Last week, two Canadians made international headlines by burning their passports. They were protesting Canada's leading role in making sure that the climate summit in The Hague was a complete disaster.
The catalyst? A coalition of 287 environmental groups handed daily "fossil" awards to countries that were especially obstructionist in the negotiations. Canada ended the conference with more awards than any other country, including the United States. For most people, the passport bonfire was a bit extreme—"shrill" to quote The New York Times.
When Tooker Gomberg, one of the passport pyros, called from The Hague on Sunday, I told him he may have done the cause of climate change a disservice. "If a single journalist had asked me why I burned my passport," he replied angrily, "I would have been happy to tell them."
He has a point. Mr. Gomberg's stunt was the only event at the summit that managed to pry the attention of Canadians away from our election and the Florida recount—if only for 30 seconds. And the scandalous events in The Hague deserve much more scrutiny than that.
When Alliance candidate Betty Granger used the phrase "Asian invasion," it was a flashback to Second World War "yellow peril" rhetoric and she was forced to resign. But there was another pearl of wisdom the ex-candidate shared with students at the University of Winnipeg, one that went largely unnoticed. Referring to the boats of Chinese immigrants seized off the B.C. coast, she said, "There was a realization that what was coming off these boats was not the best clientele you would want for this country."
Clientele. It doesn't have the same xenophobic ring as "Asian invasion"; in fact, it sounds positively clinical. But it may be more dangerous, especially because it is an idea that is not relegated to the fringe of the Alliance but lies at the very centre of the national immigration debate.
On Oct 20, University of Toronto student Derek Laventure attended a protest outside the Ontario Tory convention. He saw a police officer drag away a fellow activist and he was heard to say, "That's not right." Next, witnesses say, he was brutally assaulted by several police officers, thrown against a barricade headfirst (his eye was so bruised, it swelled shut), and arrested.
His crime? Allegedly carrying a weapon and using it to assault a police officer. The "weapon" was a black flag.
On the night Mr. Laventure was arrested, Elan Ohayon, a U of T PhD student, was sleeping in Toronto's Allan Gardens. He had camped there every Friday for more than a year as part of a protest against inadequate public housing and police harassment of homeless people. The next morning, Mr. Ohayon woke up surrounded by police officers. They arrested him and, he alleges, assaulted him. Like Mr. Laventure, Mr. Ohayon was charged with assaulting police. He was told to sign bail conditions that barred him from returning to Allan Gardens. He refused. That meant abandoning the vigil to which he had committed himself as an activist.
When the top two executives at BMG Entertainment resigned on the weekend, it revealed a deep schism in the way multinational companies see the Internet's culture of sharing. Despite all the attempts to turn the Net into a giant shopping mall, the default ethos still seems to be anti-shopping: On the Internet, we may purchase things here and there, but we share ceaselessly—ideas, humour, information and, yes, music files.
So here's the real debate as it goes down in the boardroom: Is this culture of on-line swapping and trading a threat to the heart of the profit motive, or is it an unprecedented profit-making opportunity, a chance to turn sharing itself into an enormously profitable sales tool?
When the five major record labels, under the umbrella of the Recording Industry Association of America, launched a lawsuit against Napster, they threw their lot decidedly into the first camp: file-sharing is theft of copyright, pure and simple, and it must be stopped.
The United States is supposed to be a culture driven by the worship of success. And yet it seems there is one man for whom success is universally unacceptable: Ralph Nader.
Mr. Nader is scolded for his popularity among voters. Ex-friends call him vain, reckless. He should quit, and instruct supporters to vote for Al Gore.
The man who was exiled to the margins for this entire campaign—barred from the debates, blacked out from the news—is now at the dead centre of the race.
No wonder there are threats being made against Mr. Nader's advocacy group, Public Citizen, headed by Joan Claybrook. "How many progressive congressmen will be prepared to take Joan Claybrook's telephone calls?" demands Jack Blum, counsel to Americans for Democratic Action.
Is that Ralph Nader running for Prime Minister? It seemed that way when Jean Chretien entered the election with fists flying at fat cats, millionaires and "radical" right-wingers who care only about "the market forces."
Now, admittedly, Mr. Chretien could use an emergency tutorial from Mr. Nader on the etiquette of championing the working class. (Lesson #1: Don't call factory workers uneducated, stunted citizens—as the Prime Minister did on Monday—especially when those workers are the very ones responsible for the economic boom you are hoping to parlay into a third term in office.)
But Mr. Chretien is doing his best. He even cancelled a Team Canada trade mission to China. There he was, all set to help Canada's multinational manufacturers find low-wage factories where they can produce their goods cheaply and without pesky unions (presumably, he doesn't think much of factory workers in China either) when he decided to stay home and lecture us about "Canadian values."
I knew there was a problem when my mother called my hotel in Prague. She had been watching the news and was under the impression that, if I were at the protests against the World Bank, I was either in hospital or in jail. I told her things got pretty tense for a few minutes but that, on the whole, the protests had been peaceful. "Don't believe everything you see on television, Mom."
Only it's hard not to. All week, I've been poring over TV and newspaper reports and all I've seen are Molotov cocktails and flying paving stones. The activists are dismissed as "anti-trade" Luddites. This caricature was drawn most crudely by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who plagiarized his own writing post-Seattle, calling the Prague protesters "a rogues' gallery of Communists, anarchists, protectionist unions and overfed yuppies" determined to "keep poor people poor." If the protesters have any ideas about alleviating poverty, we didn't hear about them.
What seems to most enrage the delegates to the meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Prague this week is the idea that they even have to discuss the basic benefits of free-market globalization.
That discussion was supposed to have stopped in 1989, when the Wall fell and history ended. Only here they all are—old people, young people, thousands of them—literally storming the barricades of their extremely important summit.
And as the delegates peer over the side of their ill-protected fortress at the crowds below, scanning signs that say "Capitalism Kills," they look terribly confused. Didn't these strange people get the memo? Don't they understand that we all already decided that free-market capitalism was the last, best system? Sure, it's not perfect, and everyone inside the meeting is awfully concerned about all those poor people and the environmental mess, but it's not like there's a choice—is there?
When I arrived in London on Sunday, the city was like a jittery heroin junkie who had just shot up. The panic that gripped Britain when a coalition of truckers and farmers blockaded the nation's oil refineries had been replaced with an unreal calm. The gas was flowing again and, at the stations, dazed customers injected their tanks with rivers of unleaded.
As is the case with any powerful addiction, the fuel crisis hasn't disappeared; it has been, momentarily, sated. Protests against oil taxes are cropping up across Europe and they may well return to Britain after the moratorium called by the truck drivers expires in two months. Canadian truckers are even threatening to mount copycat actions.
Watched from a distance, the oil blockades in Britain look like spontaneous popular uprisings: regular working folk, frightened for their livelihoods, getting together to say, "Enough's enough." But before this David and Goliath story goes any further, it deserves a closer reading.
One time, when I was on the phone with Sympatico customer service, I shamelessly abused my privilege as a writer for this newspaper. "Look," I said, "I'm a columnist with The Globe and Mail and I need e-mail access now."
Of course, this was an extreme situation: I had tried and retried the connection, reconfigured my settings, reinstalled my modem software, and shut down and restarted my computer 16 times. Only then, when I still couldn't file my column, did I mention The Globe.