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In the room sit nine people, here under the banner of their union, waiting for Minister Sohi to arrive. A young girl sits quietly in her grandfather's lap; we have been told it was her first day of grade one. The minister arrives, shaking hands with each person as he walks around the table. The girl, who is tasked with giving the minister a gift of the folder with briefing notes and hat, tries to pass him the items but becomes discouraged when he doesn't notice her efforts. Minister Sohi takes his seat and the room is calm and quiet. The grandfather slides the items over, saying the child was too shy to deliver them herself. The Minister smiles and greets everyone with a measured and warm speaking style. Minister Sohi is the only cabinet minister in Edmonton, one of only four Liberal MPs in the province of Alberta. His ear and time are valuable and the people gathered are glad to get started.
We begin cordially, thanking the minister and his staff for the ease with which the meeting was arranged. When asked about what he knows about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, Minister Sohi slowly and deliberately launches into the basic facts of the massive agreement, making sure to stress that "the federal government does not have a position, we want to engage Canadians and that's the stage we are at right now." He then asks what our concerns are.
The Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) process, by which private companies can sue foreign governments over loss of opportunity to make money, is the major concern that is brought up first. The reason being that the cause of the "loss of opportunity" is often government policy that is in the public interest, such as environmental protection, health and food regulations, and policy that supports local economies, workers, and domestic financial institutions. We talk about our concern that this deal will punish our government with lawsuits for implementing measures to address climate change, for maintaining and expanding our national health-care system, for standing strong in regulations for food and products, for explicitly supporting local business and workers, and for protecting our financial system so that it is stable against global shocks. We explain that the threat of being sued over these things will keep the government from being able to make good policy, resulting in a public interest policy chill.
The last similar trade deal Canada ratified, NAFTA, is brought up. Minister Sohi asks many questions: How many times have we already been sued? Thirty-seven, with most of the suits on environmental grounds. We are the most sued developed country in the world. How many times have we lost? A bit more than half of the completed cases (7 out of 13). How much has that cost? $200 million, plus $65 million in legal costs. There are $2.6 billion in cases pending. How is ISDS under TPP different than ISDS under NAFTA? ISDS under TPP applies to all jurisdictions and is more extensive, affecting things that weren't as affected under NAFTA, such as medicine patents, and food standards such as BGH milk.
We bring up the fact that Canada never seems to come out on top, as we are a small country compared to the United States. The U.S. has never lost a NAFTA investor-state case. We mention that the litigation process is fraught with conflicts of interest and profiteering. Only 15 people have decided over half of all treaty disputes, with millions of dollars in it for themselves. International corporate lawyers will actually seek out corporations to sue governments, creating a multimillion dollar industry that relies on eroding public rights, picking on countries that risked these rights to play this game.
The trade unionists at the meeting, representing Unifor, begin to speak to their expertise. There are no provisions to protect local labour under the TPP. Procurement practices shaped by the TPP will make work difficult to sustain. New allowances for temporary foreign workers create situations where workers aren't made to test their skills before working, propagating safety hazards and poorer quality work. New rules under TPP means that no labour market analysis needs to be done before bringing in temporary foreign workers. There is usually no real labour shortage in Canada, it is an excuse made by heads of companies to drive down wages. These representatives stress that they are not protectionist about union jobs. They welcome tradespeople from all over the world to become part of their teams, and that indeed much of their workforce reflects this with a diversity of people represented. Minister Sohi nods through all of this explanation. He says he ran into these similar issues when he was part of municipal council, planning for the construction of the new and controversial downtown hockey arena.
Minister Sohi asks some more questions about the U.S. political context. Why is Obama for the TPP and Trump against it? Why are we, a progressive government, being asked to side so oddly? We touched briefly on the idea that Trump may simply be a liar who appeals to middle and lower class Americans with nationalist rhetoric, but would likely end up ratifying it in the end. For Obama, the fact that the U.S. is so powerful and has the most to gain from deals like this places them in a totally different context from Canada. We offer that one of the reasons the U.S. may be negotiating this deal in the first place is so that they and Japan would have more power to dictate the Asia-Pacific trade regime, circumventing China, which is not currently part of the TPP agreement. In all, we stressed that Canada would not come out on top against these powerful countries, or against the lowest-common-denominator policy of the other countries we would need to harmonize with.
The minister begins to wrap up the meeting, talking about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's appearance at the recent Unifor conference and how he stated that Canada's approach to free trade is that "the economy should work for all Canadians." On that note, we begin to discuss how trade agreements like the TPP will make worse the already historically large wage-gap between the rich and the poor, and how the largest beneficiaries will be the already wealthy owners of corporations. We question the "trickle down" theory prevalent in society (that allowing the rich to get richer will benefit everyone). Minister Sohi agrees that a small number of people should not be the only ones to benefit from government actions, citing the child benefit and new income tax policy as examples of the Liberal government's stance on the issue.
We finished our concerns by expressing understanding that it's about getting beyond "no TPP" to "imagining a fair trade future," and propositioning the right way for Canada to engage in international trade. We believe that government policy must value more than just corporate ideology and business interest in these kinds of agreements, and must stand for the public interest of our own citizens. The Liberals must differentiate themselves on industrial policy, and include and act for civil society in a meaningful way regarding international affairs that affect us so greatly and directly.
We asked if Minister Sohi could help push the Committee on International Trade to commission a government study on the TPP, as there have been some private reports, but no official study by the government itself. He said he would contact Minister Freeland to ask some questions. In conclusion, we asked Minister Sohi how the decision to ratify will be made -- if it would be a cabinet decision or a house vote. We had heard conflicting information about this, but the minister seemed to think it would be put to the house for debate and then a vote. We asked him if he would vote "no" to ratifying the TPP. The Minister smiled and said "I don't know yet."
It will be likely be two to three more years until a decision is made whether or not to ratify the TPP. Many think the Canadian government is looking to the United States to see how they will decide, before making our own decision. Canada has already rejected several massive trade deals that would have hurt us, such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the 1990s, and we are better for it. We know NAFTA has already hurt us with a slowed and outsourced domestic economy, and 37 international lawsuits with more on the way. We don't want to further these problems with the TPP. Governments lose and regular people lose: corporations and international lawyers are the only winners with these "corporate rights deals" that aren't even really about trade or tariffs. It's important that Canada makes its own choice based on what is best for the common person in this country, and stand up for our values and integrity.
The young girl on her grandfather's lap sat quietly for the entire meeting. She may not have known that it was her future we were discussing; that 20 years from now the society she lives in will be shaped by the decisions of today. The safety and security of her life -- whether it's the food she eats, the banks she trusts, the natural environment that sustains her, or the workforce she is able to enter -- these things depend on us to protect and make better. And we can do that.
Most facts for this article (especially on ISDS) were drawn from Maude Barlow’s report Fighting TTIP, CETA, and ISDS: Lessons from Canada.
Diane Connors grew up by the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, in Edmonton (Amiskwaciy), Treaty 6 Territory. She cares about and works toward building a more just and compassionate society. She is an artist, a community supporter, an activist, and an organizer with the Council of Canadians.
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