Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 15, 1999
Overthrow the debt
Vigil raises awareness of major cause of poverty
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
It's 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning and the party crowd is slowly streaming out of the pubs and music clubs along Whyte Avenue in Old Strathcona.
Off the strip in the petite Orange Hall behind the Farmer's Market, Ron Berezan sets up his sleeping bag on a thinly carpeted floor. He has spent the day crusading for the debt relief campaign and is turning in for a few zzz's before he has to do it over again in the morning.
It's not that Berezan wouldn't prefer to go home and slump his head on a pillow in a warm bed, but he's in this for the long haul tonight. The 24-hour long haul.
Of course, there is a message behind Berezan's campout.
"I hope that people will take what they hear today and start talking about it so that this idea becomes a mainstream idea and not something among a select group," Berezan said.
The idea Berezan is throwing out is the need to end the global debt of the world's poorest countries.
"The situation is insane. People need to realize that and learn about it, there is this complete immoral ignorance on this."
Berezan was an organizer of the 24-hour vigil March 5-6 in support of the International Third World Debt Relief Campaign. He is a representative for Change For Children, an event sponsor.
Other sponsors include the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), St. Joseph's Save the Children, Edmonton Jubilee 2000 Committee, the Ecumenical and Social Justice commissions and the Honduran Canadian Association.
The vigil began Friday afternoon with guest speakers highlighting the impoverished conditions of citizens in the Philippines, Nicaragua and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.
"A friend of mine was saying I should psyche myself up before I come here and speak about it," said Virginia Cawaga, a University of Alberta professor and native of the Philippines. "But I don't need to psyche myself up. The foreign debt of the Philippines is imbedded in my heart and bones.
"If we were to pay the debt, that would mean that each Filipino owes 30,000 pesos. That's six months of pay for a middle-class wage earner."
The former Zaire is the third largest country in Africa and the richest in terms of natural resources. Its debt load weighs in at more than $4 billion, the majority of which was built up by some of the country's former leaders who lived in grandeur at what will now be the people's expense.
"I hope that people don't go to conference after conference without anything happening," said Emmanuel Zinza, a University of Alberta student from Zaire. "Conferences like this are good, but we need to do more than just talk here. When we're finished here, we need to go and talk to Jean Chrétien, talk to Ralph Klein.
"If, after this conference, we go to another conference and another one, that doesn't do anything. We need to do more than just talk here."
The vigil is more than just talk, said Berezan. It enlightens the public on the issue at hand and gives them an opportunity to support the effort through a debt relief petition, which will be presented to Finance Minister Paul Martin or Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
The debt petition is a national effort and is part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign. The vigil brought in more than 300 signatures. The local office of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has accumulated 6,642 signatures provincially, but suspects there could be hundreds more gathered from other organizations and Church groups.
The petition calls for Canada to cancel the more than $1 billion owed to it from some of the poorest countries. It also makes a plea for similar debt relief from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
"And it's not like Canada needs this money," said Kathrine Seane, who attended the noon-hour rally. "They won't go under because they're not getting money back from Nicaragua.
"A billion-dollar debt may be a lot, but Canada's economy will sustain without it. We have the resources. Those other countries just dig themselves into a deeper hole every time they make (debt) payments."
Despite the foreign aid many of these countries receive, it will never be enough to alleviate their debt burden. Most of these countries pay more in interest than they owe, said Berezan.
"Every dollar that leaves North America for aid to these countries, three come back," Berezan said. "These debts are a modern form of slavery for these people."
Berezan estimated more than 160 people attended the vigil at various times throughout the evening. In the wee hours of the night, after the speakers had gone and the music had died down, only a handful of die-hard vigil-ites were left overdosing on coffee and hot chocolate.
"This isn't just an issue about people in another country," said Chris Peters, who also camped out on the Orange Hall floor. "We're not creating the problem but we're perpetuating it. We need to change that."
Change is what Pat Ho hopes the vigil will instill in the people who attended.
"There needs to be some changes," said Ho, who sauntered out of the hall after spending five hours at the vigil. "Changes not only in our lifestyle, but in our way of thinking. There needs to be this awareness that what we do here can affect someone else in another country."