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Canada officially joins Pacific trade talks

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with International Trade Minister Ed Fast after a news conference at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 19, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

After almost a year of waiting, Canada has formally joined major Pacific Rim trade talks – negotiations that will put pressure on Ottawa to ratchet back protections sheltering Canadian dairy, egg and poultry farmers from foreign competition.

Heritage Minister James Moore announced the move Tuesday, on behalf of International Trade Minister Ed Fast.

This means that Canada will join the other 10 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks at the negotiating table for the next full round December 3-12 in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Trade negotiations have become a major constant in Harper government foreign policy: expanding foreign markets for Canadian goods and services in an effort to reduce an overwhelming economic dependence on the United States.

Until late 2011, Canada showed little interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, led by the United States. But as signs grew that this broad multi-country deal could eclipse NAFTA in importance, Ottawa felt compelled to sign on.

The door finally opened in June 2012 when U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of other TPP member countries invited Canada to join. Member countries subsequently consulted their respective populations on the decision. In the case of the United States, consultations with Congress on Canada's admission ended Monday.

Countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks include the United States, Australia, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei. With the inclusion of Mexico, which has also just officially joined, the nations involved in negotiations comprise 658 million people and their combined annual economic output exceeds $20.5-trillion.

"Joining the TPP is good news for hard-working Canadian families," Mr. Fast said in a prepared statement. "Opening new markets and increasing Canadian exports to fast-growing markets throughout the Asia-Pacific region is a key part of our government's plan to create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. We look forward to helping develop a 21st-century agreement that advances Canadian interests."

Since winning power in 2006, the Conservative government has signed a string of small trade liberalization deals with other countries but have yet to land a major agreement – although both Ottawa and European officials insist a significant accord with the European Union is nearly finished.

A condition of joining the TPP talks was that members are not allowed to protect sacred trade cows but must put everything on the table for possible negotiation.

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The Harper government has insisted that it would never abandon protections for dairy, egg and poultry farmers.

The protectionist tariffs shielding dairy and poultry products from foreign rivals, for instance, range from 150 per cent to nearly 300 per cent.

But trade experts say Ottawa could afford to trim them sufficiently to abide by a deal without destroying these protected sectors. Or it could offer limited duty-free access.

It's still not likely to be an easy feat. Canada has always had two radically different trade policies for farmers. It tries to open markets abroad for beef, grains and oilseeds while fending off foreign competition for heavily regulated dairy and poultry producers, who cherish their protected farms.

Since it won office six years ago, the Harper government has concluded five trade agreements with nine countries: Colombia, Honduras, Jordan, Panama, Peru, as well as the European Free Trade Association member states of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Canada is also trying to deepen trade and investment ties with Japan.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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