OTTAWA – Opposition parties’ public fretting over aspects of the newly revised North American free-trade deal – a pact tweaked this week to win American lawmakers’ support – suggests the agreement’s path to ratification might not be smooth.
The Liberal government’s minority status in the House of Commons means the party must find support from across the political aisle to implement the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
A day after agreeing to additional provisions tacked onto a trade deal first signed a year ago, the Liberals were at once trying to fulfil the desires of their trading allies to get it approved quickly in Parliament while also vowing to have talks with the Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrats about moving the necessary legislation through.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he gave a personal promise to U.S. President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that the Canadian ratification process will proceed as fast as possible.
The House of Commons is only scheduled to sit until the end of this week and then MPs are not expected to return until the end of January, leaving a shrinking window for the process to begin in 2019, in tandem with American legislators’ plans.
“We’re looking at that right now, we’re looking at the remaining days in the calendar,” Trudeau said, “but I have assured both the president of the United States and the president of Mexico, personally, that we will proceed with ratification as quickly as we can.”
But he later acknowledged his minority government will mean the process in Canada may not move as fast at that in the other two countries.
Democrats in the U.S. have suggested they will introduce the required legislation in Congress before lawmakers leave for a winter break on Dec. 20. Mexico’s legislature had approved the previous version of the treaty but must vote again given the updates to labour and environmental standards negotiators finalized this week in Mexico City.
The deal must be ratified by the legislature in each country before it takes effect.
Conservatives and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh were tight-lipped about whether they would support the government’s efforts, but both parties expressed concerns about the deal, as it then stood, during the fall federal election campaign. Many wanted to see the text of the changes agreed to Tuesday before deciding one way or the other.
“The devil is in the details,” said Quebec Conservative MP Gerard Deltell, adding later: “We have to see what is the impact of that deal on the economy of Canada.”
Singh said his concern was that Trudeau seems bent on ramming through ratification of an agreement made better for workers because of concerns from congressional Democrats in the U.S. and not because of efforts from the Canadian government.
“The work that the Democrats in the United States were doing was basically to take those protections and make them enforceable and that’s what it seems like has been achieved.”
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, whose party seemed the most likely to be the Liberals’ parliamentary dance partner for ratification, threatened on Wednesday to vote against implementing the deal over concerns about damage to Quebec’s aluminum industry.
“I couldn’t look Quebecers in the face and vote yes to that,” he said.
Quebec’s premier lamented that the deal’s rules for aluminum and steel content in cars weren’t what he was hoping for to protect his province’s industry. Still, Francois Legault favoured green-lighting the agreement, which would let his province send as much aluminum as it wants to the U.S.
“The agreement has to be signed despite that. But it disappoints me to see we succeeded in getting gains for steel, but not aluminum,” he said on a visit to California.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she relayed industry concerns to U.S. President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator after the signing ceremony Tuesday in Mexico City. The new deal, with its rules giving preferential tariff treatment to cars made with North American steel and aluminum, would be good for Canada and Quebec, Freeland said as she made the case for cross-party support.
The government has offered detailed briefings to opposition critics, Freeland said.
“This is a good deal. The United States has found a domestic path to ratification and it’s now time, I believe, that it is absolutely in the Canadian national interest to get this deal done,” she said.
Speaking in his Toronto riding earlier Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the deal “makes sense” and would provide businesses with confidence to invest in Canada. He also said the government will provide an update on the state of the economy and federal finances by Christmas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2019.
– With files from Stephanie Levitz, Teresa Wright and Morgan Lowrie