Atlantica's Rising Tide

A proposed free-trade area would radically change Canada's East Coast - but would it lift all boats?

a_macisaac5.jpg Police block protesters on the front steps of the Halifax, NS, World Trade and Convention Centre, where the Atlantica conference was being held. Photo by Adam MacIsaac.

By Drew Nelles

Halifax may be the largest city in the Maritimes, but it's hardly a metropolis; home to Dalhousie University, and with a population of just 119,000 people, it feels more like a sleepy college town than a provincial capital. In the early afternoon on June 15, though, about 350 people gathered in a downtown park to wake the city up. The elderly activist group the Maritime Raging Grannies were performing a song composed just for the occasion, sung to the tune of "Go Tell it on the Mountain":

"Come sing it with the sisters / Over the borders everywhere / Atlantica would hurt us / We have to make trade fair / Behind closed doors they'll sign a deal / And we won't know a thing / They'll trample on our human rights / So let our protests ring."

"Atlantica" is a proposed free-trade deal that would further integrate the Maritimes and south-eastern Quebec with the New England states. The agreement was being discussed in Halifax at a conference hosted by one of the deal's main proponents, the right-wing think tank Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). While business-people and politicians mingled inside, regular citizens were left on the doorsteps and without a voice in the meetings. "This is an invisible agenda that nobody has really known about up to this point," explained J.D. Price, a spokesperson for the Anti-Atlantica Alliance, the umbrella group that rallied critical voices to come and demonstrate. "The overarching problem is that there’s no transparency, there no participation with civil society. They're talking about scaling back policies and regulations that working class people have fought and struggled for, things like minimum wage and environmental regulations."

As free-trade deals tend to do, Atlantica has generated enough concern to unite a broad cross-section of left-wing activists and concerned citizens; union organizers, environmentalists, parents and children, Canadian nationalists, and militant anarchists all stood in the verdant green park and listened to the Raging Grannies. Some of the anarchists - the self-described "Black Bloc - seemed a bit unsure whether to clap along to the song, or to remain ominous and still. As the demonstration began moving and neared the World Trade and Convention Centre, where the Atlantica conference was being held, this indecisiveness surfaced again.

The 75-strong Black Bloc broke off from the larger march and began running for the Convention Centre, but were blocked by a few police. The events that followed have already been widely reported: someone hurled a smoke bomb at the police, and inexplicably the Bloc ran in the opposite direction, heading toward a busy main road as some desperately yelled, "Where are we going?" Once on the road, protestors pelted businesses and police with paint-filled balloons and light bulbs; the police responded with pepper spray, tazers, billy clubs, and multiple arrests.

A number of protestors dispersed, but some headed north, toward Halifax's iconic Citadel Hill. In the shadow of that landmark, more paint bombs were thrown, and riot police pepper-sprayed and tazered more people, including at least one who was already handcuffed and detained. As a woman was hustled into a police van, she shouted repeatedly, "This is what the police state looks like!"

A man lay on the ground, barely conscious, as police huddled around him, chuckling and cracking jokes. When the paramedics arrived, one turned to a cop and asked, apparently incredulous, "What were you thinking?" Regaining consciousness, the man on the ground croaked to a paramedic, "Tell them to go away," referring to the officers.

Later, at the Convention Centre, about 60 people were gathered on the front steps, shouting chants like, "One-two-three-four, Atlantica is class war! Five-six-seven-eight, organize and smash the state!" Standing with a line of police, a security guard informed the protestors that the Convention Centre is private property; an aboriginal protestor responded, "This is stolen land." One demonstrator, dressed ludicrously in purple goggles, a Hawaiian lei, and a garish skirt, was shoved down the concrete steps by a police officer; he was apparently singled out for violating bail conditions, which dictated that he stay away from the Atlantica conference. The demonstrator began running but was tackled by an undercover cop, dragged behind police lines, and arrested. "You didn't even give me a chance to remove myself from the premises!" he yelled. As other protestors approached, an officer swung his billy club and growled, "Who wants to cross the line?"

By the end of the day, 21 people had been arrested, including at least two who were not involved in the demonstration. Paint splattered the streets, a bank window was broken, and the mainstream media decried the protest as violent. But the Atlantica conference went off without a hitch - in fact, although Atlantica has largely flown beneath the radar prior to the demonstration, the Canadian government announced that week $588,000 in support of the Atlantica Council, which will promote the nascent trade area.

A demonstrator is tackled by police in Halifax while protesting the Atlantica proposal's push for lower labour standards, including reduced minimum wages. In all, 21 people were arrested. Photo by Adam MacIsaac.

"Atlantica" seems a rather fabulous name for something as unsexy as a trade agreement, but the tale of how it came to the attention of the activist community is nearly as mythic. The rumour goes that, in late 2005, a single East Coast activist discovered AIMS's proposal online and began alerting friends and allies. The pressure of organizing later caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown, but from these humble beginnings blossomed a full-on anti-Atlantica movement.

Atlantica is more officially known as "Atlantica: the International Northeast Economic Region" (AINER). The brainchild of AIMS, the proposed free-trade area would encompass what is generally described as the "Atlantic Northeast"; in Canada, this would include New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec south of the St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island; in the U.S., upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Much of the proposal revolves around traditional free-trade proposals like eliminated tariffs, but in many ways Atlantica goes beyond; it is explicitly interested in the "harmonization of regulations" between all involved areas, and in the construction of massive infrastructure projects to facilitate trade.

It is these two areas that have attracted the ire of activists. Atlantica’s detractors point out that, although AIMS cloaks its advocacy of the free-trade zone in the language of job creation and economic revitalization, the think-tank's goals are explicitly anti-poor; it brazenly describes minimum-wage legislation, unionization, and public services as "public policy distress factors." As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives wrote in a comprehensive 2006 report, "This thinly-disguised attack on working people, public services, social programs, and democratic decision-making is very revealing about what underlies the Atlantica agenda."

It is the real-world impacts of these proposed policy changes that drives people like Price to speak up. Although the port of Halifax is central to the trade proposal, Haligonians themselves would not be spared from the effects of dropping salaries and a reduced social security net. "Just in Halifax there are 30,000 people that are a paycheque away from being out on the streets," he explains. "You just have to do the math to understand what's going to happen when minimum wage is brought down, when people are working two jobs, when working poor are struggling to make ends meet as it is."

Beyond such blatantly regressive policy solutions, however, Atlantica would involve massive infrastructure changes to eastern Canada; specifically, the establishment of the Halifax harbour as a major trade conduit between Asia and the eastern U.S. It seems counterintuitive, considering the North American west coast's close proximity to Asian markets and the longstanding use of the Panama Canal, but for AIMS, it makes perfect sense. Trade between Asia and the U.S . keeps rising, straining the capacity of Western ports, and the use of so-called "Post-Panamax" vessels - ships too huge to fit through the Panama Canal - has been on the rise since 1995. Add to this that the Halifax port is deep enough to accommodate Panamax and Post-Panamax ships, and that it is the closest major port for Asian ships travelling via the Suez Canal.

Tied to the revitalization of the Halifax port would be the construction of new highways to accommodate transport trucks ferrying goods from the Maritimes to the eastern U.S., and the loosening of transport regulations to allow increased use of massive "truck trains" - vehicles with more than one trailer per tractor. Atlantica means huge ships and huge trucks – that’s more long-distance trade and more fossil-fuel consumption in the face of climate change's looming threats.

"[The U.S. and Asian] economies are engaged in a trading relationship that's socially, environmentally, and economically unsustainable," Brendan Haley of Halifax's Ecology Action Centre told the crowd on June 15. "The vision of a few business leaders is to take the goods produced halfway around the world and ship them to another country. Nova Scotia becomes a super-highway for the Wal-Marts of the world. Our highest endeavour is to become a middleman."

Free-trade rhetoric at least used to champion market fundamentalism as a cure-all; think of that old cliché, "The rising tide lifts all boats." But Atlantica is not about lifting boats - it is about lifting post-Panamax ships, and allowing everything smaller to drown.

About 350 protestors marched peacefully through downtown Halifax speaking out against the closed-door Atlantica meetings. Photo by Adam MacIsaac.

The evening following the main demonstration, a "victory celebration" kegger was held to raise money for legal costs. Beer and vegan burritos sold for $2 apiece, and a local punk band tore through songs with names like "Thrash Atlantica to Fucking Death." A few people joked about how the prisoners, some of whom were straight-edge, would feel about alcohol sales covering their defence fees. A more pressing question, as some present pointed out, was why the party was billed as a victory celebration when so many people were in jail.

But a deeper frustration, one expressed more quietly and privately, was directed towards those who were arrested. More than one person pointed out to me that the arrests were a headache for the anti-Atlantica movement. Some mused about what the most active organizers could be working on after the demonstration, if their time wasn’t being devoted to legal issues. One Black Bloc participant told me that he was dismayed to see a paint bomb explode inches away from an elderly woman. And, of course, the usual questions arose about confrontational, direct action: what about the movement's image? The demonstrations certainly received more press coverage thanks to the minor property damage and clashes with police, but to what end?

The proponents of Atlantica are powerful, and their ideas are uniform; influential think tanks like AIMS, the Nova Scotia and federal governments, and massive corporations like Irving (which, incidentally, owns most of the press in the Maritimes that so readily dismissed the anti-Atlantica actions), all calling for a radically different east coast in the same voice.

The movement against the free-trade area is a more heterogeneous blend of groups united against a single threat. A diversity of views, a diversity of tactics - something to welcome, certainly. But there are also deep strains that plague the movement against Atlantica; the threat of police infiltration, the tension between - as one participant described them - the "punks" and the "activists," the ever-present difficulty of building a coalition that includes both Radical Cheerleader and Raging Granny, anti-capitalist and national sovereigntist. One of the movement’s strengths is surely the wide-ranging groups that it can unify. But if diversity means division, as the aftermath of the demonstration seems to point out, then Atlantica's implementation may be inevitable.