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Canada-U.S. Free Trade – The Great Debate never ended

Canada remembers a milestone this week – the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Former Mulroney government officials and the business community that supported the first-of-its-kind project are running predictable victory laps in commentaries this week, as if there were no potholes in the road Canada has taken since 1988. As if, as Margaret Thatcher once suggested, there is no alternative to free trade. Well I’m sorry to crash this little party but there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

When I say potholes I’m referring to those awkward facts about free trade, like that Canada lost 334,000 manufacturing jobs in the first five years after the Canada-U.S. deal was signed – a decline that continued under NAFTA and continues to this day. Good paying full time jobs are more often than not replaced by precarious part-time work, which contributes to Canada’s stagnating middle-income wages over the past 20 years. It’s a harsh reality of the free trade era that most of the new wealth created—and free trade does create wealth—went straight to the top, to the richest 1 per cent in Canada and globally.

It’s a reality our government may refuse to accept but which is driving a new global movement of occupiers, indignados, workers, students, and others against corporate-led globalization. The Great Free Trade Debate of the late 1980s didn’t end in victory for Mulroney and his big business backers. The debate never stopped raging.

We saw it in the 1999 Battle in Seattle protests, which sparked a resistance that eventually stalled multilateral free trade talks at the World Trade Organization (WTO). We saw it years later when public concerns with greater North American security and economic integration helped derail the Security and Prosperity Partnership. It was there again in the prolonged fight against the Canada-Colombia FTA – a deal that protected Canadian mining companies and banks in a country where Indigenous, labour and environmental rights are much more at risk.

Today we see the free trade debate burning in the background of controversies over China’s purchase of Canadian energy resources. It’s in the tension between the federal government’s hands-off approach to creating jobs and Ontario’s Green Energy Act, with its local content requirements on renewable energy projects. It underpins the local food movement’s challenge to the large-scale, environmentally and socially harmful agri-trade.

The amount of room our provinces, municipalities and local communities have to support local farmers and otherwise create the jobs of tomorrow is threatened again by a Canada-European Union free trade deal that will forever prohibit these kinds of economic strategies. There is a strong debate there, too, with over 40 municipal governments, including Toronto, saying they are uncomfortable with the deal. A majority of Canadians (69% according to a recent Ipsos Reid poll we commissioned) would also reject a Canada-EU deal that strangely gives more monopoly rights to brand name drug companies at the great expense of public drug plans. And here you thought free trade was about competition.

My point is that those fighting free trade then saw clearly, as they do today, that the agenda was much bigger than trade. It was about who controls scarce resources, and how and where they are developed. It was and still is about who delivers public services – government or the private sector on a for-profit basis.

Free trade says corporations should do as much of all of this as possible, with as few hurdles or “red tape” as possible. The agenda unleashed in 1988 is directly linked (through the deregulation it encourages) to the tainted meat scandal in Alberta this month.

As a prominent voice of in the first Great Free Trade Debate, I am the first to admit that some of our fears about free trade did not come to pass, at least not to the extent that some groups had warned. Canada’s public health care system is still intact albeit under severe threat from federal and provincial neglect.

Canada’s world-renowned cultural protections were, for the most part, also spared, though they remain a pressure point from the United States. These protections will become extremely vulnerable to trade challenges as the Harper government looks to remove foreign ownership caps in the sector, and as it pursues a renegotiation of Canada-U.S. free trade, this time almost entirely on U.S. terms, through the 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

In both cases, it’s important to realize that had it not been for the fierce resistance to free trade logic, there would be no protections at all in these deals for public services and culture. Both were afterthoughts to the bureaucrats negotiating the Canada-U.S. deal and, later, the NAFTA with Mexico. It took tireless advocacy, public outreach and public declaration from health organizations and unions as well as the cultural sector to secure carveouts from an otherwise unfair corporate rights pact.

Naturally the Harper government used this week’s anniversary of Canada-U.S. free trade to highlight its busy plan to sign ever more free-trade deals, including a pending “next generation” trade and investment pact with the European Union. International Trade Minister Ed Fast claimed with ideological fervor that “the best way to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity for hard-working people around the world.”

Fast’s statement might surprise South Korea, which supplies an ever growing share of the world’s televisions, cars, wind turbines and smart phones thanks to smart economic planning and industrial protections, not free trade. It will surprise the millions of Europeans fighting austerity measures imposed by the EU and World Bank because free trade in financial products threw the world into chaos.

For the Harper government, none of this matters. There is still no alternative. Anyone who disagrees with Fast’s trade agenda, armed perhaps with some of the facts mentioned here, is declared to be a slavish adherent of a failed ideology, one of Canada’s “Great free trade deniers.”

If Harper is forcing his critics to wear that badge, so be it. The world has changed, the free trade agenda hasn’t. As the Occupy movement would put it, these deals are for the 1 per cent. The other 99 per cent of us have every right to try and change that.