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Editorial: Canada can’t blink on Free Trade

Trade barrier
Trade barrier

As talks started this week to “modernize” the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council is warning that this region has a lot at stake.

It’s something regional governments and businesses know full well. Atlantic Canada exported $19 billion of goods to the U.S. last year, about 75 per cent of its merchandise. Close to 100,000 jobs in this region depend on exports to the U.S., about eight per cent of total employment. The Atlantic provinces send much less to Mexico — about $102 million worth of goods in 2016.

Exports of seafood, agricultural products, lumber, natural gas and oil are important economic generators for Atlantic Canada.

So, any Canadian setbacks at the negotiating table will be deeply felt here.

But there’s a sense that Canadian negotiators might not be as concerned with Atlantic regional issues as they should be.

The United States is preoccupied with auto exports, B.C. softwood lumber and western oil, so understandably it’s those areas are dominating the attention of Canada’s NAFTA team. Let’s hope they don’t forget about the rest of us.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has clearly stated that talks must ensure a more equitable spread of economic benefits, or else Canadians will lose faith in free trade and globalization.

While many involved with NAFTA are preoccupied with exports, imports, deficits and surpluses — and they are, without doubt, important — Freeland argues that the people with the most at risk are ordinary Canadians.

The minister says there are too many communities in this prosperous nation where people do not feel prosperous, where they instead feel left behind by an economy that is increasingly divided between the wealthy one per cent at the very top, and everyone else. Without immediate action, Canadians could lose faith in our open society, in immigration, and in free trade — just as many people have across the industrialized Western World. She really means the United States and Britain.

A new NAFTA needs to be more progressive with safeguards for labour, enhanced provisions for protecting the environment, gender rights and improved relations with Indigenous peoples. Those issues are important to Canada, even if they don’t rank highly with President Donald Trump and his team.

Trump, with so many domestic and foreign policy failures on his record, is desperate to win with NAFTA and appease his supporters. He’s made bold promises, and the opening statements Wednesday from the American side were belligerent and threatening. There’s no tweaking on the U.S. agenda; it’s more like a massive overhaul.

Trump has told Americans health care is complicated, as he tried to explain his failures in replacing Obamacare.

Well, NAFTA is complicated as well. There will be months of tough negotiations.

Canada must stand firm.

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