Mr. Speaker, this is a pretty minor treaty. It is not a large bill by any means. The trade between Canada and Panama is fairly limited, some might even say “insignificant“. Certainly when compared with the daily trade between Canada and the U.S., it is not significant at all.
However, as a proposition, these treaties are important because they establish a legal framework, particularly with the reduction of tariffs and the freeing-up of trade. They are the beginning of the establishment of a legal framework for contractual relationships between countries and between corporations and persons. They are a small step in international law. However microscopic the steps might be, as a general proposition, it is a good idea to enter into these trade agreements. Members of the Bloc, my party and the NDP have rightly criticized the modesty of the agreement. That is what I wish to talk about while I have time in the House.
The side agreements with respect to labour and the environment are at least a step in the right direction. They are rather modest, hardly robust, but a step toward developing a legal framework between the two nations.
Last Wednesday I had the good fortune of listening to a lecture by Mr. Justice Ian Binnie at the University of Ottawa law school. His starting point was that if there is going to be an international economy, as there is, as nations trade more with each other and if they are to have economic relationships with each other, we must have and continue to develop our legal relationships with each other. In other words, at some point, somehow, somewhere, people who have grievances need to be able to redress them in some fashion or other, regardless of the merits. Frankly, I agree with Mr. Justice Ian Binnie, as I am sure you would, Mr. Speaker, that there is quite a gap between the development of economic relationships and the development of legal relationships.
A treaty is a modest step. As members may know, I was the sponsor of Bill C-300, which was a modest attempt to bring to Canadian corporations a degree of accountability with respect to their funding received from the government and the people of Canada.
It was ironic to me that the proponents of this Panama treaty were simultaneously very vigorously opposed to Bill C-300, when in fact all of this is the creation of a larger legal environment so that relations between people and corporations might be properly regulated. Had the government embraced Bill C-300 and, possibly, other forms of engendering corporate social responsibility, a treaty such as this might actually have been an easier pill to swallow for those who are opposed to treaties as a general proposition.
I want to quote Justice Binnie. He stated:
It is beyond question that companies have the ability to significantly influence human rights around the world for good or for ill. Sometimes influence implies obligation. In light of mounting evidence of “corporate complicity” in human rights abuses, there is, at the very least, an obligation upon the legal community—
—and I would add, upon the parliamentary community—
—to clarify the obligations of transnational companies as a matter of national and international civil and criminal law.
He then favourably cited John Ruggie and the work that he has been doing at the United Nations.
The big issue is access to justice. I do not profess to be an expert on Panamanian law, but as a general proposition I can say that the access to justice and the satisfaction one might receive from a court in a developing country is somewhat less than satisfactory.
It is quite clear that a lot of these courts are not robust, that corruption is rife, and that people seeking redress for very legitimate claims, be they regarding human rights abuses or forms of civil remedy, be they regarding environmental degradation or expropriation, do not receive satisfaction. From time to time it is Canadian corporations that are involved in these human rights abuses and there is no place for the individual to go.
If a Panamanian had a complaint with a Canadian company and wished to sue in a Canadian court, that individual would be precluded from doing so by the rule called forum non conveniens. It is a simple concept. Regardless of the merits of the individual's claim, regardless of how aggrieved the individual might be, regardless of the quantum of the individual's damages, that individual is cut off from access to Canadian courts by virtue of the fact that Canadian courts will say they are not the place in which the individual can sue for that particular grievance.
We do not have to reinvent the wheel. We could quite easily insert into a treaty such as this one the ability to modify in certain circumstances this rule of common law so that Panamanians in this particular instance would have access to Canadian courts so that they too could receive justice and redress from Canadian corporations.
I refer again to Mr. Justice Ian Binnie who said that a very practical level, domestic law reform is needed if domestic courts are to play a useful role in remedying international human rights abuses. He said:
For example, statutes of limitation are often unduly strict on their face or as interpreted and applied; statutory and common law obstacles to corporate veil-piercing exist and these may inappropriately shield parent companies from liability in respect of subsidiaries. There can be inordinate difficulty establishing...jurisdiction (especially where liberal use is made of the doctrine of forum non conveniens).
Justice Binnie said that in some cases there will be a good reason to limit or deny the possibility of civil recovery. However, as a general matter the state duty to protect means that a concerted effort be made to eliminate barriers to recovery that are unnecessary or arbitrary in their operation.
It is a pity that the government did not take this opportunity to open up a justice system on both sides which would allow Panamanians and Canadians access to a justice system which has some opportunity of receiving redress not only for states but for individuals and for corporations. The reason this is important is that not only does it affect the individual potential litigants, those who have been on the receiving end of human rights abuses, but it also affects us as Canadians and our reputation abroad.
I regret to say that our reputation in the last number of years has not been enhanced by the activities of some Canadian mining companies. I can literally take members on a world tour, from Mexico to Guatemala to Honduras to Peru to Venezuela to Colombia, over to various African countries, et cetera. In all of these instances people in those countries are alleged to have had some grievance with Canadian companies. There is no effective remedy for those grievances. For better or for worse, the Conservative government has cut those folks off from having access.
This could have been an opportunity to open up a legal system that is fair and just and one where there would be an opportunity for people to receive redress. Regrettably, the government chose not to do that and that is to our detriment and ultimately to the detriment of our national reputation which has been suffering around the world.
In conclusion, I see this as a minor treaty, but I also see it as an opportunity lost.