The Canadian government wants to rewrite the North American free-trade agreement to prevent any member country from weakening environmental protections to attract investment, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says.
It's an ambitious goal for the government particularly when U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is rolling back policies designed to protect the environment and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Ms. Freeland laid out Canada's negotiating objectives Monday, just days before Canadian officials gather with their U.S. and Mexican counterparts for a renegotiation of NAFTA. The talks, which begin Wednesday, are taking place at the request of Mr. Trump, who threatened during his campaign last year to tear up NAFTA if he could not extract a better deal for the United States.
The Trudeau government also wants to rewrite NAFTA to make it harder for businesses to challenge decisions made by U.S., Mexican or Canadian governments as long as public officials say they are taking measures in the "public interest." The Liberals cast this reform as a boon for environmental protection. But "public interest" could be used by other governments to justify a range of measures, including protectionism.
It's a negotiating objective that will likely not be opposed by Mr. Trump and protectionist U.S. critics of NAFTA who have long felt that Washington ceded too much sovereign decision-making power.
Ms. Freeland explained Canada wants to reform NAFTA's investor-state dispute-settlement process "to ensure that governments have an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest."
The United States has already said it wants to eliminate binding dispute-settlement mechanisms in NAFTA's Chapter 19 that allow governments to challenge measures taken by member governments. Canada has been on record for months as opposed to removing Chapter 19.
The government said they also want to add a "gender" chapter to NAFTA that recognizes the importance of women's participation in the work force and economic growth as well as another chapter to support Indigenous people.
Ms. Freeland repeated the government's long-standing message on NAFTA: that Canadians by and large support the deal and that Canada will stand up for its interests. The Foreign Minister said Canada will be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table if necessary should bargaining hit a standstill.
The minister told a University of Ottawa audience Monday morning that such an incident took place during the Canada-U.S. free-trade negotiations in 1987. "It was during the initial FTA negotiations … that the late, great Simon Reisman walked out, pulled home by his prime minister over the Reagan administration's initial refusal to agree to binding binational review of anti-dumping and countervailing duties. Our government will be equally resolute."
She then spelled out Canada's negotiating objectives – or at least the broad brush strokes – in front of a Commons committee in Ottawa on Monday. The minister, however, did not directly answer a question from NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey about whether Canada would grant the United States more tariff-free access to Canada's heavily protected dairy and poultry markets.
Ms. Ramsey, who teamed up with Conservative MPs to push for Ms. Freeland to lay out Canada's negotiating priorities, said Ottawa needs to ensure measures that support the fight against climate change are part of the NAFTA.
"We have heard clearly from the U.S. that they are starting to turn their eye away from addressing climate change, so it's very important that protecting the environment is included in trade agreements."
She said the public still doesn't know what Canadian negotiators are willing to give up in order to reach the Liberal government's objectives. "That's what we didn't hear: What is the government willing to put on the table?"
Conservative trade critic Gerry Ritz said Ms. Freeland did not provide enough assurances that NAFTA talks would proceed smoothly. "We asked some fairly pointed questions but [didn't] get the answers we were hoping that could give some stability to the business climate in Canada."
Ms. Freeland said Canada wants to strip away any barriers that prevent U.S. and Mexican companies from bidding on government purchasing contracts in Canada, or Canadian companies seeking access to the same markets in the United States or Mexico. "Canada will seek a freer market for government procurement … location content provisions for major government contracts are political junk food – superficially appetizing, but unhealthy in the long run."
This negotiating objective of Canada's appears to be designed to help fight "Buy American" calls in the United States for American politicians to restrict Canadian and Mexican firms from bidding on U.S. government supply contracts.
Other NAFTA objectives include: creating stronger labour safeguards; making it easier for certified professions to work in all three NAFTA countries and expand the free movement of businesspeople; preserving NAFTA provisions that protect Canadian culture; and preserving the high tariff walls in this country's "supply management" system that shelter Canadian dairy and poultry products from significant foreign competition.