Political Economy, Civil Society, and the Deep Integration Debate in Canada

By Ayres, Jeffrey M. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Political Economy, Civil Society, and the Deep Integration Debate in Canada


Ayres, Jeffrey M., American Review of Canadian Studies


  "We're launching the attack folks--and if we have our way, it will be
  on the same scale or bigger than past movements opposing the MAI and
  free trade."
  --Susan Thompson, Founder and Editor, Vive le Canada

  "Canadians could be headed for another great debate on integration
  with the United States ... the potential benefits are elusive, while
  the pitfalls are significant...."
  --Marc Lee, Economist, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

It has been over fifteen years since an unprecedented coalition of civil society groups mobilized across Canada against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA). During the 1988 debate over the CUSFTA, a self-described "popular sector" (Cameron and Drache, 1985) coalition of women's, church, labor, Aboriginal, environmental, student, senior, anti-poverty, and other social justice groups exploited strengths in numbers, leadership, and expertise to mount an effective public educational and parliamentary protest campaign against the CUSFTA. Since that divisive debate and federal election in 1988, subsequent federal Progressive Conservative, and then, Liberal governments have built on the free trade accord by joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Interestingly, over the past year and unlike any other time since 1988, civil society groups again began to mobilize in a campaign for and against proposals that would deepen continental integration.

This article adopts a political process approach for assessing the mobilization potential of those civil society groups especially engaged in a campaign against deep integration. The discussion that follows also falls squarely within the concerns of the new Canadian political economy tradition, (1) asking how the adoption of a neoliberal governing policy agenda has "unsettled" some of the dominant patterns of collective action and resistance that have unfolded across Canada since the late 1980s. Specifically, the strategic options facing civil society groups today across Canada are constrained by political circumstances and a time period that paradoxically looks at once similar and yet markedly different than the supportive environment for political protest that faced groups in 1988. In fact, this article concludes that despite parallels between the 1988 and the more recent integration debates--years both marked by contested federal elections--civil society groups in Canada currently lack crucial political leverage to generate the sorts of political influence so effectively applied during the anti-CUSFTA campaign.

Civil society can be understood as that "arena of organized political activity between the private sphere (the household and the firm) and the formal political institutions of governance (the parliament, political parties, the judiciary, etc." (Macdonald, 1994). (2) The focus in this article in particular is on those popular sector civil society organizations who have been mobilizing across Canada to promote social or political changes through a variety of types of national and transnational collective action. On the surface the political environment appears to have become much more favorable to civil society intervention. Moreover, Canadian activists and civic groups have, over more than sixteen years of opposing neoliberal globalization initiatives, become innovative practitioners of new tactical repertoires of reeducating and mobilizing constituencies. However, despite a record of notable advances in political protest strategies and action, there is little record of change in political power relations across Canada. What civil society groups lack, then, are reliable political allies and sustained links to state power. A fundamental reorientation in Canada's political economy, marked by the political delegitimation of economic nationalism, has reduced the mobilization potential for civil society groups and presents significant challenges for groups that hope to effectively counter deep integration initiatives. …

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