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Beyond NAFTA: 
2000 North American Youth Conference

Opening Session

Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), opened the conference accompanied by recorded messages of welcome and support by Ministers Green (Mexico) and Albright (United States).  In recognition of the novel exchanges, bonds and meanings that are forging a new North American identity, Minister Axworthy asked the participants to consider in what ways it might be accurate to speak of a North American community.  Do the qualities that make us distinct also keep us apart?  What impact do we have regionally and globally to justify any such claim?   He continued that it is questions such as these that present gthe classic dilemma of globalisation,h the recognition and support of differences in the midst of great forces of integration.  Minister Axworthy was hopeful, however, that North America, as witnessed in the young participants, holds an incredible grichness of culturesh and gcreative powerh to guide us through the challenges ahead.  In particular, he suggested that North American indigenous peoples might offer a depth of tradition and community to help lead us all.

Minister Axworthy asked the participants to consider the difficulties of governance in an increasingly interrelated and economic–driven world.  He pointed to the challenges facing the governments of Mexico, the United States and Canada, as they attempt to keep up, and somehow get ahead of the dramatic and rapid changes of globalisation, and to try to shape the changes to better account for the many ways policy and economic activities impact society.  He spoke of his hope for inclusive ecollective machineryf that empowers us to act together as a community, to see beyond a narrow enationalf focus, and consider how we might help each other.  For this, he looked to the participants, and to growing linkages between governments, communities, and civil society, to nourish an expanded sense of democracy and to help understand and articulate how narrowly constructed economic agreements such as NAFTA force incredible changes across issues of culture, governance and the environment.

In spite of the challenges posed by increased economic activity and integration, Minister Axworthy suggested that the environment in particular might prove a possible avenue of hemispheric harmonisation, with positive effects locally, nationally, regionally and globally.  He insisted that we must consider the environmental implications of economic plans and projects, and ensure that they are fully sustainable.  This, he assured the participants, is both a challenge and an incredible opportunity, for those who cannot see beyond the dollars-and-cents of protecting the environment fail to realise that protecting the environment is the only way to ensure sustainable economies, cultures and societies.  In particular, he highlighted the importance and uncertainty of freshwater as offering an opportunity for co-operation and governance that may serve as a model for other issues, and the whole world.

 Session 1: Culture

Questions of culture point to many of the issues that we will face in the new century.  Thrust into closer contact and interdependencies by economic decisions, new generations will have to decide the extent and form of a North American culture.  As noted by Minister Axworthy, some of the issues that North American youth will confront are the challenges of closer integration and the possible convergence of experiences and hopes, while attempting to preserve the distinctiveness of separate countries, regions, indigenous peoples, and ethnic and linguistic minorities.  Are the social, cultural and political institutions and mores now in place sufficient to meet the challenges and possibilities of the future? What are the cultural priorities of an emerging North American community and what are the concrete means for their realisation?

Guest Speaker: Alberto Ruy-Sanchez Lacy (Mexico)

Accomplished Mexican author, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez Lacy launched the discussion on culture, discussing the lines of continuation and change through North America, as it adapts to and affects the processes of globalisation.  In the wake of NAFTA and a developing North American community, Sr. Ruy-Sanchez asserted that culture was an appropriate area of political and academic concern, as the inner dimensions of life and the underpinnings of our individual and collective identities and realities might best be assessed through the arts, understandings of time, production, and language.  Likewise, as culture is a relative construct, it is open to political contestations, and should be discussed and debated.  He described the fundamental tension of cultural integration as processes of globalisation and homogenisation on one hand, and the appreciation and preservation of small, yet invaluable differences on the other.  Drawing on his experiences as an artist and entrepreneur, Sr. Ruy-Sanchez spoke of the many ways in which cultural differences enrich and expose North American integration.

Sr. Ruy-Sanchez asked the participants if they are willing to accept the cultural convergence that is surely happening, and to consider what the small, though very important differences that characterise the national and sub-national cultures of North America are, and how they might be nourished.  Drawing on personal experiences, he demonstrated the depth of cultural complexities constructed in North America and asserted that cultural divergence form the Anglo-Saxon norm can be sources of economic, communal and political strengths.  He concluded that gif there is going to be a North American culture, letfs make sure it is uncertain, but with a lot of culture.h

Participant Presentations and Discussions

The participant presentations and discussion of North American culture was led by Tania Cruz (Mexico), Briana Breen (United States), and Aube Giroux (Canada).  Bringing together a passionate plea for cultural, political and economic justice, with illuminating portrayals of communal, social, and economic transformations, the three presenters launched a spirited debate on the cultural ramifications of NAFTA.  The participants engaged vigorously with the social consequences of economic integration and the growth of consumer-driven culture, the challenges posed to older cultural communities and identities, exacerbated regional differences and threats to indigenous peoples by novel economic arrangements.  It was concluded that NAFTA poses a direct and serious threat to North American cultural diversity and strength, replacing a deep and complex diversity with an increasingly homogenised culture of mass migration and technology flows and mass-production and consumption.  It was recognised that serious challenges confront the esmall differencesf praised earlier by Alberto Ruy-Sanchez, and cherished by the participants.

Understood as encompassing the arts, consumption, social-economic, geographic, ethnic, religious and sexual identities, activism and life necessities, presenters and others discussing the matter felt strongly that NAFTA was a direct and serious threat to eculture.f   As NAFTA is seen to restrict the ability of governments and peoples to protect and foster cultural differences and values, and in recognition of the numerous ways economic and technology-driven changes impact on communities, the presenters lamented what they saw as growing North American homogenisation.  While the gsense of powerlessness and meaninglessnessh that accompanies cultural homogenisation and the consumption of foreign cultural products, was witnessed most clearly in traditional and indigenous communities, the participants stressed that whether in southern Mexico, New York or in small eastern-Canadian towns, economic forces are seen as deadening diversities while entrenching a spiritless corporate culture, crafted in movie production companies and computer firms.

The participants recognised that at the same time as older identities and cultures are under threat, new cultures and communities are taking shape with dramatic consequences.  High-tech companies and dot-com millionaires are seen to be transforming ethnically diverse and culturally rich communities in the San Francisco Bay area into economically fortressed, ethnically sterilised neighbourhoods, while at the same time northern Mexico is witnessing the growth of a eMaquila People,f born of migration flows, instant barrios, low wages, environmental degradation, and having been cut-off from cultural roots, tempted by American affluence and cultural strength, and forcibly marginalised from both North and South.

The birth of a gMaquila Peopleh on one hand, and the growth of hopeful gSilicon Valleysh on the other, points to a widening of experiences, expectations, capabilities and cultures in the enewf North America.  Social and economic differences constructed along north-south lines, and within regions and communities, are seen to flow from NAFTA and its shallow economic logic, thus threatening cultures and future prospects of North American integration.  This was clearly brought out in discrepancies between the seemingly affluent North and the impoverished and largely indigenous South.  The exclusion of indigenous peoples, ethnic, linguistic and other minorities from national and continental social and economic development, alienation from government, and steady erosion of traditional livelihoods and social meanings were seen to contribute to a growing and potentially far-reaching backlash.

While largely critical of the cultural effects of NAFTA and the ensuing threats posed by economic integration, the participants also recognised the opportunities for cultural exchange, support, and development.  Pointing to the Youth Conference as an example of constructive cultural engagement, the participants hoped that with government support, civil society and individuals might construct and nourish networks of understanding and solidarity.  Confronted with such challenges, the participants were asked to consider gWhat kind of culture do we want, and where is it going to come from?h  In attempting to answer these questions, the participants concluded that they should work toward the transformation or complete abrogation of NAFTA, in favour of state policies that expand notions of eprogressf beyond narrow economic accounts, recognise the links between cultural integrity and democracy, protect diverse cultures and traditions, and which support the social and economic development of all.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary


Opening Session & Session 1:  Culture
 Guest Speaker: Alberto Ruy-Sanchez Lacy
 Participant Presentations and  Discussion

Session 2:  Governance
 Guest Speaker: Prof. John D. Wirth
 Participant Presentations and Discussion

Session 3:  Sustainable Development
Guest Speaker: Christine Elwell
 Participant Presentations and Discussion

Concluding Session

Appendix:  Conference Agenda and List of Participants