The surprise signing today by Premiers Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty of an Ontario-Quebec Trade and Cooperation Agreement is typical of the secretive way that inter-provincial and international trade agreements are being negotiated in Canada, says the Council of Canadians, which is demanding that the Ontario-Quebec deal be publicly debated before it is ratified.
“Boosting inter-provincial trade and economic cooperation can be a very good thing but not at the expense of local democracy or strong environmental and health protections,” says Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “Agreements like the one signed by Charest and McGuinty today, and the current Canada-EU free trade negotiations that both premiers are supporting, will only handcuff local governments on social and economic policy so that large corporations can make a few extra dollars.”
Highlighting the big business bias in McGuinty and Charest’s new deal is the establishment of a private sector advisory committee that will vet new regulations affecting trade and investment flows. The Council of Canadians notes there were no parallel joint panels established to vet the impact of trade or economic policies on the environment, human rights, culture or municipal autonomy.
And while the premiers seem to have avoided including a mechanism as exists between Alberta and British Columbia whereby corporations can directly challenge government policy there is still a danger of a race to the bottom on health, safety and environmental rules when harmonizing standards across borders. There is also a risk that local governments will be restricted from pursuing stronger or more innovative solutions to climate change, economic growth or job creation than big business interests will tolerate.
Public Consultations Needed
In early 2008, Ontario’s lead negotiator in its deal with Quebec, Jim Peterson, invited several organizations, including the Council of Canadians, to discuss their concerns with the Alberta-B.C. Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, which served as a template for the Ontario-Quebec Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Mr. Peterson made it clear to those groups that the discussions were informal and did not constitute official consultations.
But subsequent requests by the Council of Canadians to the Ontario government for progress reports on the Ontario-Quebec agreement were either ignored or brushed off as potentially harmful to the secretive inter-governmental talks. Similarly, there has been no opportunity in either province to challenge McGuinty and Charest’s support for ongoing negotiations toward a Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which will go far beyond NAFTA in the power it will give European companies to challenge Canadian public policy and even privatize public services.
“McGuinty and Charest are gambling away the public interest on undemocratic and highly disputed inter-provincial and international trade pacts,” says Trew. “We need to slow down and open up the discussion to the public so we can weigh the benefits and dangers of these agreements.”