Lessons from the fight against CETA

Why has government ignored all information detailing the potential negative consequences of CETA and gleefully implemented legislation to activate it?

One time you could look after the little things and the big things would look after themselves,” Newfoundland activist Ken Kavanagh once said. “These days citizens need to think in reverse and pay attention to the big things.”

These words resonated with me Tuesday when the House of Commons passed Bill C-30, Canada’s legislation to implement CETA—the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Then, on Wednesday, 58 per cent of the members of the European Parliament voted to ratify the controversial trade agreement between Canada and the European Union (EU).

The treaty’s final implementation is contingent on all 28 EU countries individually accepting CETA, which will take a couple of years. However, in the meantime, 90 percent of CETA’s clauses could be provisionally applied as early as April 1 this year.

Two things are truly shocking about government’s eagerness to push through this agreement: the illusion of economic benefits that government continues to promote with glib one-liners, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the effect CETA will have on our democratic institutions and the ability to govern.

The illusion of economic benefits

“Good jobs. We know that trade leads to good middle-class jobs,” Justin Trudeau responded, when asked Wednesday how Canada would benefit from CETA.

Notice the prime minister doesn’t tell us where these good middle-class jobs will appear—classic neoliberal truthiness—while ignoring studies like the 2016 CCPA and Tufts University reports, which argue CETA will in fact lead to job losses and greater inequality.

The competitive advantage which the government claims will allow Canadian businesses to “outpace the competition” when trading with Europe is exaggerated misinformation. Canadian exports to the EU are modest; in 2016 Canada’s worldwide exports totalled about $521 billion, with $42 billion of that figure going to the EU, most of that in raw materials.

This is unlikely to change. According to a recent article in the Toronto Star, of the more than one million small and medium size businesses in Canada, only 10,000 actually export to countries other than the United States. Lower tariffs on exports to Europe simply don’t matter to 99 percent of Canadian businesses.

However, Canadian small and medium businesses will feel the impact of CETA in some very unpleasant ways. CETA forces governments, right down to the municipal level, to open up procurement to European corporations, a move that will harm local workers and businesses. Even the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement that all American presidential candidates rejected as harmful to the American economy, protected ‘buy local’ policies at the state level.

Those who have studied CETA can’t find a single, concrete way in which this trade agreement is going to benefit the real Canadian economy…

Then there is the long-term impact CETA may have on any privatization of public assets. It was very clear throughout the CETA negotiations that transnational corporations, backed by the big investment banks, were eager to get a piece of our national wealth: public auto insurance, liquor boards, water and waste water systems, airports, electricity production and transmission systems, postal services, and so much more.

The corporations may well succeed in their takeover plans. The Liberal government’s impending infrastructure bank will purportedly favour public-private partnerships (P3s) for the development of new projects, and the government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth has also recommended Ottawa privatize, in full or in part, some of its existing assets as a way of raising collateral to fund this initiative.

The investment chapter of CETA, with its recourse to investor-state lawsuits, will ensure that, once privatization takes place, there will be almost no ability to reclaim lost public assets.

Those who have studied CETA can’t find a single, concrete way in which this trade agreement is going to benefit the real Canadian economy—the economy of those million small and medium size businesses and the people they employ.

Either trade activists are just not bright enough to comprehend the “big picture”—which is, I’m sure, what government’s retort will be—or we “middle class” Canadians are all being very slickly conned.

CETA’s backdoor attack on our democratic institutions

Last fall, as a representative of Citizens against CETA, I presented our concerns about 21st century trade agreements to the International Trade Committee as it evaluated the pending TPP.  The committee had already received hundreds of briefs filled with facts and figures, and listened to countless presentations on the economic pitfalls of trade agreements—so there was no point in reiterating the same points.

Instead, Citizens against CETA focused on the impact trade agreements like the TPP and CETA would have on future governments’ ability to act in the public interest.

Gus Van Harten of Osgoode Law School explains in Canadian law “there is a democratic principle called the no-fettering rules that bars one elected government from making commitments to bind another,” but that this “principle does not exist in international law and an international agreement cannot be trumped by the laws of Canada.”

Renowned constitutional lawyer Rocco Galati states it a bit differently, saying CETA “puts the treaty above the constitution, private interests over the constitution. That’s what’s wrong with it.”

Van Harten and Galati both imply government, driven by ideology or corporate interests, can surreptitiously use a trade agreement—which falls under international law—to constrain future governments for decades. This can happen in a variety of ways. Trade agreements can focus on specific policies for elimination (such as ‘buy local’ legislation or Minimum Processing Requirements that protect local fish processing jobs), or they can strengthen corporate rights through regulatory fettering.

Who is looking out for democracy in Canada?

The International Trade Committee members’ responses to our presentation in St. John’s last year on the TPP and free trade was very revealing. Not one addressed the possible impact of trade agreements on democratic governance. It was as if our hypothesis simply didn’t exist.

Was this a display of cynical indifference by parliamentarians who didn’t care about the effects of trade agreements on democracy? I hope not. While I do believe policy emanating from the upper echelons of the Liberal Party and the PMO’s office is often dictated by the self-serving interests of big corporations and the elites behind them, I’m not ready to believe our elected MPs are so cynical about democracy.

I prefer to see them as overworked, underexposed to opposing viewpoints, and heavily pressured to adhere to their official party line. This week’s endorsement of CETA by Liberal and Conservative MPs in parliament is something I believe they will ultimately come to regret.  However, it could be argued elected officials’ complacency about the risks trade agreements pose to democratic governance is merely a reflection of democratic complacency in the greater public.

I’ve found it interesting that the Council of Canadians—the civil society organization that understands so clearly how our democratic institutions, our public services and our regulatory framework are under attack—chose to put so much of their anti-CETA efforts into talking to the Europeans. Did they sense, right from the start, that if CETA was to be stopped it would have to be Europeans and their parliaments, and not Canadians and the Canadian government?

For those in denial over the possibility democracy is so threatened by powerful corporations and the elites that control them, I endorse Ed Finn’s recent suggestion that we all read Joyce Nelson’s new book, Beyond Banksters, Resisting the New Feudalism, a powerfully documented account of how global forces are steadily usurping the democratic power of ordinary Canadians.

As for Citizens against CETA, we’ve come to the conclusion that our mistake has been in fighting CETA using facts and figures and research. Government’s response to our efforts has unfailingly been simplistic one-liners like CETA is a “gold standard trade agreement”. They really like that one.

In response, we’ve created an appropriate response…

Marilyn Reid writes from Conception Bay South. She is a member of Citizens against CETA and the Council of Canadians.

Get our weekly newsletter for in-depth reporting and analysis delivered straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. Have a question? Contact us or review our privacy policy for more information.


Sign up for our weekly Indygestion newsletter



Get our newsletter!

The weekly roundup from our editors brings you breaking news, top stories and an inside look at The Indy's work.


Please bookmark our website.

It takes three seconds, but it's important.

In response to the Online News Act, soon Canadians will no longer have access to news on Facebook or Instagram. Google also said it will remove links to Canadian news from Search, News and Discover & will cease operating Google News in Canada.


This will affect you. Don’t let Big Tech suppress the news. Make sure you still get the information you need to stay informed about the biggest issues in our province.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top