The Dilemma Demonstration

Canadian activists demand transparency in FTAA negotiations, 2000-2001



Using “dilemma demonstrations” to demand government transparency

The Canadian government faced a real dilemma when hundreds of its citizens showed up at the Ottawa headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) holding “Search and Rescue Warrants” for the draft documents for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Operation SalAMI’s strategy combined the usual petitions, letter-writing campaigns, legal demonstration, etc., with an unequivocal ultimatum, civil disobedience training on the premises of the Canadian parliament and the drama of the Search and Seizure Operation, a type of nonviolent direct action.

In a Citizen Search and Seizure operation, common citizens decide to “raid” the facilities of an unresponsive authority to gain access to key documents being denied to them. At the outset, advance warning is given in the form of a written ultimatum, requesting that key public interest documents be published by a reasonable deadline. At this moment, authorities are warned that if demands are not met, a Citizen Search and Seizure will be conducted.

Upon observing failure on the part of authorities to release the important information by the set deadline, a Citizen Search Warrant is issued. A few more days to finalize organizing and train participants, then comes the designated time for the Search and Seizure Operation. On the designated day, groups of citizens line up before the most likely building to hold the secret information, and announce that they will attempt entering the premises to search for and seize the documents in the name of democracy and public interest. The tactic looks much like a police raid, but it is conducted absolutely nonviolently, by citizens trained in non-violent action who seek to search and retrieve information deemed essential to democratic life.

On the morning of April 2nd, 2001, in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, a group of citizens faced police barricades in front of a government building. Their goal: reach the building and retrieve the secret documents of the draft Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Facing a line-up of police and a crowd of journalists and media crews, they declared:

'We ask you, police officers, to do your duty and help us retrieve the documents to which we have a right. Do not become accomplices in the secrecy and manipulation of this government. If you refuse to seek and retrieve the texts on our behalf, we will have no option but to attempt to retrieve these documents ourselves.'

One by one, they then proceeded to give their name and said 'I am here to exercise my rights as a citizen; please, let me through'. Groups of two then proceeded to climb and go over the police barricade.

The action took place in front of the Canadian Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), in Ottawa. For months, the government had persistently refused to make public the draft papers for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), a trade liberalization treaty being negotiated among 34 countries of the Americas. Close to 100 people were arrested by the police. No charges were laid and most were released within 24 hours.

The action, and the campaign around it, was covered by virtually every media in the country. The general tone in the media also shifted dramatically around the time of this action, from 'what are violent protesters up to?' to 'what is the government hiding from us?' Across the country, a new debate was raging around the question: why is the government refusing to publish key public policy documents, and choosing to arrest its own citizens instead? The pressure soon proved unbearable on the government.

A measure of the success of the action is that one week after the Citizen Search and Seizure Operation for the FTAA texts, the government soon secured the release of the documents. The Canadian government, after consulting its negotiating partners, finally agreed to make the documents public.