|Socialism Today Socialist Party magazine|
Storm in Quebec
Quebec’s summit of the Americas, ringed by a specially erected ‘protective fence’, was the focus of the latest mobilisation of the global anti-capitalist movement. Eye-witness CLARE DOYLE reports.
NONE OF THE anti-capitalist protests take place in a vacuum – without being affected by or affecting the political and economic situation of its ‘host’ country. In Italy, for example, the numbers on the streets of Genoa for the G8 conference in July, will undoubtedly be swelled by the election of Berlusconi and the right-wing ‘House of Liberty’ coalition.
April’s summit of the Americas similarly became the occasion for an out-pouring of hostility towards neo-liberal, anti-working class policies at home as well as abroad. Up to 50,000 trade unionists and youth converged on Quebec to demonstrate against the provisions of the ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas’ (FTAA) and against deregulation, privatisation and casualisation that are all part of the globalisation strategy.
Polls differ on how far sentiment in Canada has changed in recent years towards ‘Free Trade’. A majority have usually been opposed because of an understandable fear of being swallowed up by the giant US predator across the border. Now far more, especially young people gathering information about poverty in the ‘third world’, are opposed to the US being given cart blanche to extend its exploitation in any section of the globe.
But another feature of anti-capitalist protests around the world – and Quebec was no exception – has been the strong presence of oppressed nationalities and minorities, seeing them as a chance to express their hatred for the high and mighty of the world who ignore their grievances. The FTAA summit was the occasion for every Quebec separatist (or ‘sovereigntist’) to come onto the streets, including Quebec socialists. Significantly for subsequent developments in Canada the head of the Quebec provincial government, Bernard Landry of the Parti Québécois, had no voice at the table but had to host the conference and deal with the consequences of street confrontations with the police.
This sparked off speculation that Landry would call early provincial elections and then a new referendum on separation. By cashing in on indignation at the way their city, as well as the demonstrators, had been treated, he could boost the ‘yes’ vote. (Last time in 1995 the margin of defeat was a mere 1%). The anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec could, in this way, have changed the course of Canadian history.
QUEBEC WAS INDEED an event that none of the residents of that historic French-speaking city will quickly forget. Eye-witnesses were shocked at the ferocity of the police attacks on predominantly young and peaceful demonstrators. They looked on, full of admiration for the courageous demonstrators making a stand against what they believe to be wrong in society.
Sinclair Stevens – a minister two decades ago in the Brian Mulroney federal government and still a staunch free trader – had gone with his wife to visit the famous fence for themselves. They held ‘a few lively but friendly exchanges’ with protesters as they stood around eating, drinking and relaxing. ‘We were interrupted as the police began an eerie drumming, rattling their riot sticks against their shields. Slowly, in unison, one six inch step at a time, they began marching toward us’.
Stevens describes how, ‘to my horror, the police then fired tear gas canisters directly at those sitting or standing on the road… (we) felt our eyes sting and our throats bake’. As Stevens and his wife were being given vinegar to relieve the pain, the police lines advanced relentlessly. ‘I shook my head. I never thought I would ever see this kind of police-state tactic in Canada’, he commented.
It is clear that the Canadian police over-reacted to what, even when the ‘wall’ was temporarily breached, amounted to very little threat to the summiteers. Their tactics were simply aimed at intimidating activists and would-be future demonstrators. In the event they themselves were made to look ridiculous over the detention of one of the main leaders of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, Jaggi Singh, who was arrested by undercover police officers posing as protesters and charged with possession of a ‘dangerous weapon’ – a wooden catapult to lob teddy bears at the police!
The total cost of the security ‘crack-down’ was over $100 million. The police arrested 460 people, mainly at night and particularly after the trade union delegations had left for home. News of the maltreatment of those detained – with prisoners stripped and then hosed down to wash off tear gas and pepper spray – only heightened the anger.
In Quebec, perhaps more than on any of the recent anti-capitalist demonstrations, there was a far readier appreciation of the fact that socialism is the natural alternative to capitalism. Many protesters saw themselves as socialists, even if they were not sure what socialism was and exactly what was needed in order to achieve it. This must, to some extent, reflect the fighting, revolutionary history of France as well as of the French-speaking people of Quebec province. Quebec has all the militant traditions of the French, without the negative experience of Jospin - the ‘Socialist Party’ prime minister of France – who has carried through more privatisation and anti-working class policies than the previous, conservative, regime. Canada, too, as a whole, has strong traditions of struggle and powerful trade union organisations. All these traditions will be revived as the economy moves into recession.
About a week before the Quebec summit, a by-election was held in the Mercier constituency of Montreal. An independent socialist and pro-independence candidate – a retired trade union activist – got 25% of the popular vote on his first time out. The area is one of high unemployment and rising housing costs, as well as a particularly young and educated electorate.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) by contrast saw its vote drop in post-Quebec elections in Vancouver, in spite of trying to cash in on the anti-globalisation mood. Although the NDP – once a party of labour – made a point of being on the streets of Quebec, they fail to put forward a socialist alternative and continue to see their electoral support plummet. In the last federal elections, in December last year, the NDP fell from 19 to 13 seats, with just 12% of the popular vote. The Greens, on the other hand, trebled their percentage of the vote in Vancouver.
It is clear that a search is on for a viable alternative to the ‘traditional’ parties. Especially in the French-speaking part of Canada, there is a huge potential for a party of the working class prepared to challenge capitalism and prepared to fight for the right to self-determination of the French-speaking people. Socialist Alternative, the Canadian section of the CWI, based in Toronto, has argued this case and also put forward a concrete programme of demands in relation to free trade and globalisation.
THE FTAA IS aimed primarily at extending the rights of big, mostly US-based capital, to penetrate further into Central and South America to exploit the natural and human resources of that area. As one columnist, Richard Gwyn, pointed out, ‘more than 90% of all economic activity in the western hemisphere occurs within just three countries – the USA, Canada and Mexico. Without trying to be rude, the rest of the double continent doesn’t matter economically’. The other 31 countries, in spite of a few complaints about being overlooked, had very little say in the final outcome of the discussions.
Events on the streets, however, had their repercussions on the summit itself. For one thing, the hall in which the leaders were meeting had to be evacuated for an hour on the first day when tear-gas got into the air-conditioning system! Secondly, the pressure from outside was reflected in the sugary and hypocritical press statements about ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’. The heavy emphasis of the summit’s final declaration on upholding democracy, and the allocation of $30 billion for projects in some of the continent’s poorest countries, were also obviously a reluctant response to the growing anger.
The foreign affairs editor of the Toronto Star, in a post-mortem on Quebec, also pointed to another clause, "tucked away on page 43 of the action plan", which promises that ‘civil society’ will be able to contribute to the monitoring and implementation of summit mandates (April 22). This he sees as providing a ‘crow bar’ for "the whole panoply of trade unions, nationalist groups, church groups, human rights and environmental activists who are opposed to unfettered free trade… a tool they can use to pry their way into the secretive process that is shaping the future of 800 million people in 34 countries who produce $17 trillion in goods and services".
However, as Socialist Alternative explained at Quebec, it is abolition not reform of the FTAA and bodies like the IMF and WTO that is necessary. In this respect, most of the protest organisers agreed, but unfortunately the leaders of the trade unions took a far too moderate approach to the question. Their line is to call for clauses about wages and conditions to be included in the capitalists’ agreements with each other, but not to oppose their continued exploitation of the working class. It was logical therefore for the union leaders to take their massive contingents away from the notorious wall and from the summit itself but it was very disappointing for the young people there who wanted to confront the authorities over their indefensible policies.
Many youth were on a protest demonstration for the first time in their lives. A third of all university and college students were due to participate and some Canadian universities, including Concordia, Montreal and New Brunswick, agreed to make special arrangements for students who missed exams while attending the protests.
Thousands of young people who went to Quebec just revelled in the sense of freedom and defiance on the streets. Some remarked on the power they felt when they found themselves amongst the workers on the trade union contingents; others on the need for organisation and more sense of direction in order to actually close down capitalism, not just the capitalists’ conferences.
They can see, for example, that the declaration of Porto Alegre’s Social Forum, with its call for ‘a trading system which guarantees full employment, food security, fair terms of trade and local prosperity’ will remain a dead letter unless a struggle is conducted against capitalism. Half measures will not work. Capitalism’s whole existence revolves around exploitation. As Jaggi Singh pointed out before the last anti-FTAA protest in Canada, ‘working with the government to soften the edges of free trade is like trying to convince a tiger to become a vegetarian!’
If the trade union leaders truly opposed the capitalist conferences, they could mobilise sufficient industrial action to prevent them from even taking place – through strikes of staff in the halls and hotels, or better still one or two day strikes throughout the cities where these events are held.
There is no absence of a will to fight on the part of a number of sections of the Canadian working class. Even as the demonstrators faced the tear-gas, Ontario school support workers were into their fourth week of strike action, closing schools covering 300,000 children. Just afterwards, the eldest son of the Queen of England was forced to find accommodation at the hotel of his third choice. The first two were ruled out because of strikes and protests by the hotel-workers over pay and conditions!
AS THE SUMMIT met, dire warnings were appearing in the press about the future of the capitalist economies in the Americas. Under the head-line ‘Latin America tumbles’, the Toronto-based ‘Globe and Mail’ of 24 April said, "financial markets in South America are riding one of their wildest waves of turmoil in years amid concern over a slowing global economy and doubts that Argentina can finance its debt and pull itself out of recession".
Argentina is one of the world’s most indebted nations, struggling to keep up its payments on $150 billion worth of loans – 25% of emerging market debt. As the country slid into its 34th month of recession in April, Cavallo, the economy minister, threatened to ignore trade agreements made with his neighbours and do deals directly with the US and Europe to protect the Argentinean economy. The Financial Times declared South America’s attempt at a ‘common market’ – Mercosur – to be ‘near to death’s door’.
As the world economy follows Argentina towards the abyss, all dreams of bringing the economies in the region into some kind of harmonious co-operation will be blown apart. Neither will all the Central and South American governments be able to stick without protest to everything dictated by US imperialism. The heads of some of the poorer nations voiced complaints about their treatment by the major powers during a session of the Quebec summit that was supposed to be in camera. In fact, they were heard by millions when the microphones accidentally continued to transmit the proceedings in the hall. Only when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela began to demand that democracy everywhere should be 100%, did someone turn off the mikes.
Later, Chavez made it clear he could not agree to clauses talking about ‘representative’ democracy as if it was the only form acceptable. Using a phrase popular on the streets outside the summit, and bearing in mind his own populist-inspired assemblies in Venezuela, he insisted that ‘participatory democracy’ was a more democratic form of government than that of the USA. The threats of Cavallo and the gestures of dissent by Chavez are just a hint of how governments of poorer nations will react as world recession bites.
The fighting mood of the youth and trade unionists on the streets of Quebec and elsewhere indicates that the capitalist class of Canada also has much to fear. The point is to channel, to harness their energy. The attitude of all who want to see change – from the school support workers of Ontario to the youth on the streets in Quebec and elsewhere – must be: ‘If we don’t have the parties and trade union leaders today who will help us defy the laws of capitalism and transform society, they will have to move aside for those who will!’
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