UBC Students Protest APEC Economic Summit
By: Jason Tockman
Twenty-five years ago, UBC was a tumultuous scene of social protest and contentious debate over an international summit designed to champion economic integration in the Asia Pacific region. As 18 presidents and prime ministers descended on Vancouver for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 1997, a movement of students, labour unions, women’s organizations, human rights defenders, and other social forces mobilized to bring attention to APEC’s inclusion of repressive authoritarian leaders such as Indonesia’s Suharto and the institution’s role in deepening global inequality. An estimated 1500 people demonstrated outside the official meeting – greeted by police dispensing copious amounts of pepper spray – following several days of an on-campus “teach-in” and a “People’s Summit” downtown, where participants outlined the perils of corporate globalization.
APEC was one group in the alphabet soup of global organizations and agreements that the world became more acquainted with in the 1990s – alongside NAFTA, the WTO, and the IMF. Together, these institutions sought to reengineer economic and political relations between the countries of the world. This was achieved by establishing a new rules-based global system that not only restructured things like the trade of goods, foreign investment, and patent standards. More broadly, they exerted powerful influence on democratic control of domestic economies, public spending, and regulation of businesses.
For those who oppose these institutions, such as Jaggi Singh, a key UBC student organizer against APEC in 1997, these groups represented – and still represent – the brazen deepening of a global capitalist system designed to benefit multinational corporations. They charge that these institutions constrain countries’ and communities’ abilities to meet people’s needs, worsen global inequality, and harm workers, farmworkers, those living in poverty, women and Indigenous peoples.
On November 25, two very different scenes played out inside and outside the APEC meeting. Gathered inside the Museum of Anthropology, presidents and prime ministers – representing not their countries but their national economies – held their “economic leaders” meeting. They shook hands, posed for photos, and ate lunch in UBC’s president’s residence, hosted by then-President Martha Piper. More concretely, they affirmed a shared global agenda through a joint statement that committed their economies to free trade, the protection of foreign investment, and global economic integration – in short, the “neoliberal” agenda of the day. Mid-way through that official report is a brief section on environmental sustainability – which includes mention of “effective action” to address greenhouse gas emissions. But for those amassing outside, these were empty promises – mere window dressing for an economic system set up to exploit the natural world and human communities alike.
APEC’s detractors were kept away from the summit by police lines and a 12-foot fence. Around noon, a large rally proceeded from the SUB to the Rose Garden until the marchers – some of whom pulled down a section of the security fence – were repelled by pepper spray and arrested. Later in the day, more than 100 protesters who had turned more determined and assertive by the events of the day regrouped at two points on Marine Drive and Chancellor Boulevard. Chanting and singing, they blocked the roads adjacent to where the meeting was occurring. At around 3:30 pm the RCMP decided to clear the road and doused protesters with pepper spray with little advance notice. Multiple reports clocked the time from warning to spraying at mere seconds. More RCMP officers arrived, reinforced by riot police, and a tense face-off between officers and demonstrators ensued for 20 minutes. Forty-nine people were reportedly arrested on the day of the APEC meeting.
The People’s Summit, teach-ins, and protests against Vancouver’s APEC meeting raised considerable awareness about globalization issues for people in and around Vancouver, recounts Larry Kuehn, one of the summit coordinators. Of greater consequence, Kuehn believes the mobilization was also an important event that “set the scene” for how civil society can fuse alternative summits with street protests to challenge a globalization agenda. That model of organizing, Kuehn suggests, was on display two years later when 50,000 people marched on and shut down the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
Singh agrees that there was a direct link between the UBC protests and those in Seattle two years later. “APEC was definitely a major flashpoint,” he says, in what at the time was a growing movement that linked diverse struggles.
The day before the APEC meeting, Singh was arrested – twice. The first arrest occurred as he was walking near the SUB: an unmarked car drove up and non-uniformed police grabbed Singh and threw him in. The incident was caught on video and ended up broadcast on national television. Both charges were later dropped.
Following the APEC meeting, the RCMP came under fire from many quarters for their heavy-handed tactics. Several AMS leaders criticized the RCMP’s treatment of protesters and indiscriminate use of pepper spray, including AMS Director of Finance Vivian Hoffman, who called the police conduct “totally unacceptable.”
Singh agrees, but offers a bit of content for the public outrage: “Part of the reason it was a national scandal was because mainly middle class and mainly White students at a major Canadian university were being pepper sprayed. That at the time was scandalous. Poor folks on the Downtown Eastside were being brutalized by the police, or bullets were being aimed at Indigenous protesters... and that is not a national scandal.”
The criticism of police conduct would be validated in a 2001 report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. In that report, Commissioner Ted Hughes found that police performance “did not meet an acceptable and expected standard of competence, professionalism and proficiency.” Police behaviour, he determined, was “inconsistent with respect for the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights.”
At the APEC meeting, civil society groups and activists united to call attention to the connections between economic globalization, worsening inequity between those with wealth and those without, and countries’ violations of people’s basic rights. The police’s repressive response confirmed that narrative.
 NAFTA = North American Free Trade Agreement; WTO = World Trade Organization; IMF = International Monetary Fund.