QUEBEC (CP) - While images of police firing tear gas at protesters filled living rooms across Canada and around the world for a second straight day Saturday, a group of young Canadians described how participating in the demonstration against the Summit of the Americas changed their lives.
''Before I came here I always believed everything that the media said, and thought that the police were good citizens who protected people under the law,'' said Helen Choi, 19.
''But when I came here and saw how the police treated the protesters, I realized that the media doesn't always show how things really are. It was a wake-up call.''
Choi is one of five young people, aged between 14 and 21, who came to Quebec to film a documentary about the summit, a meeting of 34 heads of state from every country in the Western hemisphere, minus Cuba.
Tens of thousands of protesters have also been drawn to Quebec by the summit agenda's most controversial entry - the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. If implemented, the deal would create a gigantic free trade zone encompassing 800 million people from Alaska to the tip of Chile.
Labor workers join a march towards the perimeter of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada on Saturday, April 21, 2001. Banner translates, "Build solidarity throughout the Americas, together." (AP Photo/Victor Caivano)
Critics say they proposed free trade bloc would remove the power of governments to regulate environmental, labour, educational and health standards. They also worry that it would extend the power of corporations to sue governments which already exists in such trade deals as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The protesters, meanwhile, maintain that the federal government provoked a fight by calling in at least 6,000 police and 1,200 army personel to maintain security.
The police are armed with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. As well, a 3.8-kilometre chain-link fence guards the summit enclave.
But on Saturday, as hundreds of demonstrators fought running battles with police along the security perimeter, Choi and her companions were discussing how positive their experience had been.
Rather than focus on the violence - which involved a minority of demonstrators and overshadowed Saturday's peaceful protest march by tens of thousands of people - the group said they were inspired by the non-violent demonstration and said it inspired them to get involved in political debate.
''What we're trying to do is to show to the community that we can have some power,'' said Tosin Matti, who at 21 is the oldest member of the group. ''We are trying to be role models.''
Matti, Choi and their three documentary partners plan to screen their film to community members back home in Toronto. The plan is to generate discussion among their neighbours about the impact the FTAA could have on them.
But in a larger context, they want to learn about the important political and economic issues around them, while also engaging friends, family members and community residents about what is happening in their society.
For this young group - who, like the vast majority of protesters, refused to participate in any violence - being at the summit was both a political education and an empowering experience.
Group member Emmanuel Kedini, 19, said he first became politically aware when he joined a group called Civic Rights of Passage. That experience changed his life, he said.
''I used to think that the (provincial and federal) politicians and the city councillors were the only ones who could make decisions. But then I joined the (civic rights) group,'' said Kedini, who seemed to have a film camera permanently attached to his hand.
''Then I learned about politicians and power, and I realized that I could have some power as a youth.''
Seeing tens of thousands of people march peacefully in a common cause, he said, reinforced that lesson.
Adonis Higgins, 40, who is co-ordinating the project by the five young people, said Quebec should not be remembered for the violent protests. Rather, it should be remembered as a place that inspired young people to become politicial aware.
''It's great when we inspire young people to think about important issues,'' said Higgins as he walked toward the massive peaceful rally held Saturday.
''We are always looking for ways at getting young people involved.''
Copyright © 2001 Canadian Press