Prime Minister Stephen Harper and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso signed a free-trade accord last week. Now negotiations must proceed on a prickly side deal. Photo: Georges Gobet
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso signed a free-trade accord last week. Now negotiations must proceed on a prickly side deal. Photo: Georges Gobet

By Van Andruss —

On October 18, after four years of negotiations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, signed a “tentative” CETA agreement in Brussels. CETA stands for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and is said by Harper to be the biggest trade deal Canada has ever made, even bigger than NAFTA.

Typical of the Harper government, this enormously significant agreement was signed before anyone had a chance to view it. It is still obscure just what, on the whole, we are being committed to, but the following contents have leaked into view.

The main thrust of the deal is aimed at giving international corporations even greater powers over Canadian rules and regulations than they already possess under NAFTA. In effect, according to this deal, foreign corporations are to be treated equally as domestic companies in Canada, breaking down all former impediments to corporate domination. If you look into the matter, you find that CETA has very little to do with expanding “free trade” and everything to do with giving international corporations ever greater power to over-ride domestic authority.

Thus, we are being robbed of Canadian sovereignty by contracts to which we are not privy, which no sensible citizen would agree to sign, and which, if politicians were honest, would prevent them from ever being elected.

Below are some of the particulars:

Public Procurement. CETA will ban government at all levels from “buy local” policies as harmful to the level playing field urged by international corporations. As Murray Dobbins tells us in an article in Canadian Dimensions, “The procurement provisions – giving EU corporations unobstructed access to the public spending of municipalities, schools boards, hospitals, universities, and crown corporations – is especially threatening given the critical role such public spending plays in a time of virtually zero private investment. The strategic use of public spending for economic development and support for local businesses or sectors (such as green energy) would also be effectively banned. Others worry that if the EU gets its procurement deal, the US will want similar treatment—an even greater threat given its proximity to Canada.”

Under this new procurement regime, the privatization of local services becomes far more likely: water, electricity, transit, medical services, postal service, all manner of social services. Huge water companies like Nestle, Veolia Environment, and Suez are rubbing their hands in anticipation.

On the other hand, in bold contrast to Canada’s part, the European Union has negotiated a blanket exemption to protect their water, energy, and public services, including health care. Why don’t we get the same?

Pharmaceuticals. As part of the deal, European pharmaceutical corporations, already immensely wealthy, are seeking to extend their monopolies on patent drugs, delaying for an even longer term the introduction of cheaper generic drugs for Canadian citizens. On the other hand, there is no indication that the EU will make any changes to its own patent system. This delay alone is estimated to cost our economy from $800 million to $1.6 million annually. Making under-the-table deals is bad enough but making bad deals is even worse. And what has patent extensions got to do with free trade anyway?

Investor Rights. This term refers to giving foreign corporations based in Canada the right to sue our government for public policies that affect the maximization of their profits. Already Canada is facing nearly $2.5 billion worth of corporate lawsuits under NAFTA’s investment protection chapter, including one from an oil and gas company against Quebec’s moratorium on fracking and another against Canada by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, demanding a $100 million for “expropriation” because the courts refused to grant a drug patent—and this on the grounds it did not satisfy conditions set down by Canadian law. Rather than free trade, the Investor State Settlement Process is more about the elimination of public interest policies instituted to protect consumer, health, safety, privacy, and environmental values.

By the same negative token, Canadian companies will not hesitate to sue Europe for completely legitimate public decisions, for example, instituting regulations for mining companies, or stricter environmental rules qualifying the sales of oil and gas.

In all official discussion of CETA, two issues are conspicuously missing. One is the Environment issue and the other is Native Rights. Already NAFTA, plus the Omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45, and the suppression of science in the ministries, have seriously hampered our ability to respond with intelligence to environmental changes.

By now it would be tiresome to labour the point that the natural world is in decline. You can no longer read about wild animals to your children without warning of their impending extinction. Soon enough, we are told the ocean will be dead from acidification, and what’s left on land, besides humans, will be insects, dogs, cats, and farm animals spawned under factory conditions. Global warming is threatening to eliminate even these. Yet, all we hear from Stephen Harper in his cheery speech celebrating CETA is a $12 billion boost to our economy and the 100,000 cars a year Canadian automakers will export to Europe (hopefully burning tar sands oil).

But we all know there’s no wisdom in putting dollars over health, over life.

Native issues, consultation, and land development rights, do not arise in CETA’s consciousness. Indigenous people simply don’t exist in a landscape of Big Money. Neither, apparently, does the Canadian Parliament whose opinions are not solicited and for whom there is no opportunity for debate.

The question, then, arises: what can be done to block this diabolical plan?

Again, Murray Dobbins is informative. We are reminded that Harper “is constrained in what he can do by the constitutional division of powers which gives the provinces so much political authority. The really big social items on the political agenda – health, education, social services – are matters of provincial jurisdiction. To be sure, he can severely damage all of these by destroying the decades-old principle of universality and by slashing federal funding. But he can’t get rid of them. The provinces also have a mandate on protecting the environment and regarding labour rights, and most working Canadians are in sectors that come under provincial jurisdiction. Lastly, the third level of government (the municipality) is also a creature of the provinces. While municipalities depend on the federal government for financial help, Ottawa has no political authority over them.”

Since Neo-liberal provincial governments have regularly shown obedience to the federal government, their opposition to CETA is undependable. Only municipal governments have shown strong resistance. Thanks to the good work of the Council of Canadians, some 80 municipalities have called either for complete exclusion or passed resolutions expressing concern. Most of these are in BC and Ontario and include large populations like Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, and Victoria.

As for opposition to CETA by the general public, no one can predict how that will go. As it happens, we are neither informed nor consulted on issues pertaining to important economic affairs. Besides, most of us are so wrapped up in the scramble to service our debts and eke a little fun out of life we lack the surplus energy to assert our broader interests.

The CETA agreement is not a done deal. It’s a “tentative” agreement and despite Harper’s and Barroso’s signatures, it will need ratification. Even so it will not come into force until 2015. The least we can demand is that the agreement be made public. Contact your MP and your MLA and insist that he or she obtain, by whatever means, the full text and proceed to educate their constituency as to its pros and cons.

For the contents of this essay, I have depended largely on the Council of Canadians ( and Murray Dobbin’s article, “CETA: Can Harper’s Trojan Horse be Stopped?” (

Van Andruss is editor of the magazine Lived Experience. He enjoys the bioregional life and community in historic Moha outside of Lillooet, B.C


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