countries of North, Central and South America (everyone except Cuba)
WHOSE IDEA? Ex-U.S. President George Bush (Dubya's pa)
NUMBER OF NEGOTIATING COMMITTEES: 9
WHAT THE COMMITTEES ARE DISCUSSING: market access,
investment, services, government procurement, dispute settlement, agriculture, intellectual property rights, subsidies and
DEADLINE FOR SIGNING: 2005
Speaking Out For Global Justice,
4-6 pm at OISE, 252 Bloor West, featuring:
Professor Dick Roman on Latin American labour and free trade
FEBRUARY 4 Naomi Klein
Moving From An Anti-Trade To A Pro-Democracy Movement
MARCH 16-19 Three-day training session for activists protesting the FTAA. Call 516-2472 or e-mail email@example.com for info
JANUARY 19-20 International conference on non- violence and direct action strategies, followed by a two-day retreat for trainers in non-violent civil disobedience. www.alternatives-action.org/salami for info.
APRIL 1 Demonstration
APRIL 2 Shutdown of Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Lester B. Pearson Building), Ottawa
Opening of the People's Summit
Teach-in and concert
Summit of the Americas