Lessons of Quebec City

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Three inescapable conclusions emerge from last week's protests in Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas:

  • It will be a long time before a Canadian government builds another 3.8-kilometre steel and concrete wall to exclude the public from the trade negotiations;
  • The protests succeeded brilliantly in forcing hemispheric leaders to address concerns raised by those who oppose the treaty;
  • Maude Barlow and other protest organizers undercut these successes by their failure to condemn the tiny percentage of demonstrators who pelted police with rocks.

The Wall of Shame was a repugnant departure from the democratic norms that Canadians pride themselves in, an unwelcome intrusion of Indonesian crowd control into a country with a deep tradition of civil discourse.

Disapproval of the wall approached unanimity. It bothered some, infuriated others, but outside the fraternity of bleating rightists who inhabit Toronto's editorial pages, almost no one approved.

The striking thing about this nearly universal disapprobation was the silence of prominent Canadians. Celebrity protests were confined almost entirely to the usual suspects: Rebick, Ruby, Atwood and company.

Where were Peter Gzowski, Lloyd Axworthy, Lewis MacKenzie, Ken Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Knowlton Nash, Roy Romanow, Ken Dryden, Leslie Neilsen, and other thoughtful Canadians who could - and should - have spoken out?

It was a disconnect reminiscent of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, when the chattering classes all but unanimously endorsed schemes to hobble the federal government - and the public said, "Nuts to this."

Victory over the wall would have been even more impressive had Barlow and the other protest organizers unequivocally condemned the rock throwers. Their refusal to do so betrays a serious lack of political judgment.

The Black Bloc agitators who began the rock throwing, joined after a bit by teenage boys swept up in the mob mentality, represent no one but themselves. Their pretence at revolution amounts to play-acting. They are not a constituency Barlow needs to coddle, and they alienate Canadians she needs to win over.

Despite this strategic blunder, the protest refocused the summit on issues trade negotiators prefer to ignore. Long before the first demonstrator arrived in Quebec City, Chrétien and the other heads of state were speaking about the need for greater openness in their deliberations, about democracy clauses, labour standards and environmental protection.

This infuriated columnists for the National Post and The Globe and Mail, who share a proprietary pride in the triumph of liberalized trade. They appeared miffed that people espousing views incongruent with their Received Wisdom had momentarily snatched the spotlight.

Having deemed the protesters irrelevant, the National Post did its best to pretend they didn't exist - aside from a page one column by Andrew Coyne fulminating against CBC's Newsworld channel for giving them too much air time.

"Yoo-hoo, the horse has already left the barn," read the headline on a Geoff Simpson column declaring free trade a fait accompli and dismissing the protesters as a self-promoting irrelevance.

The Globe's Matthew Ingram elaborated on this theme in a column that derided the protesters' "X-files world of conspiracy theories."

"[P]lenty of people would love to get access to the products that some multinational corporations - such as McDonald's, the Great Satan of the anti-corporate movement - have to offer," Ingram wrote. "Presumably that's only because these deluded citizens have been brainwashed by the company's marketing prowess. They don't really want to eat there, they're just pawns of U.S. commercial imperialism."

Parodying the views of free trade opponents, rather than addressing them, is standard operating procedure for neo-cons like Ingram. They are able to do this, in part, because they have succeeded in appropriating the vocabulary of the debate.

Take the term, "free trade," for example. NAFTA barred entrepreneurs from bringing generic copies of patent drugs to market in a timely fashion. That dubious policy made drug prices the fastest rising component of health-care costs in Canada. It can't conceivably be described as "free" trade; it's a severe restriction on trade.

Or how about "anti-globalization?" Groups opposed to the WTO, NAFTA, and FTAA include labour unions with strong international ties, third world development groups whose work is almost entirely international, environmental groups whose work spans international borders.

To portray such groups as isolationist or anti-trade may be rhetorically satisfying, but it's logically absurd. They oppose neither trade nor globalization. They object to trade deals that enshrine commercial values at the expense of environmental protection, labour standards, and democratic processes.

Debate on these issues should be a welcome thing, but it requires more intellectual honesty than pro-agreement editorialists have shown.

Argentina will host the next FTAA summit. At the closing session in Quebec City, President Fernando de la Rua spoke of the need for greater openness in the negotiations, and for more attention to be paid to the concerns raised by the protesters. If that happens, he said, "The next summit ... will not require the walls to keep out those who protest."

Imagine the prime minister of Canada having to listen to a lesson on democratic processes from the president of Argentina. That ought to give the libertarians pause.

Originally published by The Daily News in Halifax. All rights reserved by the author. Parker Barss Donham can be contacted at [email protected].

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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