Public education could be threatened by the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, participants at an alternative Peoples' Summit forum heard last month in Quebec City in the run-up to the official Summit of the Americas.
The Hemispheric Forum on Education, organized by the Centrale des syndicats du Québec and the Canadian Teachers' Federation, brought together more than 200 delegates representing students and educators from all countries of the Americas.
"There are those attempting to include education in international trade agreements," CTF president Marilies Rettig warned in her opening address to the forum. "Multinational corporations refer to education as the final frontier -- a three trillion-dollar marketplace opportunity. The focus of these corporations is not to enhance the learning opportunity of children, young people or adults. They have one bottom line, to create an environment in which they can maximize profits."
Monique Richard, president of the CSQ, urged delegates to condemn any efforts to include education in the proposed FTAA.
"We need to send a strong and united message to the heads of states of the Americas that education must never become a commodity in the marketplace and must never be included in international trade agreements," Richard said. "Education is a right which must be accessible to every child, young person, and adult throughout our hemisphere and throughout the world."
Delegates to the forum agreed to a final resolution in which they affirmed that education should be a public service and "not a simple commodity."
"We declare that quality education must prepare free and critical-minded citizens who show respect for diversity and human rights, who are open to the world and concerned about the future of the planet and about sustainable development," the statement reads. "We maintain that public education must be much more accessible at all levels."
Canadian Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew told reporters in Quebec City that his government would not open up the public education system to the FTAA, but added that Canada would be seeking commitments from other governments to get access to their education markets.
CAUT president Tom Booth, who attended the People's Summit, characterized this negotiating strategy as naive. "I don't see how you can keep saying to the Americans, the Mexicans or the Brazilians that we want access to your education system, but you can't have access to ours," Booth said. "In theory, you might be able to get away with it for a little while, but eventually other countries are going to come asking for the same access. When that happens, it's going to be very hard for Canada to keep the door shut."
The People's Summit concluded with a series of marches and demonstrations against the FTAA, including protests near the three-metre high fence erected around the centre of the old city. More than 450 demonstrators were arrested and there have been growing reports of serious violations of the civil liberties of those detained by police.
At its April Council meeting, CAUT passed a resolution condemning the government and the police for violating the rights of protestors and directing the executive to make a donation to the Quebec Legal Collective, a group defending those arrested in Quebec City. At a meeting following Council, the executive agreed to donate $5,000 to the collective, matched by a further contribution of $5,000 from the CAUT Civil Liberties Defence Fund. Council also asked CAUT to urge local associations to make donations to the collective to assure that legal rights are not trampled.
"We need to make it clear that the violation of civil liberties we witnessed in Quebec cannot be tolerated," Booth said. "As academics, we know how important it is that we take all the steps necessary to defend the basic rights and freedoms of citizenship."