Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-4, an act to amend the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act. Notwithstanding its vague and somewhat misleading title, this is a relatively simple bill. It refers to the so-called side agreements to the North American free trade agreement.
On March 15, in the debate on the Canadian foreign policy review process, I commented as follows, and I quote:
It is important to point out that this globalization is an inescapable phenomenon. It is a tendency which affects the economy of all countries, whether they are G-7 members or developing nations. To try to escape this reality would be like ignoring the emergence of new means of communication and production; in other words, it would be tantamount to ignoring the changes that have occurred in our economic environment.
I also stated the following:
-trade liberalization and market globalization seem to be a trend, an irreversible phenomenon. The prosperity of nations will depend more and more on international trade. It is a fact that will be part of Canada's economic reality from now on.
It is therefore not surprising that developments took us so quickly from the initial signing of the free trade agreement between Canada and the United States to the signing of the North American free trade agreement.
I was in Washington yesterday with several Canadian colleagues to meet members of the U.S. steel caucus and to discuss the need for our governments to provide formal recognition of the fact that the North American steel market is already well on its way to being integrated.
We also had an opportunity to meet representatives of the Canadian and U.S. steel industry who shared with us their concerns and expectations.
Representatives of the American Iron and Steel Institute, which includes most Canadian, American and Mexican steel mills, gave us, for our information, a press release published on July 8, 1992, in which the North American Steel Council, which is a member of the American Iron and Steel Institute, explained its position on NAFTA.
One paragraph of this press release was about the concerns shared by all members of the American Iron and Steel Institute, and I would like to read this very briefly, if I may, Mr. Speaker.
"On the interplay between the NAFTA and the environment the NASC's Canadian, Mexican and U.S. members share common concerns. We support continued parallel talks by our governments on environmental standards and enforcement levels, as well as on other so-called social issues as worker health and safety standards".
Reflecting the concerns shared by a substantial part of the U.S. public, U.S. President Bill Clinton made a commitment to negotiate and conclude side agreements on these two items before NAFTA was passed by Congress. After hasty negotiations, the three partners on September 14, 1993, signed two parallel agreements to NAFTA: the North American agreement on environmental co-operation between the governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico, and the North American agreement on labor co-operation, between the same three governments.
These side agreements gave rise to two new international institutions, namely the commission for environmental co-operation and the commission for labor co-operation.
Incidentally, several days ago, the government announced that the NAFTA commission for environmental co-operation would be established in Montreal. The English-language media and some other interested parties immediately criticized the government's choice, although it was quite logical and justified.
Need we repeat that Quebec is the only Canadian province which has promised to endorse the parallel accords on labour and the environment-but only, I wish to point out-after serious negotiations between Quebec and Ottawa?
The reasons that Quebec wants so much to be at the leading edge of international trade practices could not be more obvious: Quebec exports almost 16 per cent of its $160 billion GDP and these exports account for 30 per cent of our jobs. Furthermore, 76 per cent of Quebec's exports go to the United States.
Establishing the commission in a place that is hostile to its purpose would certainly not make for efficient operation. In addition, the government's choice is justified because Montreal is an international city which is already home to some 30 international organizations, including ICAO and IATA. The various levels of government have made great efforts to attract international organizations to Montreal.
Finally, Montreal is a cosmopolitan city which has the infrastructure needed for such organizations. It has a large English-speaking community and Spanish is increasingly spoken there every day by a rapidly growing Hispanic community.
For all these reasons and many more, Quebec's business community and politicians were right to lobby hard to have the commission for environmental co-operation located in Montreal.
That said, I do not intend to say any more on the commission for environmental co-operation and the commission for labor co-operation than Bill C-4 itself does.
To see what this bill is all about, it is first of all necessary to put it in perspective. It then becomes apparent that it partially meets some very worthy overall objectives, since it ultimately seeks to protect the rights of our working people as well as our natural sites and our environment.
As I said earlier, Bill C-4 seeks to make effective in Canada the provisions contained in the parallel accords concluded by the three NAFTA signatory countries on labour and the environment. As a document prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade says, these parallel accords encourage cooperation between Canada, the United States and Mexico on the environment and labour; commit the parties to promote compliance with and enforcement of their environmental and labour laws and regulations; and advocate higher standards in these two areas.
For at least two centuries, workers in Quebec and Canada have fought for laws to protect themselves from abuse by employers and governments. These struggles were hard and at times bitter. Nevertheless, workers succeeded in having their rights entrenched in laws which, in a sense, are now an integral part of life in Quebec and Canada; however, such is not the case in all countries. For social or historic reasons, workers' rights have not advanced at the same rate and in the same way everywhere.
Need we add that this is also true of the environment, where the gains made are even more fragile? Indeed, although the progress made in labour relations is fairly well established, this is certainly not true of environmental protection, where too often and even recently we have seen governments bow to the laws of the market, to the detriment of the laws of nature.
At any rate, at the 1992 earth summit, there was certainly no great show of unfailing willingness on the part of NAFTA partners to work together to solve their environmental problems. Under no circumstances must trade agreements between countries, however substantial they may be, adversely affect either the vested rights of our workers or our environment.
I am convinced however that certain fly-by-night businesses have tried to use the elimination of trade barriers to explain to their workers and the authorities the relaxation of labour and biophysical environment protection standards.
That is why the NAFTA side deals provide for mechanisms ultimately intended, on the one hand, to prevent businesses from taking advantage of legal differences between countries and, on the other hand, to force governments to maintain and enforce existing legislation and, ideally, encourage the various countries to pass legislation that is yet more progressive and stringent. Any downgrading of working conditions and labour standards will not be tolerated by the Bloc Quebecois, nor by the people of Quebec and Canada.
Of course, the temptation is there to restore a number of trade barriers or at least to adopt once again a negative attitude toward free trade as an easy way to solve the problem. And some provincial governments seem to like the idea. However, neither the current federal government nor the Bloc Quebecois, nor the government of Quebec for that matter, consider that approach to be realistic or beneficial.
For now, Bill C-4 appears to be a step toward the ultimate goal of preventing environmental and social "dumping" in cases where trading partners are on a very unequal footing in economic and legislative terms. Note that such an approach has created pitfalls that governments must avoid at all costs, but I will comment on that later on.
Bill C-4 enables a panel, an arbitration panel convened under article 24 of the environmental co-operation agreement or article 29 of the labor co-operation agreement to require either partner to effectively enforce its own environmental or labour laws.
Panel determinations will have the same status as an order of the Federal Court. As indicated in the explanatory notes, the enactment of Bill C-4 "amends the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act so as to permit domestic enforcement by the Federal Court of Canada of any panel determination that is addressed to the Crown in right of Canada", should the latter fail to enforce its environmental or labour legislation.
In other words, Bill C-4 is a step in the right direction in that it prevents the legislative gap between the three NAFTA signatories from widening further. If Canadian businesses decide to set up abroad, it will not be in hope of benefiting from some relaxation of environmental standards or of being able to exploit a poorly protected labour force. The contrary is also possible, but the chances of that happening are much slimmer, believe me.
Mr. Speaker, as you can see, the disparity between our three countries' social and environmental standards is in no way expected to increase as a result of such a measure. On the contrary, under article 3 of each side deal, the three signatory states agree to improve and strengthen existing legislation. In the event of non-compliance, the panel may assess the party in default, through an order of the Federal Court, a fine of up to $20 million US. The United States and Mexico could even have trade sanctions taken against them, while no such sanctions can be taken against Canada or any of its provinces under the agreement.
All in all, however, I would say that the positive aspects of this bill tend to eclipse the less positive ones. The first of these not-so-positive aspects of this middle-of-the-road solution that Canada has given its support to is no doubt the fact that the side deals have achieved no significant reduction in the observable legislative differences between the three NAFTA partners with respect to environment and labour.
This means that businesses could be tempted to take advantage of the fact that, in many cases, our trading partners' standards are more flexible than ours.
Admittedly, all parties expressed their willingness to improve their legislation, but this expression of faith, although noted in the agreement and seemingly sincere, is no guarantee whatsoever that positive changes will in fact occur.
Moreover, we are all becoming better acquainted with the legendary propensity of our neighbours to the South to turn to the courts at the slightest little thing. Following the signing of the free trade agreement, Canadians were surprised indeed to see the Americans rush to the trade tribunals, apparently to tie them up with business as quickly as possible. Since they have not been shy about doing so since the implementation of the free trade agreement, there is reason to think that they will adopt the same course of action, if at all possible, in the case of the NAFTA and its side agreements.
Therefore, it is vitally important that we make our partners understand that this kind of practice is totally unacceptable. Special groups that hand down binding decisions must not become, quite involuntarily at that, institutions at the service of one NAFTA partner or another.
Another of the problems caused by these side agreements has to do with the unique features of Canadian federalism. Regardless of what this centralist government may believe, labour and environment are largely areas of provincial jurisdiction.
While Ottawa disregarded Quebec's willingness to negotiate agreements in the case of the free trade agreement, it is hardly in a position here to take a similar approach in the case of side agreements. Discussions are in progress right now between federal and Quebec officials. According to the information we have received thus far, these discussions appear to be moving along well.
The same apparently cannot be said for the other provinces. From the very beginning, Ontario and British Columbia have made no secret of their opposition to all side agreements. To show its discontent, Ontario has threatened on several occasions to ask the Supreme Court to declare the government's actions in this matter unconstitutional.
Side agreements which for now apply only in areas of federal jurisdiction are not likely to apply to all provinces equally anytime soon.
If our partners did not understand the nature, or should I say the confused nature, of the Canadian federation, well now is certainly their chance to get a clearer picture of the situation. Although they have expressly stated that they would like the federal government to conclude agreements with the provinces, their wish does not seem to have been universally heard.
Regardless, Mr. Speaker, we will enthusiastically support this bill in view of the arguments presented and the underlying principles which gave rise to it.