Canadian activists demand transparency in FTAA negotiations, 2000-2001


On April 20-22, 2001, officials from 34 countries met in Québec, Canada for the third Summit of the Americas, intended to further negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). While the proposed FTAA had received near-universal praise in the mainstream North American media, activists feared that the agreement would expand what they viewed as the worst aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—degradation of environmental regulations, weakened labor laws, and the subjugation of national laws to secretive, pro-corporate tribunals. These fears were unconfirmed, however, because governments had kept the FTAA draft text secret from the public, even though they released the draft to multinational corporations. As many organizations prepared for actions to coincide with the summit, one group named Operation SalAMI decided to focus its campaign on the hypocritical secrecy of the FTAA negotiators. (In French, ‘salami’ means ‘dirty friend,’ and AMI is the acronym for the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, a previous target of the group.)

SalAMI, led by an activist named Philippe Duhamel, adhered to strict principles of ethical nonviolence, mandatory training, and tactical transparency. The organizers wanted to contribute to the actions in Québec during the summit, but were concerned about the probability of violent confrontation with police by non-pacifists, and what they perceived as the purely reactionary nature of protesting against the summit, rather than for something. This led them to seek out another venue for their campaign. They chose to focus their campaign on International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa. In November 2000, SalAMI issued the following ultimatum to the Ministry:

“We demand that the Canadian government publish the integral version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as it stands at this stage of the negotiations. We demand that, on March 20, [2001,] at noon at the latest, the Canadian government:
-Make available across the country 5,000 copies of the draft text of the accord in French, 10,000 copies in English, 1,000 copies in Spanish and 500 copies in Portuguese;
-Put the four versions of this document on the Internet, with monthly updates…
If this just and reasonable demand is not met…I announce my participation in a non-violent civil disobedience action on April 2, 2001, in Ottawa, with the goal of closing down the building housing the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in order to carry out a strictly nonviolent citizens search for the official draft of the FTAA" (Operation SalAMI, Joint Declaration…).

This ultimatum was clearly phrased so that SalAMI could declare victory no matter what course the government chose. Even if the government refused to reveal the FTAA draft under threat of direct action, the action itself would publicize the suspicious secrecy of the negotiations. SalAMI also selected an issue that would surely appeal to the media, who have a vested interest in freedom of information.

From November through March, SalAMI activists contacted hundreds of other action networks, unions, student organizations, and church groups to gather support for the campaign. Most of the organizing was done via mail, email and fax, but SalAMI volunteers also toured activist circles in Canada and the United States to rally supporters. Through this process, over 18,000 people signed a petition with the above language, pledging to hold the government accountable if it failed to produce the FTAA draft. The coalition, newly dubbed the “Ottawa Convergence against the FTAA,” also acquired the support of some opposition Members of Parliament, including the New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough.

As expected, the government did not produce the FTAA draft by the March 20 deadline, so activists announced that they had a “Citizen’s Warrant for Search and Seizure.” Activists then finalized preparations for the April 2 day of action. Organizers issued a statement to employees of the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs, urging them not to come to work on April 2 while simultaneously stressing workers’ solidarity. On April 1, the Ottawa Convergence held a day-long teach-in in three rented rooms of the Canadian Parliament building. This teach-in included speakers on the drawbacks of the FTAA, and nonviolence training to ensure all participants knew how to respond to all possible scenarios the following day.

400-500 protesters arrived at the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs on April 2. One team immediately blockaded the parking lot to ensure no vehicles could enter, while another created a human chain around the building to “surround and secure” the premises. Next, the activists gathered in front of the police and barricades blocking the entrance to the building. Organizers decided to send “search teams” over the barricades two at a time in order to maintain a spirit of playful decorum and not overwhelm or threaten the police. Each protester read the same statement as they climbed over the barricade: “We ask you, police officers, to do your duty and help us retrieve the documents to which we are entitled by right. Do not become accomplices in the secrecy and manipulation of this government. If you refuse to seek and retrieve the texts on our behalf, we will have no option but to attempt to retrieve them ourselves” (Duhamel). The police arrested each pair, to repeated cheers from the crowd. The atmosphere was festive and creative—one protester touted an over-sized key “to unlock government secrets,” and another had a magnifying glass “to investigate what’s really going on.” Activists sang and danced alongside the police barrier. All in all, approximately 85 people were arrested. The action received extremely positive media coverage across Canada.

The day of the protest, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew repeated his vow not to release the FTAA draft due to privacy concerns. However, only five days later, at the sixth ministerial meeting of FTAA negotiators in Buenos Aries, Pettigrew moved to release the full text of the FTAA draft, and the rest of the ministers agreed. Pettigrew publicly stated, “It’s certainly not [the activists] who made me appear before my colleagues, trembling, to tell them we have to render the texts public. Their protest was a total failure. What is true is that I honestly believe that international trade negotiations will be better accomplished when citizens are better informed.”

Operation SalAMI remained active following its victorious campaign to publicize the FTAA draft, which, in fact, proved to be as harmful to environmental laws and state sovereignty as activists originally feared. Thanks in part to years more of organizing by SalAMI and countless other groups, negotiators missed the 2005 deadline for implementation of the FTAA, and the plan is now shelved.