Des leçons pour les activistes

Janice Harvey examine comment les activistes en environnement peuvent apprendre à partir du passé.

En repensant aux démonstrations de Seattle, elle déclare que la première leçon, c'est de savoir d'où vient votre
pouvoir; la deuxième leçon, c'est que les agents du commerce mondial vont essayer de vous
dépouiller de votre source d'influence.

 "Parce que c'est bien sur votre propre terrain, dans les rues, sur les écrans de TV et dans les manchettes, et selon vos propres conditions, que vous exercer votre influence."














































"Whatever overtures are made and accepted, never cease to speak publicly and bluntly. 

For it is on your own turf -- 
the streets, the TV screens and in headlines -- and on your own terms that you assert influence"



Lessons for Activists

   Janice Harvey
   Marine Conservation Director
   Conservation Council of NB
   January 2000


n the aftermath of the Battle in Seattle, it is now time for trade activists, heady with success, to seriously consider their future. There can be no doubt: 50,000 people got the attention of national politicians and global power brokers. They established trade issues as worthy of media attention and in doing so, let the general public in on what had been the best kept secret in the global village. 

(photo: Grant M. Haller )


Demonstrators downtown
Nov 30, 1999


They even had President Clinton proclaiming he was glad the protestors were there. Clinton emerged as the critic of child labour and promoter of ‘trade with a human face’, much to the dismay -- and disgrace -- of Canadian trade minister Pierre Pettigrew. Clinton knew to whom he was speaking, and it wasn’t the trade delegates hunkered down inside the convention hall. It was to the raw political power amassed outside on the streets and watching on televisions across the nation and around the world.

Herein lies the first lesson for trade activists. Know from whence your power comes. Although vitally important, your influence does not lie in the validity of your critique and your strength of argument. If this is all it takes, then all the caring, intelligent people in the world advocating for human rights, for example, would have solved this problem years ago. And it certainly doesn’t rest in your economic or political status, the credentials that get official trade delegates into the inner sanctum. 

No, your power base is singularly in your ability to get the attention of the millions sitting at home in front of televisions passively consuming whatever the network news chooses to send their way. You have no other status by which to garner the attention of WTO head Michael Moore, or Canadian trade minister Pierre Pettigrew. The last thing the power brokers want is for people to pay attention, for it is a passive, uninvolved citizenry that makes the world of business and politics go round as it does. 

It took dramatic street demonstrations to draw the world’s attention to Seattle. Once there, people heard activists ask the hard questions about the impacts of international trade rules on their lives. To be realistic, most will not remember much about the details of the activists’ message. As Council of Canadians leader Maude Barlow perceptively noted, most people went to bed Monday night not knowing the WTO exists; by Tuesday, the world knew it was there and it might be bad for them. If that is all that was accomplished, that was enough. The demonstrators turned the world’s eye towards heretofore cloistered trade negotiations. Once focused there, people’s understanding of the issues will come in time, and that’s exactly what trade negotiators do not want. 

Lesson two, then, for trade activists: rest assured the global trade brokers will do everything in their power to divert this unwanted attention away from themselves so they can get back to work unhindered by public opinion. They will do this by trying to strip you of your power base. Ironically, your incredible success has also made you vulnerable. You have achieved credibility in the eyes of the media and the public; therefore you cannot be readily dismissed. Their strategy will be to get you off the streets and out of reach of television cameras and journalists, your primary medium for getting and maintaining public interest. 

It will all happen quite naturally. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the nineties mantra intoned by all those sensitive new age guys ensconced in positions of influence and power. People who confront power, rather than cooperate with it, are either marginalized or co-opted. 

(photo: Dan DeLong )


WTO Protester
flashes a
peace sign 
Nov 30, 1999


One of the favourite tactics of marginalization/co-optation is to extend the classic welcome mat: ‘Come in to my parlour, said the spider to the fly.’ Those who refuse the offer are publicly excoriated and thus marginalized, especially in the media. Those who accept, well, sometimes you never hear from them again. And that’s their point -- to silence dissent and cripple your capacity to attract and maintain public interest in the issue. 

They will be extremely seductive. You will be consulted; appointed to committees; included in meetings with business leaders to discuss national trade agendas; offered international trips; you may even be offered a fully-funded organization to provide government with a ‘citizens’ voice’ on trade issues. In short, under the pretense of inclusion (who doesn’t want to be included?), they will attempt to seduce you into a suffocating vortex of process where your vision, purpose, analysis, and most importantly, public voice will be stymied and defused. 

Lest I be accused of being ungenerous and cynical, let me offer this necessarily abridged illustration. The 1980s saw the environmental movement burgeon in strength and numbers, as millions of people stood against the worst abuses of greed and waste. Sniffing the air, by the end of the decade corporations and governments had ‘gone green’. They wrapped themselves in the language of sustainable development and slowly began to crowd the crazies off the environmental bandwagon. The coup de grâce came with the UN’s Earth Summit in Brazil in June 1992, where hundreds of heads of state pledged to save the earth. Official preparations for the Earth Summit were launched in every country, replete with national consultations, national reports, preparatory conferences (affectionately called prep coms) in all corners of the earth, funds for environmentalists to participate in prep cons, and so on. 

Two particularly ominous developments occurred during these official preparations. Business associations started calling themselves NGOs (non-government organization, a term which used to describe charitable organizations), and attending ‘official’ Earth Summit NGO events, and the Canadian government established and funded the Canadian Youth Foundation. This vehicle funnelled tons of money to what could and should have been the governments loudest critics. Instead of making headlines, through the foundation students travelled the world meeting with youth in other countries, attended prep coms, and crafting intelligent declarations which they delivered with passion at the Earth Summit in Brazil. In the process, the public was left behind. 

(photo: Yuill Herbert)

Not to diminish the quality of work done by environmentalists in those dark years, their fatal mistake was to forget the source of their power. When they took their voice inside those meeting rooms, they were neutralized as a political force, regardless of the quality and truth of their interventions. Not hearing from environmentalists, people at home concluded governments and corporations really were green and the problems were being solved. Environment dropped like a stone in the polls following the fine declarations of the Earth Summit; ipso facto whatever progress had been made in the late 1980s ground to a halt. Since then, environmental problems have become more global, more intractable, and it has taken the rest of decade to establish environment as a public agenda issue once again. 

So, trade activists, don’t make the same mistake. Whatever overtures are made and accepted, never cease to speak publicly and bluntly. For it is on your own turf -- the streets, the TV screens and in headlines -- and on your own terms that you assert influence. The minute you agree to work on their turf, on their terms, you lose whatever ground you gained in Seattle. And that would set back the struggle for a new 21st century politics for another decade.