IROQUOIS -- The Women's President of the National Farmers Union says she came away from last month's World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong with a better appreciation for what the farmers of Canada -- and around the globe -- are up against in the battle against trade liberalization.
And Canada's supply management system in poultry, eggs and dairy remains under the gun after the WTO's Dec. 13-18 ministerial conference, says Colleen Ross, one of only two Canadian NFU leaders accredited to be inside the fortified convention centre as non-governmental organization (NGO) observers.
Ross is not convinced the current reprieve, with talk of exempting those commodities under a "special products" category, will survive when the WTO meets again in Geneva in April.
"I think the pressure's not off. The pressure's incredible. Canada stands alone, really. We're considered almost trouble-makers now because we're not going to play the game and we're not going to give up on supply management," she said Jan. 2 at her rural home in South Dundas Township.
She and NFU president Stewart Wells got a first hand look at the pressure cooker in which Canadian government negotiators operated, as both Canadian and international lobby groups pushed hard for increased trade in agricultural products.
Domestic free-traders kept up the pressure through the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA), she said, with 18 accredited observers making their views known in twice-daily briefings with representatives from the Canadian negotiating team.
"They were hyper, hyper aggressive ... They constantly were badgering for market access, and were quite willing to give up supply management and the Canadian Wheat board."
From Ross's perspective, the Canadian government looked wobbly out of the gate, as she happened to catch a less than convincing solo performance by Trade Minister Jim Peterson. The minister was speaking to a dozen international media on the first day of the conference.
When the issue of giving up supply management was raised, according to Ross, "Jim Peterson said, Never say never.'"
Unimpressed, she fired off an e-mail to MP Wayne Easter, former NFU president and current parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell. "I told him that parliament's motion ... had already been forgotten," she said, referring to a unanimous November vote in support of supply management in the Canadian House of Commons
"After that, they never held another press conference," she said, smiling.
But she credited Easter and Mitchell for doing a "smash-up job" in the face of "incredible pressure from the CAIRNS Group and the G8 for de-regulation and market access, and from the industry people that were there."
At the WTO table, Canada is up against a vision for trade and "commodity specific" farming in each country, she said, as envisioned by countries like Australia.
"The Australians want us to completely go out of dairy altogether. That's one of the ideas of their National Farmers Federation. They say ... that in Canada, you could keep growing wheat and soybeans, and we will supply Canada with dairy products."
In Hong Kong, the NFU delegates also worked in conjunction with the international peasant farmers' movement, Via Campesina, whose supporters demonstrated outside in the streets.
Ross made sure she experienced the conference from both sides of the fence.
When not inside the convention centre, she participated in panel discussions at nearby Victoria Park. She joined with thousands of protesting farmers from around the world and felt the sting of tear gas on the night of Dec. 17, when a protest march, led by Korean rice growers, broke through regular police lines and approached the convention centre.
"I was right close to the Korean farmers, and I knew we were getting close."
Police in riot gear took over at that point.
"By the time we recovered from the tear gas, the riot police had completely surrounded about 1,000 farmers," she said of the midnight altercation.
A dozen or so were arrested, and only recently has a Hong Kong court released most of them.
After the arrests, Ross participated in vigils outside the jail.
While the police presence was heavy, she found the Chinese officers to be friendly and "extremely restrained."
"I was up close and personal with a lot of the police and constantly engaging them in conversation," she said of the "very young women and young guys" on the lines. Some of them appeared to be afraid, but "We kept saying to them, we're not going to hurt you, we're not going to hurt you."
Ross and a small cadre of about 50 like-minded individuals made their presence felt on the inside, too.
While their orange NGO badges limited their access within the convention centre and kept them out of the inner sanctums, they were able to attend the opening ceremonies. As WTO director-general Pascal Lamy greeted thousands of delegates, the group stood up and protested -- a stunt that got them ejected from the auditorium and banned from the closing ceremonies.
Lamy had used a prop "magic wand" during his remarks, which Ross and other members of La Via Campesina lampooned in a Dec. 16 skit outside the main conference hall.
The experience also allowed her to rub shoulders with the likes of Maud Barlow and notorious French farming militant Jose Bove.
Chinese authorities had arrested Bove upon arrival in Hong Kong, and Ross said she helped spring him in conjunction with La Via Campensina. "We contacted the French embassy and he was actually released."
Rooming in a cheap $30-a-night place during her stay, the WTO experience was nonetheless a good one, she said, and for a worthy cause.
"Trade has not been a panacea for Canadian farms ... whereas the corporations involved are now reporting record profits," she pointed out.
In the global south, she claimed that farmers struggle even more under the effects of liberalized trade.
"They don't have the access to credit that we have," she explained.
"Canadian farmers ... keep going, fixing our old tractors, accessing more credit and going deeper into debt. But they don't have that (credit). It's much more devastating for them."
The battle won't be won, she suggested, until the WTO ceases to exist.