Now that the tear gas has cleared, and the anarchists and the innocent bystanders have been released from prison, it’s a good time to reflect on just what happened 10 days ago in Quebec city. The leaders of 34 countries in this hemisphere met for what was essentially a photo opportunity. They accomplished nothing, nor had they intended to — the actual Free Trade of the Americas Agreement is not to be signed until 2005.
The anarchists also gathered for their photo opportunity and the government obligingly provided the theatrical set: the ugly fence that surrounded picturesque old Quebec city. The sight of bloodied anarchists fighting police dressed in Darth Vader outfits made for great television.
What I found amazing was none of the above. Rather, it was the 30,000 people that came from all over our hemisphere. They were labelled “protestors” by the government and right-wing media. They came with a more thoughtful purpose than just to protest, but to provide an alternative view of civil society. Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians provided some of that insight when she said that the whole exercise was not about free trade but about the strengthening of corporate power. If it was about free trade, there would more than moving jobs to the cheapest labour markets.
Under true free trade, wages and environmental standards would move along with the jobs. Then Mexicans wouldn’t be working in slums under unsafe conditions. But that’s not what’s meant by “free trade”. Corporations want to have the power to move jobs in the blink of the eye, leaving dazed workers wondering what hit them, and leaving new workers grateful for pittance wages.
And what if free trade gave governments the power to sue corporations? The government could then sue corporations like Ethyl Corp. for poisoning our environment with the gasoline additive MMT, instead of the other way around.
The faith of the government of Canada in free trade is simplistic — if we could just get more trade in goods, everything else would follow. Jobs, protection to the environment, all flow from free trade in goods, so the Liberal thinking goes. Never mind that government is diminished in the process. Never mind that millions of Canadians disagree.
Prime Minister Chretien’s faith in free trade amounts to an kind of snake oil, a cure to what ails you. This blissful naivete reminds me of ex-president Ronald Regan’s star wars initiative, or his belief that tax reduction would increase government revenue.
Where is the official opposition to the Liberals, the Canadian Alliance, when we need them? They oppose everything that the Liberals do and yet they are strangely silent about the Free Trade of the Americas.
The Canadian Alliance should be representing the millions of Canadians who are opposed the whole idea the proposed free trade deal. According to a recent poll commissioned by the Council of Canadian Unity (not to be confused with the Council of Canadians) 33 percent of Canadians oppose the FTAA.
Ironically, one of the smallest opposition parties — the federal NDP — is the only party objecting to so-called free trade. Alexa McDonough marched with the 30,000 peaceful citizens of the hemisphere who have another view. I’m glad that to see the NDP starting to capture the conscience of Canada again, even though they have a lot of catching up to do with the Council of Canadians.
But why would the federal Liberals promote an agreement that amounts to weakening of their own power? Perhaps it’s a virus that they caught from Bloc Quebecois. The goal of the BQ is to self-destruct through the breakup of Canada. The Liberals are content in sitting back and giving the function of government to corporations.
Thanks to Tom Curry for pointing out an error in my quotation of statistics in my last column. Deteriorating air quality in Ontario will cause an increase in premature deaths from the current 1,200 per year (not per day) to 2,500 in less than twenty years. Details can be found at the Ontario Medical Association web site: http://www.oma.org