SASKATOON — Esteban Polanco, Rubén Darío García and Cristina Cortorreal are well known social and environmental activists from the Dominican Republic who were recently denied entry to Canada.
The three delegates from La Federación de Campesinos Hacia el Progreso (The Federation of Farmers Toward Progress) planned to travel to London, Ont., for the launch of a book on grassroots development that Esteban wrote a chapter for. They arranged a speaking tour in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto.
The schools had raised funds and organized a series of events for the three-week span that the delegates from La Federación would be in the country.
Though the delegates brought letters of support from the universities who outlined their itineraries and reasons for travel, they had their visas revoked by the Canadian Embassy in Santo Domingo.
Polanco said they were told that there was insufficient evidence that they would not attempt to stay in Canada as illegal residents.
After being accused of planning to attempt immigration fraud, they released a statement expressing their disappointment, but determination “to work toward forming the important international bonds of solidarity this visit promised.”
La Federación is an alliance of farmers in the mountainous region of Bonao, Dominican Republic. Its central organizational body has members from over 40 different communities. Polanco is the executive director of La Federación, Cortorreal is the current president, and García is a publicly engaged community organizer.
Through the Intercordia program at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, students have the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic and volunteer with La Federación. They are often offered the chance to work at the coffee co-operative, La Federación’s primary economic enterprise.
Caitlin Ward, Engaged Learning Co-ordinator at St. Thomas More, said that La Federación is both successful and unique; working by developing relationships with farmers in the area, and forming a co-operative from there.
“It is a relationship-based development organization that is about enhancing the well-being for people in the mountains, so they are supported where the government doesn’t support them,” said Ward.
Its mission is to improve the quality of life for the farmers of the region, while protecting the natural resources of the mountainous area. La Federación is the result of hundreds of villagers struggling against the construction of the White River Dam, the ravages of Hurricane David, and the attempts to exploit a gold mine in El Higo.
The attempts to exploit the gold mine in El Higo were made by Falconbridge Ltd., a Canadian mining company based in Toronto.
García has been living at the base of a mountain as a last resort to keep the mining companies out.
“We don’t think it’s a coincidence that these people who have been fighting a Canadian mining company have been forbidden from coming into Canada,” Ward said.
Polanco has had an attempt made on his life; he was nearly killed in a car bombing. García was exiled from the country for 30 years, and had to flee to the United States.
The treatment of the members of La Federación, and activists in general, by the Harper government could represent a dark foreshadowing of Bill C-51. Known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, C-51 is over 60 pages long and has deep ramifications throughout the Canadian legal system.
In many cases, C-51 would make what would now be considered legitimate displays of activism punishable by law. It expands the definition of security to prevent interference with various aspects of public life, or anything that would undermine “the economic or financial stability of Canada.” Any kind of peaceful blockade, for example, could now be seen as a threat to national security. The bill aims to create an additional offence called “advocating or promoting terrorism,” but is unclear about which types of political activity will be considered threats.
The constant risk of persecution could cripple the power of public dissent.
U of S students and faculty who shared involvement in the cause and organization of the speaking tour joined together to form the Friends of La Federación. On March 24, the original date of the speaking tour’s stop in Saskatoon, Friends of La Federación hosted a slightly different event.
Titled Solidarity in Resistance: The Personal Costs and Political Consequences of Organizing for a Better World, the event rose out of the denial of Canadian visas to Polanco, García, and Cortorreal. Friends of La Federación brought in various community organizers, who told “stories of the struggles and victories in working for change, especially in the current Canadian political climate that does not welcome open resistance.”
In the words of Esteban Polanco, founder of La Federación, “no nos van a vencer jamas” — they will never overcome us.