“These are difficult economic times,” said International Trade Minister Ed Fast on Tuesday. Speaking to the Economic Club of Canada, Fast reminded the country: “When we look at the sovereign debt crisis plaguing the European economies, and witness the devastating economic gridlock to the south of our border, Canada represents a model of economic strength, stability and financial security.”
He was speaking in regard to the free-trade deals Canada has recently struck with Honduras, Colombia and Costa Rica. Specifically, he was defending against critics who say free trade without regard for human rights is a bad deal.
By building trade bridges between countries, you build the means for partners to become more democratic, more respectful of human rights. Better neighbours, really.
Trade sanctions — the threat of refusing favourable trade status to countries we believe do not respect human rights — can only work if you have some trade to threaten. Besides, the strongest force to build a democratic society is a strong middle class that has assets to protect through the security of rule of law.
Central America, which desperately wants the stability and safety of a trade economy like ours (which operates — believe it or not — on respecting rules, refusing bribes and paying taxes), is probably the perfect place to demonstrate the benefits of free trade.
Those are powerful arguments in favour of the federal government’s recently-completed deals, which began negotiation when the Liberals were in power. These arguments appeal to our best instincts.
Why, then, do our top politicians choose to defend their achievements in the meanest, lowest possible way?
Fast was only echoing the prime minister when he told the Economic Club that the forces opposed to free trade in Central America are conspiracy theorists, who spread discredited myths about free trade.
Last week, Stephen Harper himself told reporters that Canadians who don’t agree with the Honduras free-trade deal are reactionaries who have opposed every such agreement Canada has ever made.
Really? How can he know that? Some of the people speaking out against this deal were only children when Canada embarked on the road to free trade — if they had been born at all. They are concerned that the weakest partners — the poorest day workers — will not see any benefits, only more poverty. They deserve an answer.
So why the name-calling? Why the blanket (and untrue) condemnation?
“I won’t mince words,” said Fast. He said the NDP in particular is “driven by a harmful ideology that would build silos of protectionism around our industries and isolate Canada from the rest of the global community.”
Would that be in contrast to the “helpful ideology” that his government uses to protect the asbestos industry?
The government is quite correct in pointing out that many of the fears people expressed about free trade have not come to pass. We have not hollowed out or economy through NAFTA; we have not become a 51st state.
But some fears remain. Retaining sovereign control of our freshwater resources is still a matter that requires the vigilance of the very groups that Fast and Harper denigrate.
Basic respect for human rights and fair wages could be another. But you don’t win this debate by calling people names.
These are indeed hard economic times. One only needs to look at some of our trading partners to see how hard things can get.
That being so, we’re better off pulling together. Canadians need to support their leaders, unless they desire to lead themselves.
But when we think our leaders are making mistakes, we should be able to say so and get a respectful answer — not scornful rhetoric.
That’s how democracy works. After all, the people of Honduras, Colombia and Costa Rica — our new free-trade partners — are watching.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.