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CETA will make Canadians 'hewers of wood'

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Image: flickr/epsos

What we know about the proposed free trade deal with Europe announced "in-principle" just over a week ago comes to us through leaks and press releases from those generally in favour of the deal.

And, already there's reason for concern.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) will no doubt contain some good and bad things for Canadians worried about the security of their jobs or the opportunities for them or their children to find meaningful employment. Any trade deal would.

What we don't know, and can't know until we see the entire text of the deal, is how the two balance.

Hopefully, that will come Tuesday, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper tables the tentative agreement in the House of Commons.

From what we already know, there are some sectors with reason to be happy and others with reason for concern.

Take forestry, which has been touted as a winner with this deal. After all, Europe is not exactly known as a lumber producer. We most certainly are. It's pretty much a one-way market.

But in the big part of that market -- cut lumber and newsprint -- there are already no tariffs. Where CETA makes changes is with products such as plywood and oriented strand board. These have a limited market, so CETA will end up having little impact.

At the same time, Canada's furniture industry is no longer very big. We import mostly. With CETA, we could end up exporting our barely-processed forestry products to Europe and buying it back as finished products -- desks, chairs, beds, cabinets -- tariff free.

So CETA could end up cementing our place in world trade as -- literally -- hewers of wood. There's already a great imbalance in what we trade with Europe. Canada sells mostly raw (or barely processed) resources to Europe, such as gold, diamonds, uranium and oil. Europe mostly sends back technological-intensive value-added goods such as medicine, cars and electronics. Eliminating 98 per cent of tariffs (relatively low to being with) under CETA won't correct this lopsidedness. It can only make it worse.

Our union is not sure that's the way to go. We'd prefer to see more manufacturing jobs created here, providing jobs and opportunities for our young people.

We are rich in resources. Let's make something with them.

To be fair, it's tough at this point to really say which Canadian industries are better or worse off with CETA. We have a growing list of questions about the deal's impact, but few direct answers.

- In health care, the Harper government has touted intellectual property rights protecting drug patents, yet their own estimates suggest drug prices will skyrocket by billions -- and Canadians will be on the hook to pay. What sort of pressure will CETA put on workplace benefit plans and the health system more generally?

- We're told there will be more European cheese allowed into Canada, but we can sell them more field crops and beef -- but do European consumers even want to buy our genetically modified foods or hormone-raised beef?

- On the surface, it seems we can sell more cars to the European market, but is there a market for the cars we make? New "Rules of Origin" requirements define a "Canadian-made" car as having 20 per cent domestic-content. How many actual Canadian-built cars will be exported to Europe? In fact, Canadian automakers (GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda) already do well in the European market, selling cars they make in Europe. CETA won't change that.

- In fisheries, there is hope that we can now sell more processed fish products, but worry over what CETA will mean for requirements -- in Newfoundland, for instance -- that fish be caught and processed locally.

Without the text, we can't really fully assess the impacts of the CETA. More worrisome is that the deal isn't actually done. More negotiations will take place in the coming months. We're still years away from inking a final text. With so much uncertainty hovering around this ambitious (and highly secretive) deal, why is the Conservative government all-in?

If the Prime Minister is confident enough to sign on to a deal, that's not yet a deal, then that deal needs to be made public. CETA is also the first agreement of its kind to bind provinces under its terms and conditions (and towns and cities, by extension). Each province should have a democratic vote on the matter.

Right now it seems the potential upsides of CETA could be outweighed by the downside. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing for sure. This deal is too important -- too far-reaching -- to be left up to chance. Canadians need assurances the Harper government is focused on the practical outcomes, not just the theoretical.

We need to see the deal, so Canadians can decide for themselves whether it's in their best interest.

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