Why we should worry about the Montebello talks

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The term SPP is likely to draw blank stares from most Canadians, though hopefully that will change after the upcoming summit of North American leaders George Bush, Felipe Calderón and Stephen Harper in Montebello, Quebec.

The North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (that's what SPP stands for) was launched by the three NAFTA countries in March 2005. This is their third meeting and the first held in Canada.

The SPP is the successor to the 1994 NAFTA, the next stage on the path to fully integrate the North American economy along the lines advocated by business and political elites. It is a NAFTA-plus initiative but with several differences.

First, the SPP fuses economic integration and security integration, reflecting the reality of the post-9/11 U.S. security paradigm.

Second, unlike NAFTA, the SPP is not a treaty; it is an executive-to-executive agreement. It requires no legislative change and minimal parliamentary involvement. Important decisions get made largely out of the public eye.

Civil society organizations are excluded. But business, remarkably, has secured a privileged place for itself at the SPP table.

Thirdly, the SPP is an umbrella for a dizzying array of projects: some appear benign, others disturbing.

Here, to illustrate, are three SPP initiatives that raise alarm bells.

Passenger 'no fly' lists: In June, Canada's no-fly list came into effect, part of a broader agenda of security measures negotiated under the SPP. The list is rife with potential for abuse—blacklisting innocent people, racial profiling, invasion of privacy, use of false information and faulty criteria for judging high-risk travellers.

Canada's list will likely merge with the much larger U.S. no-fly list, with major negative implications for Canadians' civil liberties.

The Arar Inquiry found that the RCMP, through their intelligence sharing practices, were complicit in the rendition and torture of Canadian citizens in violation of international law. It recommended measures to protect against future abuse. Maher Arar has still not been taken off the U.S. terrorist watch list.

The U.S. continues to systematically violate the Geneva conventions on torture and rendition, recently codifying these practices in the notorious Military Commissions Act. The Harper government has not raised its voice publicly against U.S. abuses. What is it doing at the SPP table?

Domestic processing of oil: Energy security, especially oil, is a top priority for the U.S., and the Harper government is eager to oblige by facilitating the rapid expansion of Alberta oilsands production for export south.

Among the energy accomplishments cited by the SPP leaders at their 2006 meeting was a Canada-U.S. pipeline agreement that would lead to a uniform regulatory approach for cross-border pipelines.

Recently the countries' energy ministers talked about cutting red tape for various planned pipelines that would take oilsands bitumen to the U.S. for processing.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union has produced studies showing that 18,000 jobs that would otherwise be created by processing in Canada will go south.

Other analyses conclude that the pipeline would discourage future investment in Canadian upgrading facilities.

Will the National Energy Board include employment, investment and domestic value-added criteria in its evaluation of the Keystone pipeline? Will an SPP agreement prevent these issues from being considered? Will we ever know?

Regulatory harmonization: The SPP leaders have asked their officials to complete a regulatory framework agreement in time for the Montebello meeting.

It is unlikely that we will see the full framework agreement, and even less so that we will see how it is applied in specific circumstances.

Critics believe the government is preparing to weaken Canadian health, safety and environmental regulations and standards in the name of trade.

Let's take the example of food safety. The SPP's business advisory council called for the harmonization of Canadian and U.S. lists of toxic substances, which are preventing some U.S. products from being sold in Canada. We also know that an SPP committee is working to resolve differences in pesticide maximum residue limits. But will we ever know the outcome of these negotiations?

Some 40 per cent of the pesticides Canada regulates have stricter limits than U.S. regulations. The U.S. sees them as trade barriers and wants a list of priority pesticides to be watered down.

Thanks to an astute Citizen reporter, we know the Canadian government is in talks to relax its requirements on pesticide residues on U.S. fruits and vegetables.

With the Bush administration aggressively dismantling its own regulatory systems, this harmonization concession amounts to Canada mirroring U.S. deregulation. Will this be the norm or the exception?

The final difference from NAFTA is that the SPP is not a “grand bargain” initiative. It is an incremental process (many steps) with no explicit vision such as big business lobbyist Tom d'Aquino's North American Community.

Each step may, or may not by itself have significant consequences for Canadian policy flexibility. But cumulatively, the negative overall impact on Canadian sovereignty and democracy will be huge. The desire of business for a seamless continental market requires uniformity across a broad range of policies and regulations. And guess what countries will do the harmonizing!

This is the key danger: that as SPP agreements progressively shrink our room to manoeuvre in key policy areas, Canadian sovereignty and democracy become increasingly hollow.

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