Opinion: Freeland charts course for more ‘progressive’ trade deal

Canada will push for a “progressive” new trade deal with the United States and Mexico that raises labour standards, strengthens environmental protections and includes measures to boost economic opportunities for women while attempting to defuse Washington’s protectionist zeal.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used a morning speech and parliamentary committee appearance Monday to lay out the broad strokes of Canada’s objectives going into this week’s negotiations for a new North American Free Trade Agreement, and to emphasize that Canada goes into the talks with a strong hand.

“The electricity in Trump Tower comes from Quebec,” said Freeland, when asked how provinces will be involved in the talks.

“So our American colleagues must always remember the importance of our economic ties.”

Freeland said Canada seeks to make the updated deal more “progressive” through five key provisions, including: stronger labour safeguards; strengthening environmental provisions to protect the right to address climate change; adding a new chapter on gender rights; adding an Indigenous chapter; and reforming the investor-state dispute settlement process to protect governments’ right to regulate “in the public interest.”

On gender, Freeland said the proposed text will draw from a chapter added to the Canada-Chile free trade agreement earlier this year, which she hailed as a “great step.”

Freeland noted Canada and the U.S. already have a track record of co-operation in this area, started earlier this year when Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump launched a joint effort to promote women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Derek Burney, a former ambassador to Washington who was on hand to hear Freeland speak Monday, wouldn’t speculate on Ottawa’s call for the inclusion of chapters on Indigenous people and on gender. But he wondered “how relevant it is to these negotiations, how receptive a government that’s going in a different direction” will be.

Freeland said “Team Canada” goes into negotiations that formally begin Wednesday in Washington with overriding priorities for a revised NAFTA. The aim is to:

Accommodate the technology revolution and the rise of the digital economy;

Cut red tape and harmonize cross-border regulations;

Open up access to government procurement contracts to exempt Canadian suppliers from “Buy America” policies;

Provide for freer movement of business professionals;

Ensure fair processes around government moves to impose anti-dumping and countervailing duties and exempt Canadian culture and Canada’s system of supply management.

For all those ambitions, Canada faces a protectionist, unpredictable president in the White House. And Freeland also made clear there are elements Canada wants to preserve, stressing, for example, Ottawa’s commitment to the country’s supply management system, notably around dairy products in the face of U.S. demands for greater access.

Conservative MP Randy Hoback underscored the stakes ahead, telling the Commons’ trade committee, “If we don’t get it right, I think we’ll actually go backwards.”

Steve Verheul, the negotiator who most recently led the Canadian side in trade talks with the European Union, said the U.S. style of negotiating is “very different” than the one Canada faced with the Europeans. But he said Canada will be ready to tackle whatever comes up at the 28 separate bargaining tables.

Verheul offered no promises whether negotiations might be complete by year’s end, saying only “negotiations are difficult to predict.”

He said he expects some quick successes to be found on improving “antiquated” customs procedures to speed cross-border movement of goods. “In the first few rounds we’ll be laying the groundwork, dealing with the easy issues, getting them out of the way … as you gradually go on, you focus in on those most difficult issues that will require some political direction,” Verheul said.

Tonda MacCharles and Bruce Campion-Smith are national affairs columnists.

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