SCPA grads lecture here on slavery, biodiversity

by Sylvain Comeau

Grads are coming back to the School of Community and Public Affairs (SCPA) to be part of its 20th anniversary Alumni Lecture Series.

Dorothy Williams

keeps memories alive

Historian Dorothy Williams, who completed her Master's at Concordia and is working on her PhD at McGill, opened the series -- and some eyes -- about the history of slavery in Montreal.

"Many people are not aware of this, but slaves were a North American phenomenon, and Quebec was not immune," she said. Despite Canada's historical reputation as a safe haven for American slaves, "most of the Montreal elite had slaves. In fact, many merchants had slaves -- all they needed was enough money to buy them and feed them. These merchants certainly weren't working for themselves."

Many freed slaves came to Canada on the so-called underground railroad, which smuggled them across the border because they were afraid of being recaptured. "They were only legally free in Canada. [However,] Montreal was not a popular destination."

Slavery was a "de facto institution in Montreal" until 1834, when it was officially abolished. But one of the lingering effects of that slavery was institutional racism of another kind. Until the Second World War, blacks were confined to menial jobs in Quebec.

"You could shine shoes, you could clean spittoons, you could be a waiter, and so on -- even if you had been a teacher in the Caribbean."

Ironically, the more openly racist U.S. society offered more opportunity for blacks, albeit within segregated communities. "In the early 20th century in the U.S., blacks could go to school and become doctors and lawyers at universities like Howard University. They couldn't do that in Canada, but we also didn't have separate drinking fountains and separate bars. It's hard to say which society was better."

Williams, who spoke February 10, has written three books, the most recent of which is The Road to Now: History of Blacks in Montreal (VŽhicule Press, 1997).

DesirŽe McGraw

on the treaty in Rio

SCPA McGraw b+wOn February 15, environmentalist DesirŽe McGraw spoke on the Biodiversity Convention, the subject of her doctoral thesis. McGraw was a member of the Canadian delegation to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, where the treaty was signed by 157 countries, but not by the United States.

"This treaty was a real anomaly in international relations because it went ahead despite the overt opposition of the only superpower," McGraw told her audience. "That makes it quite unique in terms of international relations."

While several other treaties were signed in Rio, including agreements on climate change and the ozone layer, this one in particular was driven by the interests of developing nations.

"Developing countries had a stronger bargaining position in negotiating this treaty than in any other set of international negotiations," McGraw said. "The reason is that developing countries have four-fifths of the world's biodiversity, which is the raw material for billion-dollar industries around the world -- pharmaceutical, agricultural, and so on."

In negotiations, developing nations asked for, and received, assurances that their natural resources will not simply be exploited by the North.

"They said, we will preserve our biodiversity, but we want something in return. We want access to technology, and we want to share in the benefits of biodiversity. So, under the agreement, if a pharmaceutical company makes a breakthrough using a plant found in the Brazilian rain forest, they have to share the profits with Brazil. This is revolutionary."

The institutional office for the biodiversity agreement is located in Montreal, despite the strong local biotech industry. "The agricultural and biotech industries had wanted a narrow agreement, or none at all," McGraw explained, "but Montreal lobbied hard to have the office located here. It is an important symbol, both for the local industry, and because of Canada's environmental reputation."

This city was also the site of a recent offshoot of the convention, the Biosafety Protocol. The new agreement, which was concluded in January of this year, addresses an important aspect of biodiversity: the regulation of the transborder movement of genetically modified organisms, which are one result of biotechnology.

"This was the first opportunity to translate the 'soft law' provisions of the biodiversity convention into hard law. It makes enforcement and regulation possible, and it picks one issue out of the broad, amorphous topic of biodiversity."

McGraw is completing her PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

Mario Dumont warns

of an educational time bomb

Mario Dumont went straight out after he graduated from the SCPA (BA 93) and started his own political party. Today, L'Action Democratique du QuŽbec is small, but still going strong.

He told an audience on March 6 that the best thing the government can do to promote economic growth is fund education. While the government has been traditionally relied upon to create a favourable economic climate, today a strong educational system is more important than corporate tax breaks and job creation programs.

"Today, the wealth of nations is based on knowledge and know-how -- it certainly won't be determined by natural resources in the next 10 to 15 years. So the educational system is everything today. If the government wants to boost the economy in the long term, they have to invest in education."

Part of that commitment to education is the need to address Quebec's drop-out rate, a ticking economic time bomb.

"Today the drop-out rate among boys is 37 per cent," Dumont said. "We have 15-year-olds dropping out of school.In a knowledge-based economy, what will they do with three years of high school? In a rapidly changing society, not only have they not learned, they haven't learned how to learn."

Next speaker: Glen Murray, mayor of Winnipeg, March 27, 6 p.m. 7th floor, Hall Building.

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