Why we should worry about the Montebello talks

August 16, 2007

The term SPP is likely to draw blank stares from most Canadians, though hopefully that will begin to change after the upcoming summit of North American Leaders--George Bush, Felipe Calderon and Stephen Harper--in Montebello Quebec. The North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (that’s what SPP stands for) was launched by the three NAFTA countries in March 2005. This is their third meeting and the first held in Canada.

The SPP is the successor to the 1994 NAFTA, the next stage on the path to fully integrate the North American economy along the lines advocated by business and political elites. It is a NAFTA-plus initiative but with several differences. First, the SPP fuses economic integration and security integration, reflecting the reality of the post-September 11 US security paradigm. Second, unlike NAFTA, the SPP it is not a treaty; it is an executive-to-executive agreement. It requires no legislative change, hence minimal parliamentary involvement, and thus is proceeding largely out of the public eye. Civil society organizations are excluded. But business, remarkably, has secured a privileged place for itself at the SPP table, with the creation a year ago of the NACC (The North American Competitiveness Council). The NACC gives big business a hand on the wheel driving the SPP agenda. Thirdly, the SPP is an umbrella for a dizzying array of projects: some appear benign and others disturbing. However, because the public reporting on SPP initiatives is so devoid of substance it is difficult to figure out which is which.

Here are three of the 300 SPP initiatives that raise alarm bells for me.

Passenger “no fly” lists: In June, Canada’s “no-fly” list came into effect, part of a broader agenda of security measures negotiated under the SPP. The list is rife with potential for abuse--blacklisting innocent people, racial profiling, invasion of privacy, use of false information and faulty criteria for judging high risk travelers--to name a few. Canada’s list will almost certainly merge with the much larger US “no-fly” list, with major negative implications for civil liberties. The Arar Commission found that the RCMP, through its intelligence sharing practices, was complicit in the rendition and torture of Canadian citizens in violation of international law. Maher Arar has still not been taken off the US terrorist watch list.

The Commission recommended a strong review mechanism to protect against civil liberties and racial profiling abuses. There is no evidence that these issues are being addressed under the SPP. As far as we know, the potential for continued Canadian complicity is still there. The US remains a rogue state, which has systematically violated the Geneva conventions on torture and rendition, recently codifying these practices in the notorious Military Commissions Act. The Harper government has not raised its voice publicly against US abuses. What it is it doing at the SPP table?

Domestic processing of oil: Energy security, especially oil, is a top priority for the United States, and the Harper government is eager to oblige by facilitating the rapid expansion Alberta oilsands production for export south. This raises huge environmental and Canadian energy security issues. But set these aside for the moment. Among the energy accomplishments cited by the Leaders at their 2006 meeting, was a pipeline agreement that would lead, they said, to a uniform regulatory approach for cross border pipelines. Recently the three energy ministers met to prepare for the Montebello meeting. They talked about cutting red tape (read deregulation) for various planned pipelines that would take tar sands bitumen to US for processing.

This comes as the National Energy Board is holding hearings on the first of these proposals, the Keystone pipeline. US multinational ConocoPhillips, a partner in the project, is investing billions in upgrading refineries in the United States to process the raw bitumen. The Communications Energy and Paperworkers union has produced studies showing that 18,000 jobs--that would otherwise be created by processing in Canada--will go south. And other studies show that it would would discourage future investment in Canadian upgrading facilities. Will the National Energy Board include employment, investment and domestic value-added criteria in its evaluation of the Keystone pipeline? Will an SPP agreement prevent these issues from being considered? Will we ever know?

Regulatory harmonization: or regulatory cooperation as it is euphemistically called, is another top priority for business. Leaders have asked their officials to complete a “regulatory framework agreement” in time for the Montebello meeting. This will set the guidelines for many SPP initiatives. It is unlikely that we will see the full framework agreement, and even less so that we will see how it is applied in specific circumstances. Critics believe the government is preparing to weaken Canadian health, safety and environmental regulations and standards in the name of trade.

Let’s take the example of food safety. The SPP’s business council (the NACC) called for the harmonization of Canadian and US lists of toxic substances, which are preventing some US products from being sold in Canada. We also know that an SPP committee is working to resolve differences in pesticide maximum residue limits. But will we ever know the outcome of these negotiations?

In this case, we do know now thanks to an astute Ottawa Citizen reporter, who discovered that the Canadian government is in fact planning under the SPP to relax its requirements on pesticide residues on fruits and vegetable entering from the US. Some 40% of the pesticides Canada regulates have stricter limits than US regulations. The US sees them as trade barriers and wants at list of priority pesticides to be relaxed. With the Bush administration aggressively dismantling its own regulatory systems, this harmonization concession amounts to Canada importing US deregulation. Will this be the norm or the exception?

The final difference from NAFTA is that the SPP is not a “grand bargain” initiative. It is an incremental process (many steps) with no explicit vision such as big business lobbyist Tom d’Aquino’s North American Community. Each step may, or may not by itself have significant consequences for Canadian policy flexibility. But cumulatively, the negative overall impact on Canadian sovereignty and democracy will be huge. Business’ desire for a seamless continental market requires uniformity across a broad range of policies and regulations. And guess what countries will do the harmonizing!

The key danger is this: SPP agreements progressively shrink Canada’s room to maneuver in key policy areas. This is political integration by stealth--something that deep integration proponents vigorously deny. The result is that Canadian sovereignty and democracy overtime become increasingly hollow.

Bruce Campbell is the CCPA's Executive Director.