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McGill Reporter
February 13, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 10
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Academics and activists

The Hemispheric Civil Society Conference

General strikes paralyze Venezuela. Riots and rampant inflation wreak havoc in Argentina. And in Brazil the first leftist president is elected after four years of economic stagnation. So what does this have to do with Canada?

Everything, according to Renata Rubian, who is working to organize a conference at McGill that will bring Latin American and Canadian academics, activists and government representatives to discuss "Hemispheric Civil Society."

The concept of civil society is growing in strength and momentum. Rubian pointed to the recent World Social Forum that was held in Brazil this January, and the large-scale mobilization of labour and community groups in South American countries in recent years.

"The World Social Forum came as something new for civil society -- last year they had 60,000 people, this year there were 100,000 -- this was a source of inspiration for us," she said.

These events were mirrored in Canada with protests in Vancouver over APEC, the Seattle protests in 1999, and closer to home, the large-scale protests over Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) meetings in Quebec.

"Everything was an incentive to get these movements out there in Latin America and in Canada, and bring everyone together to discuss and share ideas."

The conference is being hosted by the Centre for Developing Area Studies (CDAS) which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Keynote speakers include Michel Chossudovsky, author of The Globalization of Poverty, activist Jaggi Singh, and former MP and past director of Rights and Democracy Warren Allmand.

According to Allmand, conferences like this one help civil society -- which he loosely defines as being made up of actors who mediate between the citizen and the state -- organize themselves more effectively to resist business-driven globalization.

"If business is organized in an international multilateral global basis, civil society must be organized in the same way," he said.

He said that the globalized situation the world finds itself in today is similar to that of industrialized countries in the 19th century. There is wealth and democracy, but also exploitation, economic and political marginalization and great gaps between the rich and poor. The situation then was to organize labour unions on a national scale.

"There's a similar requirement today. Since there is one marketplace instead of many, we need systems of global governance. We need civil society to be organized to present citizens' views, and to take political action which is coordinated and comprehensive," he said.

CDAS fellow Diane Cousineau is helping organize the event. She defines (while stressing not everyone would agree) civil society as those who work towards solutions that are an alternative to dominant ideas of free-market neo-liberalism.

In her view, civil society activism need not be exclusive of anyone —as long as you're a citizen you can participate, although too often actors within movements will exclude others. Images of masked protestors throwing bricks through windows repelled even those protesting alongside them.

"Often activists with very strong issue areas will co-opt the whole process. Some people were upset to see violence at originally peaceful processes," she said.

"The goals of this conference are mainly to work out questions like that -- to see what the issues are, and to see how the issues are expressed in different areas."

It's not a civil disobedience seminar -- nor will it be a typical academic conference.

"The goals of the conference are to provide a forum for people to express their activism, and to exchange ideas as to how they can affect the future and the present in their own experiences and their own cultures," said Cousineau.

Rubian stresses that in organizing the conference, they try as much as possible to make sure everyone's voices are heard. Firstly, debate with the audience is a key part of the seminars and panel discussions. To ensure everyone has access, there is not even a token registration fee.

More prosaically, it was necessary to arrange Spanish translation for some of the speakers.

"Interpretation is a concern. The person who is coming from Argentina is from the unemployed movement -- he's an activist. He's the person who's in front, organizing the parades and blockades in Argentina. But he's not a person who can express himself in English. Obviously we want to take advantage of his experience and make him comfortable in the debate," said Rubian.

Making sure everyone is heard means making sure everyone is listened to. For this conference, levelling the playing field meant taking an unusual decision for the conference program.

"We decided to drop anything that referred to any formal position. We put the organization, but not indicating position like president or professor, because we don't want a hierarchy of individuals," said Rubian.

"Everyone is meeting as a private citizen," added Cousineau.

The Hemispheric Civil Society Conference, Feb. 19-21, Leacock 232. Participants are asked to register in advance, as space is limited. Call 398-3507 or check out www.mcgill.ca/cdas

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