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Politicians, Protestors and Professors at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas Analysis prepared for the University of Toronto Bulletin, May 1, 2001
by John Kirton, University of Toronto


The third Summit of the Americas, held in Quebec City on April 20-22, was a significant achievement, both for the innovative processes it pioneered and for the new principles and programs it produced.

Assembling all the 34 democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere for three days of in-depth discussions - a process launched only in December 1994 in Miami - was itself a notable accomplishment. To be sure, the Summit was encumbered by rather too much formality and enjoyed too little of the genuine assertion of political will common at similar G8/G8 gatherings. But the mere act of meeting did encourage the creation of a 50-page set of ambitious principles and action plans, an agreement to meet three years hence in Argentina, and a strengthening of the common resolve to deepen democracy, drive development, open markets and create communities across an exceedingly diverse hemisphere. Moreover, in contrast to Canada's experience with its 1988 free trade agreement with the U.S. and its 1994 NAFTA with Mexico, the leaders focused on putting in place the social protections and genuine regional community well before free trade, with its inevitable adjustments, would arrive as scheduled in 2005. To ensure that their well-meaning declarations are actually delivered, they assembled a C$45 billion funding package. Canada contributed a new Institute on Connectivity to help bridge the digital divide. It will deliver the high-quality, low-cost information upon which transparency, accountability and democracy depend and which education and development in today's new global economy and society require.

Assisting the leaders in their common resolve were the more than 25,000 individuals who took the time to come to Quebec City to voice their concerns at the Summit. They came in large part to demand that democracy and development be given a much broader and deeper meaning than judged possible at the moment by the leaders, many of whom come from countries where democracy and development are both very new and still fragile phenomena. The protesters also came to insist that the process of opening markets and societies be done in a way that delivers real benefits for all, or that it be stopped until and unless it does. Despite the media's fascination with violence, Canada set a new standard for civility in hosting such events. In sharp contrast to recent gatherings of world economic ministers, Quebec City saw few arrests, virtually no hospitalizations, and no serious property damage. The leaders inside were thus able to focus on the real message of the demonstrators outside. They did so by responding that it was the poor countries and their poor citizens that really wanted free trade and the guaranteed, assured access to the U.S. market that a wealthy Canada and rapidly developing Mexico already enjoy. But they also strengthened their resolve that the process of free trade and community building must proceed in a more open and democratic manner, and that the product must be designed to bring benefits to all.

Certainly, the most innovative feature of Quebec City was making 60 civil society leaders part of the Summit process itself. Largely coming from those who had mounted consultations and conferences in the lead-up to the Summit, these leaders came from a diverse array of organizations from throughout the hemisphere, and in part from those who left the protests outside to deliver the same message within. Under the able co-chairmanship of Bill Graham, the Chair of the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, for the three days the Summit was in session, the civil society leaders met one another, often for the first time, identified common interests and shared ways of strengthening their own work and the voice of civil society as a whole. They identified the key priorities they wished governments to address immediately. When 20 ministers from throughout the hemisphere accepted the invitation for a joint meeting, these civil society representatives advanced their priorities directly in an often sharp, but on the whole productive, exchange. In part because the largest civil society contingent came from the academic community, including close to a dozen professors from across Canada, a key demand was that greater weight be given to education - an imperative that had been highlighted at the second, 1998 Summit in Santiago but that had faded since. They also emphasized that development and trade liberalization must be ecologically and socially sustainable, a point not widely understood by leaders from some of the largest countries in the hemisphere.

Did the invited professors and other civil society representatives make a difference, especially as a critical connector between the public and protestors on the outside and the politicians within the now famous Summit fence? They certainly set a precedent for direct civil society participation in future Summits and helped inspire Argentina to promise that the next Summit would be held "without walls." They established good working relationships with consequential ministers, so that the cause of advancing education and environmental protection can continue. But as with the public, protestors and politicians, their three days of dialogue will have a durable impact only through ongoing investment. It remains to be seen whether those professors whose pre-Summit initiatives got them into the Summit for three days will remain as engaged in the years to come.

John Kirton is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Director of the G8 Research Group, and Principal Investigator of the project on "Strengthening Canada's Environmental Community through International Regime Reform." He attended the Quebec City Summit of the Americas as an invited civil society representative. The views expressed here are his alone.



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