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Trading Away Our Own Freedom – Sunday column, April 10, 2011

Posted on Apr 11, 2011

We already have plenty of reasons to send the Harper government packing. Its policies on crime, war, energy and the environment would make a brontosaurus blush. While preaching austerity to its citizens, it blows billions on planes, prisons and corporate handouts. It is the only government in the Commonwealth ever to be held in contempt of Parliament. It prefers ideology to information, ignores the rulings of the Supreme Court, and would rather crush or smear its critics than debate their ideas.

Once an apostle of openness, Stephen Harper has created the most secretive, sly government in our history. Elected by a minority of Canadians, Harper is re-engineering the country in a way that most Canadians don’t like.

And there’s worse to come.

This government is overseeing negotiations that will allow its corporate friends to reach deep into the affairs of provinces and municipalities, forcing all levels of government to obey the dictates of international corporations.

To understand this, go to Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows foreign corporations to sue national governments for purely imaginary losses as a result of perfectly legal government actions, including provincial actions. Such suits are heard not by the courts but by trade tribunals completely separate from any nation’s legal system.

Recently, for instance, AbitibiBowater sued Canada because the government of Newfoundland expropriated the bankrupt corporation’s local assets after the closure of its last Newfoundland mill. The province paid compensation for the mills, mines and other property – but not for the company’s rights to the Crown’s water and timber. Nor should they have.

“Such natural resources are the property of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” explains Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The company didn’t own those resources; it had been given access to them on the understanding that the company would “develop the resources productively, in a manner that benefits the public. After it closed its last mill in the province, AbitibiBowater could no longer fulfill its part of that social contract.”

So the company sued, and the Harper government didn’t defend Newfoundland’s decision before the  NAFTA tribunal. Instead it settled, ponied up $130 million, and served notice that in future, it would seek to recover such costs from the offending provinces. This is no small threat, since six of the seven pending claims against Canada result from provincial actions, including Nova Scotia’s well-considered rejection of the basalt quarry on Digby Neck. The Harper government evidently intends to settle the claim without a fight, and send the bill to Nova Scotia. We could be forced to compensate the owners of the imaginary quarry and perhaps even to allow it to proceed.

Rarely have we seen a government so openly colluding with corporations against their own people. Worse yet, this government is eagerly pursuing a whole series of such free trade agreements, including CETA, a massive agreement with the European Union which is due to be signed by the end of this year.

CETA, say its opponents, will allow foreign corporations to block local environmental and economic initiatives. A provincial local-purchasing policy would be unfair competition, for instance. CETA could be used to prevent farmers from saving their own seeds, and it could force cities to sell their water systems to multinational water companies. Indeed, any kind of public service could be attacked as an illegitimate intrusion in the market, including healthcare, transit, childcare, and education.

The provinces will not easily accept the loss of much of their power to legislate in areas that are clearly in provincial jurisdiction. What the Harperites are setting up, says Scott Sinclair, is “a constitutional train wreck in slow motion.” They are not doing it reluctantly, either; they are enthusiastically seeking to impose an appalling level of corporate control over all of our lives.

This is one world, and yes, there should be rules to govern trade. But this is free trade only in the sense of trading away our freedom. The ultimate goal of these agreements is to re-fashion the whole world to serve corporations and enrich the handful of people that own them.

The Harperites are eagerly advancing that agenda. Shouldn’t that be an issue in this election?

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