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NAFTA: no sugarcoating a bad deal

Pam Johnson

September 6, 2017

Canada, Mexico and the US are doing mutual back patting as the new North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations roll along. After months of Trump railing against NAFTA, the US trade representative stood smiling for the photo-op following the recent session.

This suits Canada and Trudeau’s Liberals just fine. When talks began in mid-August, a CBC headline proclaimed ‘Canada's goals for 'progressive' NAFTA include labour and environmental standards, gender equality.' Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said her government’s aim in NAFTA renegotiation talks is to make “what is already a good deal even better.”

Despite the hype, the Liberal plan is tepid, seeking only minor changes and leaving the fundamentals intact, including Chapter 11, that gives corporations the ability to contravene labour and environmental protection.

NAFTA Flip Flop
The Liberals current enthusiasm for NAFTA directly contradicts their stance when NAFTA was first negotiated by then PM, Brian Mulroney. Jean Chretien ran his 1993 election on the promise to keep Canada out of NAFTA. He railed against its promotion of investor rights over jobs and the environment.

In repeated stump speeches, Chretien emphasized that  ‘Canada will not be the 51st state of America’. He stressed that he would not be a fishing or golfing buddy of a US president. Despite this rhetoric, shortly after he was elected, Chretien immediately changed his tune, and approved Mulroney’s deal nearly as written.

It was Donald Trump’s anti-NAFTA diatribe that created the space for the Trudeau Liberals to declare themselves NAFTA champions this time. A key message of Trump’s election campaign and presidency has been to kill trade deals to protect American jobs. He has railed against Canada and Mexico for perceived benefits under NAFTA. 

Trudeau has taken a conciliatory tone to Trump’s attack on trade deals, similar to his tone on the bans on Muslims and the building of a wall to keep immigrants out.

He has stated that Trump "listens" and is "someone he can work with" even as Trump’s rhetoric on America First is crumbling under the weight of the racism and hate that fuelled it, as Charlottesville shows.

And this deal is nothing to champion. NAFTA has paved the way for corporations to freely roam North America in search of profits while trampling environmental protection and workers rights.

While trade between the three countries has increased under NAFTA, all of the wealth it has created has gone to increase the fortunes of the 1%, exacerbating inequality. And, while capital is free to roam, people are not. During the life of NAFTA, border security and immigration rules have tightened.  

Chapter 11, Undermining environmental protection
Chapter 11 specifically gives foreign investors the right to sue a government if they believe the laws of a country get in the way of their right to do business. Under this provision, Canada has been the most sued country and has paid out millions. The majority of Chapter 11 suits against Canada have been based on environmental protection laws that restricted investors.

Yet, despite a Chapter 11 opt-out proposal by the US, Canada is calling this non-negotiable. “We expected this appalling position from Trump, not from the Canadian side. Trudeau should listen to Canadians and put an end to this offensive and undemocratic process,” says Maude Barlow, Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians.

No protection for workers
Since 1994 under NAFTA, trade between US, Canada and Mexico has increased and productivity has risen. But, workers' share of income has declined.  The current agreement contains no binding protection for workers and there has never been a successful challenge that involved protecting labour under the agreement.

The current negotiations have featured only tit-for-tat protectionist talk rather than binding provisions with some teeth that would protect all workers.

Even Unifor president, Jerry Dias, is playing this game. He is at the talks, but his focus is attacking Mexico for suppressing wages and making it too easy for auto jobs to move there. Dias, who at one point praised Trump for attacking trade deals, is now standing with the Liberals defending ‘Canadian competiveness’ against Trump instead of calling for workers' rights for all.

Scrap this deal
For workers and the environment, the reality is that NAFTA has been a bad deal from the get-go. The Liberals, despite progressive sounding rhetoric, have no plans to make it this better.

There is nothing enlightened in a deal that frees up trade only to enrich the already wealthy. Neither free trade nor protectionism will bring good jobs or a sustainable economy.

While their government was at the table, thousands of Mexican trade unionists and farmers were on the streets of Mexico City saying no to NAFTA. Workers fighting together to win these things and building solidarity across borders is the way forward.

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