I have had the honour of participating in a so-far small but I believe politically important campaign against Canadian war profiteering, focusing on a corporation called SNC-Lavalin. I gave a long talk to a group about the topic, with some information on the corporation and some thoughts on related issues, a few months ago. Today, the shareholder’s meeting of SNC-Lavalin in Toronto, was, in a sense, our first test.
The action started at 10am, since the meeting started an hour later. Turnout was small, and there are several reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that Canadian war profiteering, despite being a long tradition, is not well known and indeed, while most Canadians are against the war and occupation in Iraq, most Canadians also think Canada isn’t participating in the war and occupation in Iraq. So there’s the chicken-and-egg problem of needing to do actions like this to raise the issue, and that such actions will be limited in size so long as the issue is not well-known…
There are also serious organizational and resource limitations. I know personally many of the organizers of today’s event, and I can tell you that they are a bunch of fanatically devoted hard-working people who are stretched to the gills with the amount of work they are doing, with essentially no resources. Along with organization there’s also logistics – the shareholders might be able to go to the meeting during business hours. The only demonstrators who could go were folks who work in the afternoon or evening, or students, who were most of the demonstrators.
Adding to these difficulties was the appalling behaviour of the police. This is to be expected, and is taken for granted, unfortunately, but there were a few dozen people mobilized to raise issues that are of life-and-death for millions of people (and death for tens of thousands already), and the police responded with horses, paddy wagons, special surveillance equipment, and plenty of plain nastiness. They made several arrests that seemed to me to have been motivated by pure vindictiveness (and possibly training, wanting to try out violent techniques on more or less helpless people in a street setting). One of the arrests was far closer to a kidnapping, with several huge armed men nabbing a kid after the demonstration had already ended and speeding off in an unmarked vehicle. It was shameful for the macho posturing and for the political message conveyed – no the two are doubt related. The organizational and personal costs of these arrests are high, especially since those singled out for arrest were some of the most energetic and inspiring people who will now have to deal with whatever trumped-up charges the state will come up with.
For something to set against all these costs, I believe the demonstration was a political victory. Indeed, the costs might have ‘overshadowed’ the victory for us, but according to the Canadian Press article about the meeting, SNC’s first-quarter profit was ‘overshadowed’ by our protest.
The CEO of SNC-Lavalin, Jacques Lamarre, also provided (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps perfectly wittingly) proof, as if it was necessary, that Canada’s participation in the Iraq occupation should not be considered to be merely a matter of corporate participation, but was in fact official government policy. “As long as the Canadian government tells us you can sell to the U.S. government, we will do it,” he was quoted on the newswires saying. “We never make any sale . . . which is not 100 per cent approved and reviewed by the Canadian government.”
Tells something about the relationship between a corporation like SNC and the state, if the violently disproportionate behaviour of the police was insufficient to do so.
(On a more personal note, I had an odd verbal exchange with a police officer who I at first thought was merely trying to run me over with his bicycle, but turned out had come over to call me an ‘anti-semite’ for mentioning Israel/Palestine during my brief turn at the megaphone. You see, from what we’re able to tell, SNC-Lavalin is involved in building highways and settler-only roads in Israel and the occupied territories, and is thus helping apartheid and occupation there as well. I mentioned this role, and mentioned as well the well-documented and widespread use of torture by Israel against the Palestinians, showing how occupation and torture go together in Israel/Palestine as in Iraq. The officer said something like: ‘You know, I am just here to do a job, I didn’t have any problem with you people, but then you bring this anti-Jewish stuff into it. You’re a bunch of anti-semites’. I replied that it wasn’t about Jews. He said, approximately, that I didn’t know anything about it, because I hadn’t been there. I said I probably knew more than he thought, and that I’d been to Jenin. He said he’d been to Israel and that they were fighting a war there (suggesting, perhaps, that he was a volunteer in the Israeli army?) I knew nothing about. (He was quite wrong. I’ve seen his war. ) This went on for a while – I suppose I am sensitive to being called a racist, even when the person making the accusation is a violent racist himself. My friends thought I was putting myself in unnecessary danger talking to him. I suppose the image that came to my mind when he was talking to me wasn’t so much the wreckage that he and the people he identifies so strongly with have wrought on the people he has such contempt for that he can’t even acknowledge they exist – see Junaid Alam’s article, linked just above, for an interesting discussion of this – but Neta Golan, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, trying to reason with a similar fellow saying and doing similar things. That was a long time ago now, and I’m not Neta. But enough about that all.)