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Local CETA water concerns linger

Squamish Chief, Canada

Local CETA water concerns linger

Squamish resident receives lacklustre response from feds regarding water
trade concerns

By Meagan Robertson

22 July 2011

The Harper government says it’s successfully concluded an eighth round of free trade negotiations with the European Union, and despite reassurances from provincial, and recently federal, government officials that water is not on the bargaining table, several Sea to Sky residents are extremely concerned.

The idea that Canada’s vast fresh water supply could end up being a product to bargain with during the ongoing Canadian European Trade Agreement (CETA) talks is an ongoing concern being voiced by locals and headed by Canada’s largest citizens’ organization, the Council of Canadians, which has members and chapters across the country.

“Our concerns on water are that water utilities and municipalities may have been part of the procurement offer exchanged last week,” said Council of Canadians Whistler chapter member Pina Belperio.

“This alone gives multinational water firms more say in how contracts for water services are meted out, limiting the use of local preferences or other conditions on investment. They won’t be able to prefer B.C. or local water technology, pipes, etc.”

Squamish resident Star Morris has been diligently requesting information about the use of water as a bargaining tool from both provincial and federal politicians for more than six months, and just last week she received a response from Ed Fast, the Minister for International Trade.

To her disappointment, the letter was almost identical to the one she received in February after she contacted West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Joan McIntyre, who forwarded her concerns to Don White, the executive director of the Trade Initiatives Branch at the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Investment.

The more recent Fast letter, dated June 23, described the CETA negotiations as “a huge opportunity for Canadians” and promised that Canada’s waters were safeguarded.

“With respect to your concerns regarding water, it is Canada’s long-standing position that water in its natural state is not considered a good or product and therefore remains outside the scope of Canada’s trade agreements. Federal safeguards prohibit the bulk removal of boundary waters from their basins for any reason, including export.”

Morris said she feels there needs to be more of a discussion coming from constituents and the government instead of just reassurance.

Fast has said in a prepared statement: “These negotiations represent our most significant trade initiative since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and our government is vigorously defending Canada’s interests to ensure that any agreement we sign benefits Canadian workers, businesses and their families.”

NAFTA-themed trade talks are exactly what Morris is worried about.

"I’m worried that water will follow suit of softwood lumber, which was part of the NAFTA agreement when B.C. lost control of its own product," she said. "The principles of having a trade agreement where foreign investors have those rights takes away our rights."

She said B.C. premier Christie Clark’s reluctance to state her opinion on the issue and McIntyre’s comment in February that the provincial government is “pro-trade and makes no apologies for it” are extremely concerning.

“It makes me question, ‘Will the pursuit of strong global trade/economy be at the expense of the local government?’” said Morris.

The Council of Canadians negotiators are demanding that Canadian provinces make their procurement offers public and that they exclude municipalities and utilities from EU contracts — a demand that’s being heard by some municipal politicians.

Coun. Patricia Heintzman said although Squamish council has never discussed the issue, local governments have been raising concerns long enough that a motion was passed at the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in September 2010, calling on the province to negotiate a permanent exemption for them from CETA.

An example of an entry route for European countries to dominate locally, said Morris, is a P3 (public-private partnership) like the one currently being considered in Abbotsford, where Fast is the region’s Member of Parliament.

“P3s are a way that, should CETA include service procurement, large multi-national corporations can get their foot in the water door,” warned Morris.

Abbotsford is submitting a federal government application to Public Private Partnerships Canada (P3 Canada) for partial funding of a water works project on Stave Lake. If approved, the funding from P3 Canada would cover about $70 million of the estimated $300 million plus price tag for the project.

Critics of the proposal argue that P3 projects end up costing taxpayers far more than preliminary estimates suggest. Normally P3 projects are run by the private partner for a specified period of time before it’s turned over to the municipality in the same condition as when it was built.

“The crux of the issue for local governments has to do with local governments procurement policies and particularly efforts to ‘buy local’ or ‘hire local’ whenever possible and permissible under the community charter,” said Heintzman.

“Essentially many people believe CETA will give European companies the equal access to local economies.”