OTTAWA — The pressure was on opposition MPs to quickly ratify the new North American free-trade agreement as Parliament got back to work Monday for its first extended sitting since the Oct. 21 election reduced the Liberals to a minority government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland urged opposition parties not to unduly delay ratification of the new deal to replace NAFTA, which has already been ratified in the United States and Mexico.
Lest their words fall on deaf ears, they were backed up by a chorus of provincial, municipal and business leaders all demanding swift action to finalize the continental trade pact, also known as the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement or CUSMA.
“North America will always remain Canada’s most important trade relationship and it is crucial for businesses that this agreement is ratified in an expeditious manner,” the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
“All trade talks involve give and take and the CUSMA represents a good outcome overall for the Canadian economy even if not all aspects of the agreement were perfect for every sector of the economy.”
Dairy farmers are among those for whom the deal is less than perfect, requiring them to give up a small share of the Canada’s supply-managed dairy market to American producers.
But the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance was among those Monday calling for speedy ratification.
Trudeau reiterated Monday that the ratification bill will be debated and studied at committee but urged opposition parties not to drag their feet.
“There’s thousands, millions of workers across the country who rely on NAFTA, on secure access to the United States (market),” he said on his way into the Commons.
“We heard the premiers loudly and clearly saying they wanted ratification quickly. We’ve heard from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.”
The NDP and Bloc Quebecois are demanding a thorough debate on the deal in the House of Commons and in-depth study by a Commons committee. They have not ruled out proposing amendments to the deal, which if passed would reopen negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico, who would have to accept any changes.
The Conservatives, despite being generally ardent free traders, have accused Trudeau of caving in to U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands on the deal. But they remain the government’s best hope for passing legislation, to be introduced Wednesday, that will implement the trade pact.
With the Liberals 13 seats shy of a majority of seats in the Commons, the government needs the support of at least one of the major opposition parties to pass the legislation.
Freeland warned against the temptation to tinker with or hold up the deal by reminding opposition MPs of the turbulent negotiations that dragged on for more than a year. She recalled how the U.S. made “extreme” demands, “any one of which could have dismantled NAFTA as we knew it,” and which resulted in what she called one of the most economically uncertain periods “in our modern history.”
Bloc leader appears unmoved
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet appeared unmoved. He said more protection for Quebec’s aluminum industry will be necessary to win Bloc support for the new NAFTA. He said his party is working on some “positive ways to fix the problem,” hinting that it could be done without reopening the deal.
The revised pact stipulates that 70 per cent of steel and aluminum used in the manufacture of tariff-free automobiles must be made in North America. But the steel sector also got a provision stipulating that steel must be “melted and poured” by primary steelmakers in North America in order to receive preferential tariff treatment — a provision that was not applied to the aluminum industry.
Freeland told the Commons that the revised NAFTA is better than the original deal, which did not specify how much steel or aluminum must originate in North America.
“Seventy per cent is better than zero per cent,” she argued.
Last week, a statement issued by the country’s premiers urged parliamentarians to ratify the new agreement “as quickly as possible.”
“Timely ratification will enable Canadian businesses to benefit from the modernized provisions of the agreement restoring market certainty and contributing to Canada’s economic prosperity,” the statement said.
Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Bill Karsten, along with the chair of the federation’s big city mayors’ caucus, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, also chimed in with a joint statement on Monday.
“As municipal leaders, we are offering our full support to the federal government to ratify this deal and are encouraging Parliament to move swiftly so cities, city-regions and communities can continue to benefit from the economic certainty we need to keep moving forward.”
The manoeuvring to win opposition support for the new trade deal marked an otherwise relatively low-key and sombre opening of the winter parliamentary sitting.
Trudeau and other party leaders paid tribute to the 57 Canadians who died on Jan. 8 when Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 aboard. And MPs unanimously passed a motion demanding that Iran, which claims it was an accident, be fully transparent about the investigation, compensate the families of victims and bring those responsible for downing the plane to justice.
Later Monday, the government survived a confidence vote on last month’s throne speech, which passed by a vote of 181-139. Bloc MPs supported the speech, while Conservatives, Greens and New Democrats voted against it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2020.