July 17, 2002

Meet the Welcoming Committee

Meet the Welcoming Committee

Chris Arsenault
June 19, 2002

Over five hundred protestors, lead by a kilt-wearing bag-piper, marched against the G7 Finance Ministers meetings in Halifax last weekend. Together their message to the ministers, central bank governors and International Monetary Fund (IMF) representatives was this: Globalization hurts Maritimers — and it’s time to stop.

"The protests were an enormous success,” said Jessica Squires, an organizer with the Halifax G7 Welcoming Committee, the umbrella group coordinating the weekend’s actions.

The success sprang from the clear links made by the committee between G7-led global corporatization and local problems. Like Nova Scotia’s abysmal record of the highest university tuition rates in the country and the lowest minimum wage. After all, nothing makes big business happier than a large supply of low wage earners — easily replaceable, easily controllable. Or so they think.

The Welcoming Committee is a global justice coalition supported by a diverse range of grassroots groups: the Ecology Action Centre, Students Taking Action in Chiapas, the Nova Scotia Union of Public Employees, the Africville Genealogy Society and Halifax’s anarchist marching band. Despite varying political priorities, the coalition worked together to support each other’s work.

For Bruce Gates of Nova Scotia Citizen’s Health Care Coalition, the issue is privatized health care. “It pisses me off that American, for-profit corporations are trying to privatize our healthcare system,” he said. The committee also raised objections to the government’s refusal to acknowledge the toxic hazard posed by the Sydney tar ponds and the privatization of Halifax’s harbour clean-up program.

Further, activists used the occasion to call G7 leaders on their failure to address systematic racism in the province.

“Slavery was one of the first world trade agreements,” says Denise Allen, vice-president of the Africville Genealogy Society and a speaker at Friday’s rally. Africville was a thriving, self-sufficient black community when the government “relocated citizens” in 1969 to make way for a key transport route.

“The G7 never mentions Africville or African Canadians, but they say they want to help Africa,” notes Allen. “How can people who commit systemic racism in their own countries pretend they have the best interests of Africans at heart?” she asks, criticizing NEPAD, the G7’s new plan for Africa.

"The bottom line was solidarity,” said Squires of the weekend’s protests. “The police and government tried to divide us from the time we began planning three months ago, until they made their final arrest on Sunday.” But, she says, attempts to divide and conquer we’re unsuccessful.

Rallies held throughout the weekend included speakers and live reggae tunes on the Halifax commons. Marches snaked through the city accompanied by drumming and chanting — “G7 bankers, you’re economic wankers,” went a favourite.

On Saturday, protestors targeted a series of metal barricades, guarded by a line of police in riot gear, beyond which the delegates met. The barriers were a cold representation of the undemocratic nature of the meeting. Average citizens can’t participate in these world-altering meetings, and meeting minutes aren’t made public. Tearing down the barricades was a way to challenge this system and the validity of the meeting.

Activists clad in pink — in purposeful contrast to the infamous ’black block’ activists — stood face to face with police. They danced beside the officers, hung flowers from their riot shields and delivered them pink slips, symbolically firing them because they weren’t protecting the right people.

Soon, police launched canisters containing the dynamic duo of pepper spray and tear gas. Activists were treated by medics; some took direct hits from the canisters. Protestors held their line for another hour before the cat-and-mouse game between police and protestors began again.

By 4 p.m., demonstrators were trying to disperse, but the police wouldn’t cooperate. After a massive banner was stolen and thrown away by riot officers, tension boiled over. Confused protestors ran through the downtown, looking for a way out; police blocked them in.

The majority of arrests — there were thirty-seven in all — began at the waterfront. Plain-clothes officers grabbed several activists, including me. Protestors stepped in to stop the unjustified arrests. (I, for example, hadn’t committed any illegal acts; I just happened to be talking on a megaphone for much of the day.) One police officer drew his gun.

“They [the police] slammed my head into the ground,” said Anna Taylor, as she pointed to a large gash on her forehead. “They hit me with a stick and put the cuffs on so hard that I bled,” said the slight 18-year-old high school student.

Canadian Alliance leader Steven Harper may believe, as he recently claimed, that East Coasters are “defeatist” in their attitude. But organizer Squires disagrees.

“I think the Welcoming Committee showed just how determined Atlantic Canadians are.”

Chris Arsenault is an 18-year-old activist and gonzo journalist based in Halifax. He enjoyed the chicken stew they served in jail.

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