Ottawa remains close-lipped as NAFTA renegotiations loom

When it comes to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ottawa has kept its cards very close to its chest. 


Don’t expect that strategy to change any time soon. 


Canada and the United States have very different rules when it comes to trade negotiations. 


In the United States, American trade officials are obligated to publicly unveil a list of priorities to Congress 30 days before any trade negotiation can begin.


That list was expected to be re-leased as early as July 17. NAFTA renegotiations can start as early as Aug. 16. Expected priority areas include targeting Canadian dairy, wheat and wine regulations as well as amending the rules of origin definition.


The American Constitution gives Congress and the U.S. president joint authority over trade agreements. 


Major changes require the approval of both parties , which has led some trade experts to argue U.S. President Donald Trump would be best to try and tweak the deal by securing several side-deals rather than try and secure congressional approval of a major renegotiation. 


Washington’s plan for NAFTA is anyone’s guess. One day President Trump is threatening to tear up the agreement. Another day he’s simply planning on tweaking it. It’s a roller-coaster ride that can change on the fly and is unlikely to end anytime soon.


Ottawa, it seems, is happy to go along for the ride, so long as it doesn’t have to give a public review afterward. 


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Traditionally, Canada has preferred to negotiate trade agreements out of the public eye. Canada typically tries to keep disagreements and stalemates in the negotiating room rather than battle it out on the front pages.


Here at home, Canadian officials are under no obligation to publicly list Ottawa’s priority trade areas.


While stakeholders and key sectors are consulted, it’s not uncommon for those conversations to come with an accompanying non-disclosure agreement in order to ensure talks are happening at the negotiation table rather than in the press. 


Both Washington and Ottawa launched public consultations on the pending NAFTA renegotiation. South of the border, more than 12,000 submissions were collected with most posted publicly on the U.S. Registry. 


Meanwhile, U.S. trade officials are holding three days of public meetings with industry and individuals about what they want to see discussed in the upcoming talks. 


Here at home, NAFTA suggestions, wish lists and negotiation advice must be submitted to Ottawa by July 18. Those submissions are not posted publicly, unless the groups writing them decide to release them themselves. 


Meanwhile, various parliamentary committees (on both the House and Senate sides) heard from witnesses on the pending NAFTA renegotiation earlier this year. 


Ottawa’s strategy is simple. Canada is a smaller country about to enter trade negations with a country known to be a bully at the negotiating table. 


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The American system works to Canada’s advantage because the U.S. is forced to outline its key priorities ahead of time. We know what the Americans want before we’re required to tell them what we’re seeking.


Ottawa has faced criticism for refusing to negotiate trade deals in public. Transparency around trade deals is essential for ensuring public support and trust going forward.


That argument is entirely understandable. But, so too is the fear of the negotiation going sideways because someone’s nose gets put of joint because of a quote in the paper. 


Given how sensitive and unpredictable the current White House is, there is no question this is a real risk. Trade negotiations are complicated. Details matter, such as specifics that cannot be properly captured in a 140-character tweet.


This doesn’t mean Ottawa can keep everyone in the dark. Key sectors must still be kept relatively well informed of the talks, even if those discussions happen only behind closed doors. 


Provincial counterparts and relevant bureaucrats must also be kept updated on the talks with Canada’s largest trading partner.


And, when the final deal is reached, Canadians deserve a full explanation, complete with all the details down to the very last tariff line, of what’s been agreed to before Parliament ratifies it.

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Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

  • Earthman

    Lets see…Canada will be forced to import toxic (rBGH) tainted U.S milk products. Watch as the great lakes fresh water is pumped to southern states.export All the bitumen the U.S refinery can crack. Canada will lose $5 billion in soft wood NAFTA court award(s). That’s a guarantee! How will Canada or Mexico benefit? Remember it’s America first! The planet second and every one else third or lower. The U.S is alienating their neighbors and don’t seem to care. If NAFTA was such a bad deal why did the U.S sign it in the first place? Question is will they renege again in 20-30 years? Sarc. Time will tell.

    • Harold

      The USA signed the NAFTA deal because the politicians at the time were eating out of the hands of the global corporations. It is the Canadian government who are alienating Canadian citizens and not the Americans doing it and the Article clearly spells this out. The government is keeping the NAFTA agreement in secrecy so that Canadians will not find out that Ottawa has all along kept global corporate interests ahead of Canadian interests and Canadian democracy.
      It is noteworthy that the very people pointing a finger at the USA in anger haven’t a clue of what is written in the NAFTA agreement to legitimize their mistrust. Trump has access to the document in its fullness and calls it a disgrace and we the unread beg to differ. On what grounds? We have seen Canadian businesses fold or leave the country by the truck loads since signing NAFTA and yet unread we think that we have a valued opinion over and above Trump because without evidence some Canadian politician said we did. Canada has been sued many times by the globalist and our hands tied under the NAFTA agreement and we unread think that we have had a good deal all along. If you don’t know anything – just trust a politician – and they will make sure many times over that you don’t know anything. How do you know that Canadians wouldn’t “rip up” the NAFTA agreement if they were to read it for themselves?

      The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 20 (1) Any member of the public in Canada has the right to communicate with and to receive available services from, any head or central office of an institution of the Parliament or government of Canada in English or French, and has the same right with respect to any other office of any such institution.

      The public cannot communicate when the Government is withholding documents or when Politicians have taken it upon themselves to arbitrarily make themselves unavailable. (secrecy) When the Public allows this behavior it is by the public’s choice to do so and therefore no breach of the Charter has been committed even though the force and effect of the Charter still stands and can be evoked at anytime by others. The Charter when evoked can make other government Acts, Regulations and Statutes illegal to pursue in Court eliminating subject matter jurisdiction.

      The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Application of Charter section 32 (1) This Charter applies (a) to Parliament and government of Canada in respect of all matters within the authority of Parliament including all matters relating to the Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories; and (b) to the legislature and government of each province in respect of all matters within the authority of the legislature of each province.

      To add to Canadians sad state of affairs it is highly likely that most politicians have no knowledge of the Charter and so they believe that they can do as they wish but nonetheless when unread Canadians continuously comply, how could politicians ever learn otherwise.