For two years, Canada has been negotiating a major trade deal — virtually in secret. The lives and livelihoods of millions of people are at stake in the proposed Canada-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CA4FTA) — and most Canadians don’t even know about it. Our government has failed to meet basic standards for transparency: There has been no genuine consultation with the public, NGOs or parliamentarians, no drafts of the agreement have been made public, and no details released to parliamentarians.

Why should Canadians care?

First, the symbolism of the proposed deal is significant: it is a building block for the much disputed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Unlike the CA4FTA negotiations, there has been much public debate around the FTAA — so much so that the negotiations are stalling. There are serious and well-founded critiques of the trade model proposed in the FTAA, significant numbers of people throughout the hemisphere reject the neo-liberal model, and many governments in the hemisphere have started listening.

Now, the U.S. and Canada are using small trade deals, like the CA4FTA with Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, to make a hemispheric agreement by stealth — isolating countries by making trade deals in clusters. Is this the model of international relations Canadians want?

Second, the government has a stated commitment to consultation with the Canadian public and civil society organizations. The Treasury Board has a clear set of rules for consultation in policy-making, and the Government of Canada has a written agreement with the Voluntary Sector on good practice for policy dialogue. In various trade forums, Canada has acted as a champion for openness and transparency in negotiations.

After the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in 2001, Canada agreed to release draft texts of the FTAA, seek public consultation and strengthen parliamentary participation in cobbling together an agreement. The key to open policy-making, according to the agreements and statements made by the government itself, is access — access to information and access to decision-makers. In the CA4FTA negotiations, the Government is not keeping its commitment to Canadians: despite requests, Canadians have not had adequate access to information, negotiators or decision-makers.

Third, and most importantly, the CA4FTA, and other agreements like it, affect more than the permeability of border, trade volumes, tariff barriers, duties and other esoteric jargon reserved for economists. These agreements impact significantly on domestic political and economic decisions, and on the lives and livelihoods of populations.

  • They restrict the ability of national governments to make policy for paramount public interests.
  • They empower investors over democratically elected governments and people.
  • They limit the capacity of governments to provide public services.
  • They affect workers’ rights, the environment, human rights, women’s rights and indigenous rights.
  • Increasingly, these agreements set the limits within which a country can struggle for democracy, development, social justice and human rights.

And yet, the only people involved in the negotiations are trade specialists, who admit repeatedly that they are “not the Minister of Everything.” Fair enough. So when an agreement will impact significantly on issues beyond the expertise of those negotiating it, it seems obvious to consult with specialists in other fields — fields like development, human rights, environmental protection. These agreements are being sold to Canadians as a means to development for the hemisphere. So why not involve international development practitioners, analysts, scholars? Many insist that in opening up an economy with trade liberalization will lead to increased respect for human rights.

So why not allow human rights experts to analyze the proposed agreement and assess the extent to which this agreement, like others before it, is likely to infringe upon Canada’s international human rights obligations?

Given these impacts on the lives of Canadians and Central Americans it is crucial that citizens are involved and informed of what is negotiated in our names. We expect involvement in important decisions through opportunities to voice our opinions and have them heard, and through our elected representatives. We cannot participate in the decisions governing our lives if neither we, nor our parliamentarians, have access to information about major decisions — such as trade deals. We do not know what is being done to protect labour, the environment and human rights in the agreement. Human rights, food security, workers’ rights and women’s rights are too important to be kept behind closed doors.