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November 29, 2013

What is Harper Trading Away?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Stephen Harper recently described the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) as "the biggest deal in our country's history." That is a claim rather difficult to substantiate, considering that many of the provisions of the agreement are unknown. According to Nadia Alexan, not only the general public but even members of Parliament and provincial governments are being kept in the dark. "Only the corporations are involved in the discussions," she charged.

Alexan is a retired high school English teacher and Montreal activist who is founder of Citizens in Action, a non-partisan organization that promotes social awareness.  She has run federally as an NDP candidate and provincially for Québec Solidaire. 

As for the provisions of CETA, she remarked, “All we know about the deal is what leaks out or what we can find on the European Union website.”  And what we do know is disturbing.  While our European trade is much smaller than our trade with the United States, the impact of CETA could have serious consequences, and concessions made to the EU in the pact could also find their way into NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), as NAFTA provides that the United States would be entitled to any CETA investor rights protections.

Alexan spoke of the way in which investor rights under NAFTA have proven costly to Canada.  She cited the example of Abiti-Bowater’s pull-out from Newfoundland.  Newfoundland had given the company free use of water and timber.  When they closed down and left, she explained, the company demanded compensation for water that remained unused.  Newfoundland rightly refused to pay, but the Canadian government forked over $130,000.  She further stated that the federal government has, under NAFTA, been forced to pay multinational corporations $2.5 million.

CETA, she remarked, would threaten municipal and provincial local purchasing preferences, and she doubted that CETA would open like opportunities for Canadian firms to opportunities in Europe.  However, we should remember that with NAFTA in effect, state and local American authorities have been able to ignore the supposed elimination of trade barriers.  Will the same be true of CETA?

Alexan also noted that Harper is insisting on public-private partnership arrangements for various allocations to municipal and provincial governments.  CETA would appear to open the door for European participation in such projects.  Because of the intrusion of private for-profit medical and surgical clinics, CETA and hence also NAFTA could open the door for an increase in such clinics, then under foreign ownership.  Provisions in CETA that would extend the time for patent protection for drugs will, warned Alexan, raise the Canadian drug bill by $2 billion annually.

She fears that challenges under CETA could impede environmental protections in areas such as mining and tar sands development.  Protections might come under attack by multinationals using investor rights provisions of CETA.

Culture appears to be on the table with this agreement.  We have regulations requiring communications companies to be at least 53% Canadian owned.  Will that have to go?  And what about Canadian content regulations?  Canada is a large country.  Will communications to more remote areas be in danger of being cut off by multinationals who decide that it is too expensive to keep radio, television, and internet availability to such regions? 

Finally, she spoke of indigenous rights.  Already First Nations’ right to free, prior, and informed consent on resource development is often ignored.  She fears that greater foreign involvement will intensify this ignoring of their rights.

Are Alexan’s fears exaggerated?  There are two ways in which we can find out.  Harper can come clean and let us all in on the big secret, or else we will find out once the pact is imposed on us by the political class working hand and hand with the multinational corporations.

Is it really “the biggest deal,” or is it the biggest sell-out to the multinationals?

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