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Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement should be rejected | December 4, 2008

Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement should be rejected

By Peter Julian, MP

The Harper Government has been very clear in its November Throne Speech. It is moving forward to continue the politics of illusion on international trade.

We have seen the results with the NAFTA and the Canada-US Trade agreement (CUFTA). Since their implementation in 1988, these agreements and their accompanying economic policies have led to lower incomes for most Canadian families.

Accounting for inflation, Canadians earning less than $60,400 have seen a decrease in their average earnings since 1989. About three quarters of Canadian families have seen their real incomes decline. Clearly, free trade has only benefited the wealthy.

Conservatives and Liberals have been working hard over the last 20 years trying to turn Canada into a multi-national-owned nation of low paid contingent workers. This is the legacy of NAFTA.

Despite an average increase in working hours of 200 per year, the debt load of the average Canadian family has nearly doubled in the same period. Under CUFTA and NAFTA Canadians are working longer and longer hours and falling further and further in debt. We also see a growing inequality with the wealthiest 20 per cent of Canadians now taking half of all income.

We saw similar "politics of illusion" around the so called Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA), in fact a softwood sell-out, which was pushed through Parliament two years ago with the active support of the Liberal Party.

The sell-out had predictable consequences: the closure of dozens of mills across the country and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

The U.S. Court of International Trade (CIT) had ruled in Canada’s favour just a day after Stephen Harper and Georges Bush implemented the SLA. Had the softwood not been in place, the ruling would have forced the US government to pay back every penny of the five billion dollars owed to Canadian firms, and in addition allowed for virtually unimpeded access to the American market.

Very clearly the Harper Government chose the illusion of action. Real action would have allowed enforcement of the final decision of the CIT, and re-established full access to U.S. markets by the Canadian softwood industry.

On November 21, 2008, the politics of illusion peaked with the signature of the Canada Colombia Trade Deal.

Once again, Prime Minister Harper ignored the recommendation of both the House of Commons Standing Committee on Trade and reports from civil society and the grassroots in Canada and Colombia. These reports called for an independent human rights impact assessment to be developed and carried out before proceeding further.

The Colombian government spent millions of dollars in high profile public relations costs in the U.S. in order to spin the idea that it is a government that is actively trying to bring about human rights and labour freedoms to Colombia. The opposite is very clearly the case.

There is a direct tie between the Colombian government and Colombian paramilitary groups in the indiscriminate killing of human rights activists and labour activists in Colombia.

The Colombian Military has been exposed repeatedly for the so called "false positives" which is essentially Colombian soldiers going out and massacring peasants, then dressing them up in "terrorist" uniforms in order to boost their reported "kill ratio" of rebels.

This is in addition to the killing of trade union activists for the crime of pushing for better working conditions and better salaries and the forced displacement of millions of peasants.

The repression makes way for the lucrative activities of multinational companies circling around Colombia, attracted by a compliant repressive government, and the lack of trade union standards.

Thousands of labour activists have been murdered since 1991. The killings of activists for workers significantly increased in the last few months.

To camouflage this clear contradiction with Canadian values, the Harper government pretends that the Colombian Free Trade agreement will advance the human rights agenda in Colombia, and magically, will end violence, corruption, and generate free, open and democratic trade unionism.

There is nothing in the agreement which provides for any sort of leverage to actually achieve this end and halt the continued massacre of Colombians who simply are on a quest for a better life for themselves and for their co-workers.

What the agreement does provide is an illusion of the reinforcement of legitimate activity.

Essentially, here is what would happen under the Canada-Colombia agreement: A small fine would be levied by the Canadian government, which the Colombian government would then pay to itself. The money could then be used for some sort of activity around labor or human rights.

It is not clear what activity would be considered legitimate. The buck stops with the Colombian government who essentially decides on how it should punish itself.

To say the least, the theory around the Canada Colombia agreement is perverse. The idea that the value of human life can be quantified in monetary terms, that if somehow you kill three or four trade unionists could be worth a few dollars, or a few dollars more; Money that a government would take out of its right pocket to put in its left pocket. This is absurd.

Nothing in the agreement allows for Canada to actually withdraw from the agreement on the basis of human rights violations. Nothing in the agreement actually allows Canada to provide for very clear penalties that in any way would force the Colombian government to take real action to clean up their sorry history of right wing paramilitary and government violence against the people of Colombia, who are simply trying to organize for better lives for themselves and their children.

This agreement should be rejected by Parliament.

Peter Julian, MP (Burnaby-New Westminster), is the NDP Critic on International Trade.