Intervenor: Vol. 26, no. 2-3, April - August 2001

Québec City Follies

It's been three months since the Summit of the Americas (Summit) in Québec City. The tear gas has cleared, the fence is down and the media circus has moved on to Gotenberg, Sweden, then Genoa, Italy and soon it will be back to Washington, D.C. in September 2001. The violence of the engagements has escalated as the police were given broad mandates to suppress dissent with whatever means they feel necessary, including lethal force which led to the death of a young protester in Genoa.

But in the aftermath of Genoa and its tragic outcome for Carlo Guiliani it is valuable to reflect on the fact that not all international gatherings attract such opposition. In the same month in Bonn, Germany the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement negotiated to reduce pollutants responsible for climate change, shows that when the worlds' governments (despite the misgivings of the Bush administration) are seen to be part of the solution, trying to address, rather than just perpetuating, the problem, then they can get the consent of the governed and meet without the violent confrontation that has been evident in several of the negotiations around free trade. More free trade clearly does not have that consent and ramming more of this failed prescription down our collective throats will only be possible behind ever higher fences and more riot police. Not a particularly great climate for creative public policy making.

There is one clear indicator of the sterility of the Québec City Summit. Despite months of preparation, the Heads of State of the Americas were unwilling or unable to seriously address the stark problems of environmental degradation, inequality and poverty widespread in the Americas. The tone was set at the end of March when the environment ministers met in Montréal. The Bush administration required the deletion from the Ministers Statement, to be released at the conclusion of the meeting, of any reference of support for the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. If addressing one of the key international environmental challenges we face was beyond these Heads of State, their decision to hide behind the fence to protect themselves from the public is understandable.

While the fence and the tear gas is the enduring image left by the Summit it was not the totality of the event. For the week preceding the Summit, Canadian newspapers and other media were full of interviews and commentary on the reality of life in the Americas. Additionally, Radio-Canada broadcast live interviews 12 hours a day from the Alternative Summit site and our allies dominated the media message from Monday to Thursday. Literally thousands of side meetings took place between the 3000+ delegates to the forums of the II People's Summit from all over the Americas. The declarations from the forums and the Final Declaration from the II People's Summit are impressive as was the dialogue during the week. But the dominant political message from the "heights" of Québec City behind the fence, was "hear no evil, see no evil; a democracy clause and tear gas will solve our problems."

The very clear divide between the governed and our governments was driven home best for me on Friday, April 20th . It is late afternoon under the big-top tent, home to the II People's Summit, down on the Québec City dock-lands. Up the hill near the fence the tear-gassing has begun as the first youth march heads to the fence from Laval University. The tent is packed and David Suzuki is giving, what may be the best speech of the week and his audience won't let him go even when Naomi Klein, the M.C., tries to give him the hook to keep the show on time.

All day we have heard about the reality of life in the Americas, as lived by the women, workers, environmentalists and youth activists who are fighting to change it, but Suzuki really captures the crowd with his hard-hitting message. He assails the folly of free trade and everything the "leaders" up the hill seem to hold dear, drawing sustained applause and standing ovations. His ecologically-based critique of the status quo and the urgency of his skillfully delivered metaphors, slamming the folly of our consumption obsessed society, hit home to the audience in a way no else has yet. The environmental critique of free trade really rings true for this audience, something that can be built upon in the future.

Here is Suzuki's own metaphor for the reality of Québec City and the Summit of the Americas. We are all sharing a car which is speeding towards a brick wall with our leaders in the drivers seat with their foot on the gas pedal, refusing to put on the brakes either on economic growth or carbon emissions. The rest of us are all clamouring for change and yelling for someone to put on the brakes, but we have been locked in the trunk where our voices won't disturb those running the show. Suzuki ends by complimenting people for the range of creative ideas that have been on offer all week and urging them to keep up the fight for a better tomorrow.

By the time Suzuki is finished, the pattern at Québec City has been set. The fence becomes the symbol of the contempt our leaders show for our views and their accountability. As the media arrives en mass and the television cameras roll, the prescriptions for change and the detailed stories of the injustices of life in the Americas fade into the background, conflict at the fence dominates everything. The scant "deliverables" of the Summit, the public release of the negotiating text and a commitment to an undefined "democracy clause" pale beside these key questions. Exactly who in our Canadian government, based on what threat, authorized the tremendous over reaction to the protests? Was the unnecessary, but clearly premeditated decision to aggressively sweep the protestors off the "hill" in Québec City on that initial Saturday night a naked attempt to put the protestors in their place and send a clear message that dissent in Canada will carry a high personal price?

While the lack of action to address the real problems in the Americas, be they environmental, social or economic, was expected during these discussions, the politically-sanctioned ferocity of the Canadian security forces' response to the protests was new, and demands a public review. The accompanying transcript of a CBC interview with William Sloan, President of the American Association of Jurists (Box 1), and the poignant account of the events of Québec City as seen through the eyes of a 21 year-old street medic from Kingston, Ontario (Box 2) raise disturbing issues which must not be allowed to slip away from our memory for fear that the experience in Québec City becomes business as usual.

CELA is a longtime member of CF which was a primary organizer of the II People's Summit in Québec City in April 2001.
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Ken Traynor is International Programme Coordinator at CELA