Twenty years ago helped kill a free trade deal for the Americas

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Protests during the third Summit of the Americas on 21 April 2001 in Quebec City. Image credit: Personal snapshot by Montréalais/Wikimedia Commons

On April 20 and 21, 2001, 34 heads of state from North and South America gathered in Quebec City for the third Summit of the Americas. It was a round of negotiations toward a proposed new continental trade agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), modelled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

North American leaders Jean Chretien, George W. Bush and Vicente Fox may have come from different political streams, but they had in common a strong view that unregulated, market-driven free trade was a wonderful economic undertaking and would be a gift to the rest of the hemisphere.

After having lived with NAFTA and its predecessor, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, for over a decade, civil society begged to disagree. 

At least 20,000 civil society activists, trade unionists and environmentalists from throughout the Americas descended on Quebec City, where we held an alternative peoples' summit, and welcomed special guest French farmer-activist (and now member of the European Parliament), José Bové.

We were protesting both the Free Trade Area of the Americas, with its corporate backers, and the massive security measures put in place to keep us away from officials. had just been launched that month, and was on the front lines, telling the story of the dangers of these free trade deals and of the growing protests to confront them.

The most controversial was the construction of a three-metre high concrete and wire barricade, encircling most of the inner city. Only official delegates and accredited journalists were allowed inside the perimeter, and businesses and churches were closed. We called it the "wall of shame."

The biggest security operation in peacetime Canadian history to that date, summit officials were "protected" by almost 7,000 police, thousands of soldiers on standby, armoured tanks, water cannons, plastic bullets and some 5,000 canisters of tear gas.

A jail was emptied in anticipation of arrests.

On Friday, April 20, a massive number of protesters -- estimates ranged from 50,000 to 150,000 -- came together for a march, filled with music, chants and lots of families, which ended in a huge rally with many speakers. While most of the marchers kept to this pre-permitted route away from the inner city, several thousand of us decided to confront the barricade itself and were met with a wall of  tear gas and police clubs that lasted well into the night.

I remember clearly doubling over with the pain of a direct hit of tear gas and being grateful for the local residents at the ready with water for our eyes and thirsty lips.

I want to be clear that the action on our part was non-violent and the civil disobedience was aimed at the wall, not any people. By the end of that infamous day, 463 people were arrested, including some for sending stuffed teddy bears over the wall with a catapult. We made headlines across the world as we had done in Seattle two years earlier.

The civil society message that we sent to the governments of the hemisphere was heard loud and clear by the government and corporate delegates inside those walls, and, more importantly, by civil society movements throughout North and South America.

Thanks to and activist communications groups, including Common Frontiers, the hemispheric social justice network flooded our South American allies, including teachers and health-care workers, with information about the damage NAFTA had done to jobs, wages, workers' rights and the environment. They, in turn, mounted a powerful resistance to the FTAA in their countries.

In the end, the talks faltered, and the FTAA never saw the light of day.

Quebec City was an incredibly important turning point for the movement against economic globalization and its tenets of deregulation, privatization and free trade.

We had already killed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, an ambitious project of the OECD that would have given the corporations of all the member countries the right to challenge governments for policies they deem unfair and restrictive of their "right to profit."

We had also brought the World Trade Organization to its knees at the Seattle Ministerial and we knew that our movement had wind in its sails.

Of course, there would be more bad trade agreements (CPTPP, CETA, and more), and thousands of bilateral investment agreements that included investor-state rights. But the tide that started to turn back in 2001 in Quebec City has truly turned now, as the whole world can see how badly free trade and the market economy have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis.

So how fitting it is to remember the important role played at its Quebec City debut, as we celebrate 20 years of internet news from the first Canadian online-only news outlet.

Maude Barlow is an activist and author. She is working on her upcoming book, The Little Book of Hope: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism.

Image credit: Personal snapshot by Montréalais/Wikimedia Commons

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