Critics Call Secret U.S.-Canada Talks 'End Run Around Democracy'

  • by Paul Weinberg (toronto)
  • Inter Press Service

It is hard to fight a deal when Ottawa and Washington are offering few details, said Vancouver-based international lawyer, author and commentator Michael Byers in a recent interview with IPS.

'The people who are opposed to this are left pointing at shadows rather than anything concrete,' he noted.

Both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama were vague in January about what a Canada-U.S. security perimetre would entail in a predicted deal later this year.

Canadian media reports indicate that the negotiators' high priority includes a formal sharing of intelligence, law enforcement, and migration data by Canada and the U.S. in exchange for greater movement of goods, people and services across the border between the two countries.

Both the Canadian government and business sector are keen on improving the current North American free trade regimes, especially after 9/11 when U.S. international terrorism security concerns slowed down trade and traffic across the border, explained Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and a proponent of a Canada-U.S. security perimetre.

Robertson agrees that protectionist pressure in the U.S. — the latest manifestation being the 'Buy America' provisions under the Obama administration — means that gaining an unfettered U.S. market for Canadian companies remains an illusive goal, whatever Ottawa negotiates in the final analysis.

'My view is that in each case we have improved our relative situation. Is it the optimum? No. The day is long, there are always new little barriers coming up,' Robertson told IPS. 'We will never give [the U.S.] exactly what they want. We couldn't do that from a sovereignty perspective and it wouldn't be practical.'

Robertson predicts that in any deal, Canada will conform its copyright legislation to the U.S. model in exchange for greater export of Alberta tar sands oil (that is bitumen, or 'dirty oil' in the minds of its many critics) to the U.S. market via a pipeline - yet to be approved - heading south towards the Gulf of Mexico coast for refining.

Meanwhile, one contentious aspect of a security perimetre could involve the merging of Canadian personal information into North American databases that are accessible to U.S. security and law enforcement

Already, legislation is going through the Canadian Parliament that would oblige Canadian air carriers regularly crossing U.S. territory to get from one part of Canada to another, for the shortest route possible, to make their passenger data available to U.S. authorities.

At a recent Ottawa conference, Michael Wilson, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington and the ex-finance minister in the 1980s Conservative government that negotiated the first Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, was forthright on this point.

'This border agreement does raise some very significant issues on sovereignty, on privacy, on the form of collaboration between both sides. Sharing of information is very important to being able to make this agreement work,' he told reporters.

A second speaker, Michael Hayden, a former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, indicated that a thinner Canada-U.S. border means a common North American approach to security.

'I understand that these are national decisions on both sides of the line. And we're each free to take the decisions we feel appropriate,' said Hayden, CIA director from 2006 to 2009.

'You just need to understand that if your decisions are markedly different than ours, it affects our view as to how thick the border should be,' he said.

Another observer, Scott Sinclair asserts that business has been given 'privileged access' to the secret discussions surrounding the harmonising of U.S. and Canada regulatory standards with regards to products and services.

'The security perimetre deal, as I understand it, is not about harmonising to the highest regulatory standards. Its goal is to reduce the regulatory burden on cross-border business. Combining pressure from corporations to cut regulations with a secret decision-making process is a sure- fire recipe for eroding regulation and moving to the lowest common denominator,' said Sinclair, senior trade policy researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

This is a continuation of a recent trend within Canada towards government deregulation, the CCPA recently reported, in a host of areas including butcher shops, restaurants, water fil¬tration plants, freeways, elevators, rides at the fair, food labels, prescription and natural drug approvals, air travel, toys, and baby gear.

Meanwhile, Michael Byers says the lack of transparency in the Canada-U.S. negotiations represents a deliberate strategy to undermine the ability of anti-free trade and critics of globalisation to marshal effective public campaigns against their latest effort.

'The two governments have concerns that opposition to negotiations will mount if people know what's being discussed, and so this is an end run around democracy. And it is particularly ironic that it is occurring now as Canadians and Americans are celebrating revolution in North Africa and the Middle East,' he noted.

One potential scenario, adds Byers, is that the ruling Conservatives will sign a deal following a predicted win in a spring federal election — during which the Canadian electorate will hear very little of what has transpired in the negotiations with Washington.

On the other hand, previous efforts at a cross-border deal have flopped, says Stephen Staples, president of the Rideau Institute. 'We have seen this before. It has not worked out.'

He notes that Washington under President George W. Bush walked away from a proposed easing of restrictions on truck traffic at busy border crossings because of an Ottawa- Washington disagreement over fingerprinting citizens.

This time around, energy politics and specifically the desire for increased sales of tar sands oil are increasingly driving Canadian policy towards border trade within North America, says Sinclair.

'[Ottawa] will be looking for commitments such as expedited regulatory approval processes for pipelines and assurances that Canadian tar sands oil will not be disadvantaged by state or federal environmental protection measures regulating the carbon content of fuels.'

Byers charges that the Harper government will do anything to get around opposition in the U.S. toward the importing of Canadian bitumen, including surrendering unique Canadian policies in immigration, refugees, copyright and human rights.

'The Harper government is beginning to realise that there is a serious question as to whether the United States or Europe will actually want to buy our bitumen in the future and it is fighting really hard to keep that access open,' he added.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service