It’s a great irony that, while the United States has probably never been less popular among Canadians than in the era of George W. Bush, plans to integrate Canada more deeply into the U.S. have been proceeding at a brisk clip.

The threat of Canada being absorbed into the U.S. has traditionally provoked strong reactions here, as the pitched electoral battles over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1980s and ’90s attest.

But the issue seems to have largely disappeared in recent years, leaving the impression that the push for deeper integration has stopped or that Canadians no longer care about it. Neither is true.

Rather, what’s happened is that those pushing for deeper Canada-U.S. integration — principally members of the corporate elite on both sides of the border — have become more sophisticated in their strategy. Rather than loudly trumpeting their agenda, they’ve made their push largely invisible.

Their latest vehicle is the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). Since it was officially launched by the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico in March 2005, it’s operated largely under the radar, even though it deals with some of the most important issues a nation faces — national security and energy, as well as trade.

Given the centrality of these issues, one would have thought that any changes — especially changes that would make Canada more like the U.S. — should involve wide consultation with the Canadian people.

But exactly the opposite is happening. The public has been completely shut out of the SPP process. The key advisory body in the SPP is an all-business group called the North American Competitiveness Council, made up of 30 CEOs from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

It’s fine to have input from business, but why only business? Corporations have interests which are not necessarily the same as the broader public interest; indeed, these two sets of interests are often in conflict.

Take the small example of the harmonization of regulations involving pesticides. This harmonizing of standards — in the interest of removing “trade barriers” — has been underway for more than a decade under NAFTA, but it is now being fast-tracked under the SPP.

So, as the Ottawa Citizen reported in May, Canada is raising the limits on pesticide residue permitted on fruits and vegetables, to bring Canadian standards into line with weaker U.S. standards.

As a citizen and an eater of fruits and vegetables, this alarms me. Canada’s standards are already weak enough. For example, both Canada and the U.S. permit the pesticide permethrin to be used at levels 400 times higher than the European Union permits; we allow methoxychlor at levels 1,400 times above the European limit, according to a study by Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd.

Shouldn’t our government be tightening our standards, not quietly watering them down further to make things easier for those in the business of selling these — and other — products?

Regulatory harmonization is just one small area that the SPP is working on. I’ll deal with the more contentious issues — security and energy — in a later column, all in the interest of setting the stage for next month, when Bush arrives in Montebello, Que., for what he, Stephen Harper and Mexican president Felipe Calderon are no doubt hoping will be an opportunity to quietly discuss the SPP and weigh the advice of their business council.

No public consultations have been planned for Montebello. Indeed, security measures will ensure the leaders hear as little as possible from the people.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...