Nonviolent action against NAFTA

By Terry Gardner | 1994-01-01 12:00:00

Into a gracious room, introduce first George Crowell, an academic-turned-activist with a new idea on nonviolent social process, second Normand Beaudet, an articulate, grassroots activist who has read and assimilated Gandhi, and third Graeme MacQueen, a pioneer in peace education and a social critic of startling acumen who won't take "yes" for an answer unless the "yes" stems from a suitably democratic process. Then add thirty or forty others for diversity, intensity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and where are we? Yes, class, we are in the arms of Science for Peace, on the evening of November 11th, 1993, at Croft Chapter House, in the University of Toronto's University College. The panelists caricatured above-Crowell, who teaches social ethics in the department of religious studies at the University of Windsor; Beaudet, who created and now directs the Centre Ressources sur la non-violence in Montreal; and MacQueen, who bears analogous responsibilities for the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University-have come together under the title "Nonviolent Action in Defence of Canada"-a University College Lecture in Peace Studies.

If governments leave profit-oriented transnational corporations unchecked, might people effectively organize to promote human welfare and to protect the environment through nonviolent action?" asks the flyer. The panelists addressed this topic posing other questions. Not many were answered, but that's good: questions are much more useful than answers at the start of an investigation.

No one present said "No" in response to the question quoted above; the mood was "Yes, how might it be done?"

George Crowell started it. In a discussion paper, he argues that nonviolent action against NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), though risky and difficult, is justified, necessary, and not without precedent. Central to his strategy is a pledge, or public declaration of commitment, to be signed by those who feel so moved. The pledge has two principal functions: bonding the activists and warning governmental or corporate adversaries. The structure envisioned includes a central coordinating office, but the planning is to be "not from the top down, but through intensive, widespread grassroots discussions, "by leadership...decentralized and widely dispersed."

In response to George Crowell's description of his proposal, Normand Beaudetsaid, in effect, "We can't start this process, it's already happening!" he proceeded to give examples: Clayoquot Sound and the East Coast fisheries were familiar, though their appearance in an ensemble here made them seem less so, and newly portentous. But Beaudet gave us four more reports of Quebec communities that had engaged in nonviolent action to protect themselves against what they viewed as intolerable loss. One was threatened by loss of its post office, another, of its fire department, and still another moved to prevent the sale of assets of a factory which, until recently, had provided employment to many. More examples exist in Canada, but are not well-known. Beaudet argued that the established media can be relied upon not to publicize successful local actions, because such information provides support and incentive to other restless communities.

We should start, he said, by finding out what's going on in rural communities and spreading the word, through local newspapers and through a small infrequent newsletter designed to reach these communities. People should know they're not alone in resisting.

Graeme MacQueen began contentiously by telling us he wouldn't sign a pledge that entailed his defending Canada or any other nation, or any institution of government. We can't impose a structure from the top down, and everything has to be democratic. MacQueen was taking issue with the title of the panel, "in Defence of Canada." I think of "Canada" as a compact envelope for "the power of governments within Canada to regulate corporations for human benefit and for environmental protection." Crowell sees this as threatened by NAFTA in "a shocking repudiation of the basic purpose of governments which is to promote the welfare of their people." Once this interpretation is made, agreement surely follows-or does it? MacQueen was also asserting that any solution to the problem must be global. This global emphasis did not resurface during the evening or during the follow-up workshop the following day.

Many of us tend to measure the efficacy of a nonviolent action by the extent of the adversary's capitulation. We ask, for instance: Does the boycott lead to Nestle's with drawal from the anti-breast feeding market? Does blockading a Russian trawler in a Halifax port lead Russia to fish somewhere else? Does the ramming of Greenpeace's little boat lead the U.S. to stop "visiting" Canadian ports on ships capable of bearing nuclear arms? But Cheshmak, a newly fledged alumna of the Peace Studies Program in University College, observed that commitment must be preceeded by education, investigation, and acceptance. She asked the panelists, "How would you link your ideas to education?"

George Crowell replied that to inform a wide public about our proposed nonviolent opposition to NAFTA is an educational task. He added that nonviolent action is not solely directed at changing an oppressive institution. Its educational function is as important. MacQueen agreed resoundingly-seeing commitment as an active force in other people's lives as crucial. Whether or not British Columbia changes its legislation as a result of the action in Clayoquot Sound, said MacQueen, that action is already having enormous effects on public awareness by the examples of commitment and nonviolent resistance. And that's education.

No resolutions were offered and no consensus sought in these meetings, yet some of the perceptions that were shared were not publicly opposed, while to others there were expressions of misgiving. Here is what I heard:

Unopposed Perceptions

An increasing number of people feel threatened by big business interests, which control too many sources of information and communication. The free trade agenda, as represented in the FTA, NAFTA, and GATT, is an instrument and a symbol of this threat. It is necessary that we oppose it, and it is not too soon for us to start.

Nonviolent action is appealing as the principal method of our opposition, even though-and partly because!-it entails risks. Nonviolent action against an oppressive institution can lead to a change in that institution, as the leadership of Gandhi, King, and Mandela has helped us to see. Changes in public attitudes brought about by the action are part of this process and an intrinsic social good.

Local nonviolent actions are happening all around us, and we need to learn from them and foster local activists' awareness of one another. This communication effort can be built on the model of Beaudet's Centre in Quebec. "Local communities" can be found within cities as well as outside them. In a city, some communities e.g., the unemployed, the homeless, single parents of young children, youth, dependent aged persons, are dispersed. Others living downwind of the incinerator, those living or working within ten miles of a nuclear generator, may be gathered geographically as well as socially. Even the dispersed ones may have some mutual awareness, communication through a newsletter, or alternate social structure, and hence some cohesion. Some may have hope, others none. We need to augment hope by addressing these local communities, using existing local media when possible. We cannot rely on political parties or on mainstream communications media to carry our message, to do what we see as necessary. We are on our own. All that we undertake must be instructed by broad, ongoing consultation, and our methods must be models of the democratic society we aspire to.

Much Agreement

The groundwork on the pledge should be pursued right away: refinement of the draft text with wide consultation and legal advice, and sharing of the concept with a wider public. If support is sufficient to generate a volunteer apparatus, the first signatures can be sought-perhaps ten thousand-as a foundation for a fully public effort.

Our meetings ended. People went home changed. The small fire that we helped to fan will burn until more has changed.

Terry Gardner is a retired University of Toronto mathematics professor.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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