Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I'm grateful to you and the members of this committee for inviting me to comment on the free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia. It's a privilege for me to be here and to address members of the committee this afternoon.
Let me salute the presence today of Luis-Guillermo Plata, the Minister of International Trade of Colombia, and the ambassador of Colombia, His Excellency Jaime Giron Duarte. It's a pleasure for me to find myself in the presence of representatives of the Government of Colombia again.
I'm here today because of my previous experience and exposure to Colombia as ambassador of Canada to that country from 1987 to 1989. I also served in two neighbouring countries, Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as more recently in Mexico. Over the years I have therefore followed the evolution of our relations with Colombia and the situation in that country with great interest.
I'm also here because I've been exposed to our relations with Colombia as deputy minister of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa from 2000-03, when negotiations for a free trade agreement were first proposed and explored.
I'd like to say how pleased I am today to see that since then, negotiations have advanced and an agreement was signed in 2008, together with agreements on labour and environmental cooperation. I'm also pleased to see that a procedure has recently been negotiated that will allow regular assessments to be prepared on the impact of the agreement on the human rights situation in our respective countries.
These agreements will add to the panoply of instruments that have been put into place between our two countries over the years and that are now making our relations a dynamic partnership.
I'd like to note here that our relations with Colombia are extensive, ranging from trade and economic relations to political dialogue, development, and governance cooperation, immigration, security and police liaison, and cultural and academic exchanges.
I remember having discussed with President Barco and his collaborators several years ago how Canada and Colombia could strengthen their economic relations in the face of a growing interest on the part of our respective business communities. These discussions have been continued by my successors with the administrations of Presidents Gaviria, Samper, Pastrana, and now Uribe. All are friends of Canada with whom I've had the privilege of working and knowing personally.
When President Uribe first visited Canada as president-elect eight years ago, he and Prime Minister Chrétien agreed on the desirability of undertaking negotiations for an FTA between the two countries. I was present at that meeting. A process of consultation was then launched across Canada to verify that there was a favourable consensus. This later led to the initiation of exploratory talks and eventually to negotiations.
These negotiations were continued under the governments of Prime Minister Martin and subsequently Prime Minister Harper, when Canada concluded agreements with Colombia, Peru, and Panama, following agreements with Chile and Costa Rica a few years earlier. Negotiations were also advanced with several other countries in Central America and the Caribbean, not to mention agreements outside the western hemisphere.
There's no doubt in my mind that the Canada-Colombia agreement will bring considerable support to the economic actors concerned in both countries by eliminating or reducing tariffs and facilitating access for a whole range of products. In particular, it will help Canadian exporters of wheat, pulses, barley, paper products, heavy equipment, and services, as well as Colombian exporters of coffee, coal, flowers, and bananas, among other products. The agreement would also provide greater protection for corporations investing in our respective countries in areas like manufacturing, financial services, oil and gas, and mining.
At the same time, the FTA should help create economic opportunities, including jobs in both countries, and stimulate Colombia's economic development.
Colombia has made significant economic progress in recent years with a growth oscillating between 5% and 7% of GDP. This has led to a considerable improvement in socio-economic indicators. At the same time, this growth has offered important opportunities for the Canadian firms and workers involved in our export industries, and the agreement will help them in their pursuits.
I should note here that economic expansion in Colombia would not have been possible without a substantial improvement in the public safety situation due to initiatives by President Uribe to strengthen the security forces to provide greater security in cities and the countryside.
Colombia's prospects have also improved as a result of the significant effort of the Colombian government to reintegrate into the political process and civil society many of the elements that had been responsible for violent activities, notably the insurgents and paramilitary groups. Consequently, there has been a considerable reduction in the number of acts of violence in recent years, with benefits in terms of public peace, law and order, and including in the area of human rights.
Canada has been very much involved in this process by supporting a number of projects of the Colombian authorities to promote reconciliation, demobilization, reintegration, rehabilitation, and human rights. As a consequence, Colombia's political institutions have been reinforced, allowing the country to better pursue its tradition of electoral democracy, as the presidential elections to be held next month will further illustrate.
Challenges remain, of course, notably with respect to poverty and drug violence, but Colombia has made significant progress over the years in terms of what we would call in Canada, peace, order, and good government issues. Colombia is a more stable and prosperous country today than when I was ambassador there. I am confident that the FTA will help support these trends in the future. The FTA will also provide another instrument to build up the relationship and allow us to engage more fully with the Colombian authorities on a whole range of issues, including human rights.
Beyond the bilateral discussion, the FTA will give substance to the stated desire of Canada to engage more fully with its partners in the western hemisphere. Successive Canadian governments have taken initiatives to strengthen relations with the Americas, from the governments of Prime Ministers Trudeau and Mulroney to that of Prime Minister Harper, with a strategy of closer engagement launched four years ago.
As a result, thousands of Canadians are now engaged in that effort, from businessmen to academics to the NGO community, which is making a significant contribution in areas like development assistance and governance cooperation. The agreement will therefore help advance our broad interests, not only in the economic area but also with respect to our political security and development objectives.
With respect to Canada's trade policy, the FTA is another important step in the direction of a policy that has increasingly taken on bilateral and regional overtones in addition to a multilateral dimension. Most governments nowadays have an active bilateral agenda to supplement their negotiations in the framework of the World Trade Organization. There has been a proliferation of FTAs on all continents, as we have seen in Europe, where the European Union is at the centre of a network of partnerships, and in Asia, where numerous FTAs have been negotiated in the last decade. That is also true in the western hemisphere, where our partners in NAFTA, the United States and Mexico, have concluded FTAs with Colombia, among other countries.
Most countries of the Americas have in fact embarked on a series of bilateral and regional economic agreements leading to the emergence of new institutions, like the Union of South American Nations, and Latin American and Caribbean summits, to better coordinate their economic integration.
It is therefore important that Canada connect with these countries, particularly in the face of very strong competition, not only from our partners in the region, but also from Asia and Europe, with players like Japan, China, India, Spain, Germany, and France being very active.
There are many opportunities for Canada to seize in countries like Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, each with a substantial population and growing economy open to the world. We must therefore be equipped with the instruments that will allow us to have a policy of presence and be successful in the defence and promotion of Canadian interests.
Mr. Chairman, the agreement signed between Colombia and Canada will help us do that, and I would therefore strongly encourage the committee to ratify the agreement.
Thank you for your attention.