Free trade and green people power

Quebec 1
When we talk about democracy, what do we mean?

Do we mean only that governments must be democratically elected, and must observe the rule of law, which seems to be the interpretation Prime Minister Jean Chretien used in trumpeting what he called the success of the recent Summit of the Americas conference in Quebec City?

Or do we mean something more — that, in addition, there should be an ongoing public dialogue on major issues. That citizens should have a voice between elections, should know that they are going to be heard, and should have the assurance that they can influence decisions? This appears to be the interpretation used by Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians.

The infamous fence at Quebec City stood between the two interpretations. Inside were people who didn’t see the need for consultation and collaboration, and didn’t know how to do it anyway. Outside were people who wanted consultation and collaboration,  but failed to construct a workable scheme to achieve it.


Small wonder the two sides never got together. They weren’t even speaking the same language. And now, with the fence down, we have Maude Barlow saying, « We’ve got a movement here. What we do with it is a big question.’’


It’s a big question all right, with big stakes in the balance. The impact of a free trade agreement for all of the Americas will reach into every corner of sustainability, and touch all issues: poverty, social safety nets, industrial contamination, environmental degradation, economic stability — you name it, and the agreement will bear on it.


Nowhere was this more graphically portrayed than in a story Linda Diebel wrote in this paper a month ago about the poverty existing in Ciudad Juarez, at the heart of Mexico’s maquiladora zone, the border area where manufacturing companies go under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for low wages and lax controls.


And lest Canadians and Americans think they may be exempt from consequences, there are plenty of statistics to show that, under NAFTA, even though gross domestic products have improved substantially, jobs have deteriorated, families in the bottom half of the population have lower incomes, manufacturing plants have closed, levels of environmental pollutants have worsened, and foreign multinationals have successfully barred the Canadian government from action.


In Diebel’s story, she quoted Roman Catholic Bishop Jean Gagnon of Quebec City, one of an ecumenical group of visiting church officials. « The problem with free trade,’’ he said, « is that it doesn’t share the wealth.’’


So the first issue facing Canadians lies not with specific terms of the proposed agreement. It lies with process. Can we agree what democracy in the 21st Century in Canada means? Can we have broad consultation and collaboration? Or are we going to be doomed to endless and growing confrontation?


I asked Judith Maxwell, economist and head of Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), for her views, because for several years, CPRN has organized wide-ranging discussions on major public issues from one end of the country to the other.


« We’ve seen that Canadians have a tremendous desire to be involved in public policy,’’ she said. « There are reams of information that they’re having difficulty coping with, they are appalled by the slanging matches in (parliamentary) question period, and they want to be able to influence decisions — not to have decision-making power, but to know that their opinions will count.’’


However, she said, reaching consensus is complicated and difficult. « There are much stronger voices on the right (than there used to be), the population is more diverse, and the fortunes of different regions are going different ways.’’ And, to make matters even more difficult, the government has not budged from top-down decision making.


What we’ve got, she said, is a democratic deficit.


However, if there’s a will, and the feedback she’s been getting suggests there is one, at least among the public, then surely we can find a way to overcome the deficit.


NEXT WEEK: Some suggestions

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