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Atlantic trade tour hits St. John's; government asked to democratize Canada-EU negotiations

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St. John's chapter members (clockwise from top-left): Bill Hynd, Clyde Bridger,

I was in St. John's, Newfoundland last week (April 3-4) for a public event and political meetings on the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). It was part of a three-stop trade tour organized by Council of Canadians chapters like the one in St. John's, which has created a committee devoted to pushing back against CETA in the coming year. Clearly the deal is a growing concern on the island -- the Council had the opportunity to discuss CETA with provincial and federal politicians over the two-day visit.

The focus of this trade tour is how the kind of deal Canada and the EU are negotiating will impact eastern communities. CETA is about 10 per cent trade-related with the rest involving unpopular and unnecessary public policy changes that the Harper government or provinces would not be able to pass outside of a secret trade deal. With that in mind, the goal of the tour was to convince local decision-makers that more needs to be done to make CETA public, and to give people the ultimate say in whether the deal should go through.

Local impacts of CETA

Lowering European tariffs on fish, lobster and shrimp, as the Harper and Dunderdale governments hope CETA will do, would benefit fishing communities and the $4-billion fish export industry -- as long as tariff reduction is not at the expense of minimum processing rules on caught fish. But that is exactly the trade-off in the CETA negotiations. According to recently leaked CETA documents, "the EU fisheries package is conditional upon CAN lifting export restrictions," which include the requirement to process in Canada.

Minimum processing rules create jobs in the province. The alternative can mean exporting raw fish for processing elsewhere and re-importing the product later. And CETA's risks to the fisheries do not stop there. Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives explains in easy-to-read detail what the EU is asking for and how it will affect Canada in his report Globalization, Trade Treaties and the Future of the Atlantic Canadian Fisheries.

Another way CETA will have a big impact on the province is if drug costs go up after the deal is signed. The EU wants Canada to extend patent protections on brand name drugs at the request of EU-based pharmaceutical companies and their branch plants in Canada. Whether it's two or five years of new patent protection, the federal government estimates that annual drug costs could rise by $1-2 billion. Would Big Pharma re-invest any of those added profits in Canada? They're not living up to promises they made when NAFTA lengthened patent terms before.

In last month's budget speech, the Dunderdale government committed nearly $10 million to new drug therapies, with more than half that money coming from savings achieved through a new generic drug pricing model. Canadian provinces are cooperating to try to bring down the price of drugs, which will bring down the cost of health care. Obviously, CETA would make these kinds of investments redundant.

Democratizing trade deals

As is typical in all the provinces, the Dunderdale government has not said much publicly about CETA, what it hopes to achieve through the deal, or what the risks are. So on April 3, Bill Hynd of the St. John's chapter (pictured top left) put together a press statement urging the government to "promise to give the public a chance to see, discuss and make changes to the deal before it is eventually signed."

"We're not asking for much -- just that the government make the Canada-EU trade deal public as soon as negotiations conclude, and to hold hearings in the province so we can all decide whether or not to sign CETA," said Bill Kavanagh, spokesperson for the Council of Canadians (pictured bottom left - left), in the press release. "The Harper government has been misleading Canadians about the benefits of this trade deal, which are few and far between. We demand better from the Dunderdale government."

This is the message we took to meetings with NDP leader Lorraine Michael, Liberal leader Dwight Ball, and Deputy Government House Leader Keith Hutchings, who is responsible for CETA in the province. I was joined at these meetings by St. John's chapter activist Clyde Bridger (pictured right). Opposition parties were informed about the CETA negotiations and agreed that there should be some way to hold the provincial government accountable for what is being decided behind closed doors.

Clyde and I also met on April 4 with Jack Harris, the NDP MP for St. John's East, where we ended up discussing military procurement. If strategic local purchasing can help create jobs when it comes to shipbuilding, we suggested to Mr. Harris, there's no reason that kind of industrial strategy shouldn't be able to work on other big infrastructure projects (e.g. the Ontario Green Energy Act, which merges job creation and renewable energy targets) or municipal energy and transit services. But strategic public spending, for example Canadian content quotas, will become illegal under CETA for any covered government agency.

The nearly four-year-old Canada-EU trade and investment talks are apparently close to an end. But even if a deal is concluded and eventually signed in the next six to 12 months, there's a lot we can do to stop CETA from moving ahead if we decide it's not in the public interest. An important part of that next stage in the fight will take place at the provincial level. This Atlantic trade tour has been an important opportunity to talk to chapter activists about what that fight back will look like. I'll have more on the Halifax and Saint John's stops in short order.

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