Why there will be no public debate on the new NAFTA

Yesterday, the Liberal government, in a surprise move, tabled the new NAFTA, or the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, for first reading in the House of Commons.

With only a few hours’ notice, the proposed agreement pushed its way onto the House agenda. Many of us were alerted to it only by a Reuters story that ran a few hours earlier. Today, Mexico also said it would ratify the agreement in a special session before September.

With U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visiting Ottawa to promote the agreement, and with a federal election set for October, it is obvious that not only will the agreement move “full steam ahead,” in the words of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, but that there will be virtually no public debate on it. 

Remember, during ratification of the so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the government also chose to ram the agreement through Parliament in a matter of weeks even though it had pledged to do trade differently from the previous Harper government, vowing to consult the public.

In first reading in the House of Commons, the leaders of the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party were not even allowed to speak, contrary to House tradition. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May tweeted, “Shocked by some MPs rejecting the routine call for unanimous consent for me to speak on #CUSMA. So for the first time since fall 2011, I was denied the ability to speak as leader of #GPC.”

NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey tweeted, “Liberals just tabled Ways & Means motion on new #NAFTA which means they are going to ram it through parliament. The question is why? U.S. @HouseDemocrats are trying to improve Labour, Environment, & Enforceability.“

At the Council of Canadians, we are also disturbed that such an important agreement, setting the course of how Canada will protect the environment or social and working conditions, is once again to be decided only among a select group of industry officials. Debate in Parliament is one indicator of democracy, but social voices outside Parliament are not, in fact, even being given a chance to weigh in through our so-called democratic institutions or even though the media. Many have noted that Canada’s media are the most concentrated in the G7, and trade debate in Canada is distinctly lacking in diverse voices.

The new CUSMA has been framed as a do-or-die agreement, with its contents and its impacts outside of industry, along with our voices, being cast as irrelevant to the debate. 

This is why the Council of Canadians has produced its own series of fact sheets and videos that you can share on Facebook or print out. In a world of alternative facts, where NAFTA is often presented as being essential for prosperity or the harbinger of doom, we felt it was important to talk about the actual contents of the agreement and how corporations have used it to meet their aims. 

We talk about how the deal increases pharmaceutical prices, limit governments' abilities to regulate in areas such as chemicals, food safety and the environment and curtails the livelihood of Canadian small farmers.

And while the Canadian government strives to win over Pence and U.S. President Donald Trump as they push the U.S. Democrats to back the agreement, the Democrats are pushing back.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey and a member of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, was blunt: “They are delusional if they think we are just going to pass this thing right now.”

U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro writes, “While the Canadians rush to approve this deal, Congressional Democrats remain committed to making key changes to the core of the agreement that will include strong labour and environmental standards and enforcement and remove the monopoly rights for Big Pharma. These key changes must be included in the text of the agreement in order for it to be considered in Congress. I encourage my colleagues in Canada to address these critical issues before passing the agreement.”

U.S. based Public Citizen’s Global Trade Director Lori Wallach added, “If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks it would flatter President Donald Trump and honor visiting Vice President Mike Pence to start moving this version of NAFTA – with its Big Pharma giveaways that U.S. congressional Democrats will not enact as is – certainly Liberal MPs won’t want to support a deal that will raise Canadian medicine prices instead of waiting for Democrats to fix those terms.”

Council of Canadians Honorary Chairperson Maude Barlow echoed these concerns, ““Right now, the Democrats have the votes to enact serious, progressive changes to the deal. Instead of listening, the Canadian government is plotting with the Trump administration to shut this debate down. It is appalling that they are doing Trump’s bidding. This government and the Conservatives have not seen a free trade agreement they don’t like, and the new NAFTA is no different.”

It is mind-boggling that the Trudeau government seeks to avoid proper debate on this deal and seems willing to approve a deal which is not yet even complete. Democrats have the votes in the House, and, the U.S. Congress has reopened the last four enacted trade agreements after they were signed.

What makes this case worse is that, while progressive forces are asking for important changes, the Canadian government is siding with U.S. Republicans in this fight.

This may be our last chance to stop this bad deal. Please take a moment now to send a message to Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Freeland urging Canada to pause in ratification.