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A container ship makes its way toward the Port of Vancouver


Big challenges and opportunities face Canadian trade negotiators in the months ahead, as a visit to the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will show you. What's missing is a signal from the political masters in Ottawa that they have the willpower to make trade decisions that will benefit most Canadians, but will certainly be unpopular in some parts of the country.

On Oct. 18, Canadian team members sit down in Ottawa with their European counterparts to continue crafting what is called a comprehensive economic and trade agreement. At the WTO in Geneva, Canada is trying to breathe life into the long delayed WTO Doha Round negotiations, and in Seoul on Nov. 11 and 12, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other G20 leaders will continue the discussion they had in Toronto on the challenge of concluding this multilateral marathon.

Canadian negotiators also need to pick up on the recent Canada U.S. Agreement on Government Procurement by exploring "an agreement that would expand, on a reciprocal basis, commitments with respect to market access for government procurement".

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Canada has also nearly completed a free trade agreement with South Korea but there is a lack of political will to push for the finish. Access for Canadian beef and Canadian sensitivities about imports of Korean automobiles are the sticking points.

Canadian officials are also nearing completion of an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). And Canada is trying to get included in the TransPacific Partnership Negotiations, a negotiation that Canada spurned until we found out that U.S. President Barack Obama was interested. On Sept. 24, international trade minister Peter Van Loan and his Indian counterpart announced the two countries had agreed negotiations should be "initiated towards a substantive and ambitious CEPA (comprehensive economic partnership agreement)".

So what's the biggest Canadian challenge to completing this busy agenda? It's reluctance to allow foreign competition in the highly restricted sectors of dairy and poultry, which are screened off from competition by our sacrosanct supply management programs.

After years of negotiating liberalized trade with various partners, we can no longer make serious progress without offering concessions in these sectors. This problem has hamstrung Canadian efforts, particularly in those negotiations with the biggest potential benefits for Canada - WTO, Canada-EU and TPP.

Further complicating decision making, but at the same time giving Canada more leverage, is that provincial capitals are becoming players on national trade issues, because some major foreign negotiating partners are now demanding that concessions by provinces be part of a final deal. Sensitive issues like provincial and municipal procurement and professional accreditation are now seen as serious issues for trade negotiations. As a result the federal government has had to bring provincial officials to the negotiating table and to co-ordinate the Canadian position with them in advance.

The strain on Canada's limited team of trade officials is apparent, but a strong position on these issues by Mr. Harper's government would go a long way toward easing the stress. Key to making that happen is getting more input from those who will benefit from these agreements. Many exporters have been silent; they need to speak up.

John Weekes, a senior business adviser at Bennett Jones LLP, was Canada's ambassador to the WTO and chief negotiator for the NAFTA

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