Only 1 in 4 Canadians support NAFTA

While the 'Three Amigos' (Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, US president Barack Obama, Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto) will be spinning the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at their upcoming summit in Ottawa this Wednesday, a new poll suggests Canadians do not support the deal.

Reuters reports this morning that, "Only one-in-four Canadians say [NAFTA] is good for their country, and more than one-third want it renegotiated, according to polling results released ahead of a North American leaders' Summit... Angus Reid Institute's poll showed also one-quarter of Canadians feel NAFTA hurts the country, while half were either unsure or feel the deal has had no impact either way."

Since NAFTA came into force on January 1, 1994, under the Liberal government of then-prime minister Jean Chretien, there have been 38 Chapter 11 investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) challenges against Canada. An ISDS challenge is when a corporation based in one country sues the government in another country for a law or regulation that impairs their future profits. Most often these challenges are directed against laws to protect the environment.

Just this past Friday, Calgary-based TransCanada formally launched a US$15 billion ISDS challenge against the United States for its rejection of the 830,000 barrel per day Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The company says the denial of its pipeline was arbitrary and unjustified. While TransCanada has spent $2.4 billion on the pipeline, which was slated to ultimately cost $8 billion to build, the company says, "The preliminary damages figure [of $15 billion] for the NAFTA claim takes into account the lost value of these investments, as well as the lost economic return.”

Given the anti-NAFTA sentiment in the United States (a recent Bloomberg poll found that 44 per cent of Americans say NAFTA has been bad for the US economy) and how this is playing out in the lead up to the November 8 presidential election, Trudeau defended the agreement when he visited Washington, DC this past March. He told CNBC, "I'm not worried that we're going to suddenly reopen NAFTA or other trade deals: The challenge is once you reopen it a little bit, they all tend to unravel, and it's too important for both of our economies to continue to have a strong trading relationship."

Perhaps the prime minister's confidence in this comes from remembering that Obama's February 2008 campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA never materialized during his two terms in office.

Trudeau's Global Affairs department goes even further though by arguing, "NAFTA Chapter 11 establishes a framework that provides investors with a predictable, rules-based investment climate. While disputes are a normal part of every trade relationship, they represent a very small portion of the billions of dollars in investment that Canada attracts and the billions that Canadian companies invest abroad."

And on Sunday, just two days after TransCanada filed its NAFTA challenge against the United States, environment minister Catherine McKenna commented on the upcoming 'Three Amigos' summit saying, "It’s a great message to the world that we’re working together, we believe in trade, we have progressive governments."

That's a message that may well fall flat as evidence and public opinion (from both the left and right) coalesces against 'free trade' deals.

The Business Council of Canada and the C.D. Howe Institute may back both NAFTA and its "investment protection" provisions - as well as wanting the expeditious approval and implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - but the Trudeau government would be prudent, following the shock wave of the Brexit vote and the popular backlash against NAFTA and the TPP in the United States, to question this elite consensus and consider more deeply public opinion.