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What to do about Harper's corporate rights deals: A few thoughts from the B.C. trade justice tour

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Forget the acronyms, fight the overall corporate agenda. If there was a general message to my six-city trade justice tour with Harjap Grewal this week in B.C., that was it. We're facing an onslaught of agreements with names like CETA (Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), FIPA (Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement) and permutations of the three. But at heart they're all about chipping away at democracy so multinational corporations can improve, however marginally, their profits.

What Harjap and I found out in Kelowna, Langley, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Comox and Powell River (Brenda Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation joined us in Nanaimo and Comox) was that people already know this. They know that "trade" deals are not really about trade. Several of the dozens of people who attended each stop were veterans of past anti-corporate globalization battles: the WTO in Seattle, FTAA in Quebec City, SPP in Montebello, MAI… More acronyms, I know, but all good examples of "trade" fights we fought and won by exposing the deals for the corporate power grabs they are.

Other participants in the tour were less familiar with the agendas behind these acronyms. Like how CETA will effectively ban "buy local" policies in our cities. Or how CETA and the TPP will lengthen patents on brand name drugs, increasing health costs for patients and the provinces. These deals are the real invisible hand of global capitalism -- they reach in to change public policies quietly, in an anti-democratic way, and then lock in those changes forever.

Most people were shocked -- as I am every time I think about it -- how often Canada is sued by corporations under NAFTA when community resistance to a quarry, or fracking, or some environmental policy, gets in the way of profits. They're more shocked to hear that Harper wants to extend those same corporate rights to China- and EU-based companies, which will undoubtedly multiply the number of lawsuits against completely legitimate community decisions. (Canada has paid out more than $160 million to U.S. investors and is facing about $5-billion worth of new NAFTA lawsuits.)

All the people Harjap and I met along the tour last week were mainly interested in what we do now to stop these new deals from moving forward. With news reports saying Prime Minister Harper is only days away from concluding his corporate rights deal with the EU, it's (to understate things a bit) a good question. The following thoughts on the B.C. tour don't get near enough to answering it but I hope they take us closer.

1. Talk to people, not just politicians

While we have to keep letting our elected representatives know about our concerns with CETA or the China FIPA, past struggles (e.g. against the WTO) tell us it's important that we build popular opposition to corporate rights deals. A majority of people in Canada used to oppose free trade. Today more than two thirds support a deal with the EU, but that number changes to two-thirds opposition once people are told it could lengthen brand name drug patents. Talking to our friends, family and colleagues about how these deals aren't about trade will change minds.

2. Expose the myths of free trade

As IPS senior fellow Manuel Perez-Rocha points out in an article on Mexico's terrible NAFTA experience, former U.S. President Bill Clinton promised the deal would "promote more growth, more equality and better preservation of the environment and a greater possibility of world peace." One quarter of that statement, which Clinton made upon signing NAFTA in 1993, is true: the past 25 years have seen a big increase in trade around the world but also a shocking increase in inequality, a shocking depletion of our environment and standstill on environmental protections, and… well what can you say about world peace? Why would we sign more deals like NAFTA, which just lock in the failing status quo by protecting trade and investment flows above all else?

3. Make connections to other issues and to the Harper agenda

Communities across B.C. and Canada face enormous challenges and are fighting big fights against pipelines, fracking, mines and quarries, and the privatization of local public services. Harper's corporate rights deals like CETA may seem like just one of a dozen issues we need to pay attention to, and in one sense they are. But these deals, if ratified, are also powerful tools that corporations can use to undermine our attempts to create more sustainable or more resilient communities.

The Lone Pine Resources NAFTA lawsuit against Quebec's fracking moratorium is a perfect example of how these deals go hand in hand with Harper's plans to expand oil, gas and mining across Canada and across the world. CETA, TPP and FIPA will put a chill on all levels of government, meaning politicians will avoid making any move they fear will attract a trade or investment dispute. If we can stop the deals, we can stop that fear factor from getting in the way of the policies we want to see.

3. Draw strength from international struggles

Free trade is still fought globally and often with more vigor than ever before. In India, for example, a six-year trade and investment negotiation with the European Union is threatened by new political opposition, which is based on years of popular resistance. According to a Third World Network article on May 14, "In a first of its kind, at least on FTA (free trade agreement) issues, senior leaders from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M), Janata Dal United (JDU) and other Parties joined together to reject the proposed FTA (with Europe). They unanimously agreed that not only does this particular FTA undermine the democratic principles of policymaking in India, it can have significant adverse impact on large constituencies within the country."

Anti-TPP books are best-sellers in mainstream Japanese bookstores. Latin American countries are withdrawing from investment treaties with rich countries, vowing to create deals with corporate responsibilities as well as rights, or refusing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate lawsuits. Indonesian groups have formed a Peoples' Alliance (IPA) to "Make Trade Serve the People!" "Stop Neoliberal Trade Liberalization!" and "Junk WTO!" anticipating a WTO ministerial in Jakarta this December. European trade justice activists are fighting to stop CETA and its equivalent with the United States -- the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The fight against corporate rights deals is still a global fight for justice.

4. Take a breather -- we have some time

On our B.C. trade tour last week, Harjap and I wanted to dispel any notion that if we don't act right now we can't stop these deals. In fact we have been acting to stop CETA for four years now and we will continue to fight even if Harper does conclude a deal in principle over the coming weeks. If that happens, it will be up to a year before Canada and the EU can sign a deal and another year before it can be ratified. So if you're new to these agreements there is still time to learn about them, talk to your neighbours and take action. The timeline on the TPP is even more uncertain with the 12 participating countries unlikely to have anything they can agree on by the end of 2013 as originally anticipated. The Council of Canadians is one of several groups working across North American borders to unite local and national struggles against the TPP. See www.tppxborder.org for more information and sign up for regular updates on the campaign.

5. Act TODAY to fight the FIPA with China

Finally, there is something people can do right now to help stop Canada's corporate rights deal with China -- the FIPA. The Hupacasath First Nation of Vancouver Island will be in court June 5 to 7 to make its case for why the government should be blocked from ratifying the deal until Indigenous communities have been consulted. There will be a "We Stand Together" flotilla on June 5, a rally outside the Vancouver court that is hearing the FIPA injunction, and solidarity rallies outside MP offices across Canada. See the action link at canadians.org for more information, to find an event in your community, or to plan a rally outside your MP's office. It's also important to publicize support for the Hupacasath legal case, which Brenda Sayers told the B.C. tour her community was pursuing on behalf of all people of Canada. Provincial governments could have stepped up to stop the FIPA from granting 31 years of protection to investment by China-based firms but none of them did. Read more about the FIPA here and consider writing a letter-to-the-editor of your local paper this week to say you stand with the Hupacasath.

For more simple actions you can take to oppose Harper's corporate rights deals, see www.canadians.org.

For more information about the B.C. tour, click here to listen to an interview I did with CJMP radio in Powell River.

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