About 200 people gathered in Halifax Tuesday night to learn about a new economic agreement that could give European corporations the power to take over local services including the provision of drinking water, public transit, health care, education and even hospital food. It could also grant such companies guaranteed access to Canadian resources, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Council of Canadians. The two organizations are campaigning against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The federal government and the European Union have spent the last few years negotiating the agreement and are hoping to sign it by January 1st, yet Canadians have heard little about it.
“Why has this gone under the radar screen for so long?” asked Maude Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians. “The Harper government does not want us doing what we’re doing tonight,” she said. “They don’t want us talking to each other and putting out fact sheets because they know when we find out what’s in these agreements, we’re not going to like them.”
Barlow says CETA could give multinational corporations the right to sue local and provincial governments that refuse to let them bid on local projects, effectively privatizing public services. It could also extend patent protection for brand-name prescription drugs — a move that would boost drug prices in Canada by an estimated $2.8 billion a year. There are other objections too.
“CETA is a grab for resources,” Barlow says. “The European Union is in a race with China to get at the remaining raw materials of the world and, as you know, we’re running out of absolutely everything from fish in the sea to old-growth forests, to minerals — you name it.”
The Council of Canadians and CUPE, led by national president Paul Moist, have been holding town hall meetings across Canada to organize opposition to the new trade agreement. CUPE has also produced an online comic book explaining the “top ten reasons CETA is bad for Canada.”
CETA about company rights, not free trade
In an online summary of the negotiations, the federal government says CETA is about economic cooperation and free trade, but Moist argues it's not really about free trade because most tariff barriers between Europe and Canada have already been reduced or eliminated. In return for easier access to European markets for Canadian raw materials, Moist says the Europeans are demanding the guaranteed right to bid on government procurements limiting the rights of provinces, municipalities and school boards to favour local suppliers over foreign ones.
The CUPE president maintains that CETA is an extension of previous free trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico that transferred well-paid manufacturing jobs out of Canada. “In 1988, when we signed the first free trade agreement,” he says, “20 percent of the jobs in our country were manufacturing jobs.” Today, he adds, only 10 percent of Canadian workers are employed in manufacturing and as a result, real wages have fallen over the last 25 years.
“There’s not a family in this room that doesn’t have somebody that’s under-employed or somebody that’s lost a job recently or somebody that’s employed in a very low-paying job through no fault of their own.”
A tale of two hospitals
Maude Barlow told the Halifax meeting that the government's real motives for pursuing an economic agreement with the European Union are ideological. She argued the Conservatives believe in giving big companies more rights and they also believe that governments at all levels should pursue more public-private partnerships in providing basic services and social programs. Barlow added the Conservatives are trying to use CETA as a lever to prevent the Europeans from classifying the Alberta Tar Sands as "dirty oil" and they're hoping the EU will drop its restrictions on Canadian genetically modified food crops.
As an example of what could happen if big European companies are given government procurement rights, Barlow told a story about two Ontario hospitals. She said the Kingston General decided to get its hospital food from a European company that employs 430,000 people and serves four billion meals a year, mostly to schools and hospitals.
"They put them in these vacuum-packed, heavy, heavy plastic and they don't need refrigeration and they can last for three weeks," she said. "The local farmers don't get to supply the Kingston General, the local workers, of course, have lost their jobs or will lose them through attrition." She added that the food is made in a plant in Mississauga and trucked about 300 kilometres to Kingston where it is heated before being fed to patients.
"Scarborough General has gone the exact opposite way." she said. "They say, 'we can bring in cheaper than that good local food made here, we can create jobs' and they've got a procurement stipulation that they will only take, wherever possible, local food and organic food and they are making wonderful food. I mean you want to check yourself into the Scarborough General just to eat the food," Barlow said as the audience laughed.
"If CETA is passed here's how it affects both. For the Scarborough General, they would not be allowed to have those procurement rules," Barlow said because, under CETA rules, the hospital could not discriminate against foreign suppliers. And if the Kingston General were to change its mind and try to follow the Scarborough example, she said, the hospital would have to pay compensation to the company.
Barlow expressed optimism that citizens can stop CETA even though the Harper Conservatives have a parliamentary majority. She noted that activists managed to block earlier agreements on global investment (MAI) and the integration of the North American economy (SPP).
"We know we have to get back to more local, sustainable production of our food and our goods," she said. "Nobody's saying there won't be trade. I eat bananas and I don't think we're going to grow them here anytime soon...It's not just about CETA, but it's about a model of unlimited growth that is killing the planet and creating deep inequality and we can stop it."