Mr. Speaker, I am rising today to speak to Bill C-24 on Canada-Panama trade.
However, earlier today I was up on my feet talking about Bill C-7 on Senate reform. I know we have moved on, but during the debate on Bill C-7 I pointed out that I was hard pressed to name the senators from Nova Scotia and noted that they were politically absent from the scene in Nova Scotia. I received an email from a constituent who was at home watching. He wrote:
Excellent points. Here's a note: since 2008 I have been periodically emailing Nova Scotia Senators...in relation to various political, environmental, or other issues. If memory serves me correctly, in those four years I've never received a response from any of them. I've never met any of them. You're right: they're absent from the Nova Scotia political landscape.
I know it is off topic, but it is the same day and I am hoping for a little latitude on this.
Getting back to Bill C-24, I would love to give a little shout out to Meghan Lawson who is working in my office through the parliamentary internship program. She has helped me greatly in doing research on the bill and for this speech.
I am pleased to rise today to speak to this piece of legislation. As with many other pieces of Conservative legislation, the title of the bill tries to paint a pretty rosy picture of a quite troubling proposal. The bill's long name is an act to implement the free trade agreement between Canada and the Republic of Panama, the agreement on the environment between Canada and the Republic of Panama and the agreement on labour cooperation between Canada and the Republic of Panama, otherwise known as the Canada–Panama economic growth and prosperity act and the protecting Panamanians from childhood predators act. That last part may not be part of the title, but the point is that we have a short title painting a rosy picture of something that just does not exist.
It is a very worrying piece of legislation. I think it jeopardizes Canadian growth and overlooks distressing concerns when it comes to Panama's record on environmental issues and workers' rights. We will hear this as a theme in many NDP speeches, because those are two things that we hold dear to our heart: the planet and the rights of people who are working. It is about the rights of the environment and the rights of people.
We think that Canada's trade policy should be based on the principles of fair, sustainable and equitable trade. Canada should build trading partnerships with other countries that support the principles of social justice and human rights while also expanding our business and economic opportunities.
If we just pursue these NAFTA-style deals, we are adopting legislation with a one-size-fits-all mentality. They overlook the fact that some of these countries we are negotiating with are not on the same footing, which is the situation here: Canada and Panama are not on the same footing.
We are taking the NAFTA template designed to function between large industrialized nations and are applying it to Panama, a global south community or a “developing nation”. Instead of helping Panama to grow in a sustainable way, this trade deal is really just about benefiting big multinational corporations. It would actually promote further inequity and inequality within Panama. Instead of these shortsighted bilateral deals, we need multinational trade deals that are going to benefit all trading partners both now and in the future.
As I pointed out, bilateral trade deals usually favour the dominant players. They facilitate a degree of predatory access by large corporations to less powerful domestic economies, in this case Panama, not us. If this legislation passes, we risk failing not only countless Canadian workers but also countless workers and families in Panama. They will be subject to increased inequality, and possibly a decreased quality of life.
According to the UN, a third of Panama's population lives in poverty.
Some of my colleagues discussed testimony that was submitted to committee by witnesses. Teresa Healy, a senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress, appeared before the Standing Committee on International Trade this past December and gave some interesting testimony. She stated:
[Panama]...is currently recording relatively high growth rates, but it is the second most unequal society in the region: 40% of the population is poor and 27% is extremely poor, and the rate of extreme poverty is particularly acute in indigenous populations. Although the country has endured extensive structural adjustment, liberalization, and privatization in recent years, this has not translated into economic benefits for the population.
We need trade deals that promote sustainable growth for all partners, not ones that put big business before people. Remember that tag line, “big business before people”, because I will shortly talk about a company in Nova Scotia that specifically talks about people and the planet before profits.
The glaring shortfalls of this trade deal do not actually stop there. Although Panama refuses to sign a tax information exchange agreement, the Conservative government is still going ahead with this deal. This is really troubling considering the large amount of money laundering that takes place in Panama, including money from drug trafficking, as we know. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Panama is a major financial conduit for Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers' money laundering activities. Both local and international corruption watchdogs also rank Panama really low in terms of its transparency.
Panama's complete lack of taxation transparency has even led the OECD to label the nation a tax haven. As another parentheses about tax havens, we have recently seen the U.S. trying to crack down on tax havens. It loses about $100 billion a year to offshore tax evasion and avoidance. Canada loses about a tenth of that or $10 billion a year. The U.S. is trying to crack down on these tax havens by making sure that people are tax compliant and introducing new legislation like FATCA, for example. The problem is that they are actually scooping up the wrong people. They are not going after the folks who are tax avoiders or are ferreting off this money and trying to hide it, but are hitting ordinary citizens, like ordinary Canadians.
In my riding of Halifax, there are many people who have immigrated to Canada from the U.S. and are dual citizens, as well as people who are American by accident, whose parents were American citizens and whose offspring are therefore considered American citizens for tax purposes. They did not know they had to file taxes over all these years and are now finding out that they may face tens of thousands of dollars' worth of fines. The phone was ringing off the hook in my constituency office from these folks calling and saying that they were scared, too scared to find out what their rights were and too scared to find out if they are considered U.S. citizens and do not know what to do.
As a result, we held an information session on rights and filing obligations, how the amnesty works, and those kinds of things. Myta Blacklaws in my Halifax office organized this information session. We booked a room for 60 people but when we managed to fit 125 people into that room, we started putting people into a second room. It was unbelievable. It was standing rooms only, as it were. This information session was led by a woman named Blair Hodgman, an immigration lawyer, and some tax accountants were also present.
It is really stressing people. People are scared and under a lot of pressure. Yet the NDP has been asking the Conservative government to take action to start discussions with the U.S. about what is going on, why regular folks are being penalized and that this is not what we are going after with the tax haven legislation, that this is not the intended effect and that we should be reasonable.
We have not seen action from the government on this issue. I know it is the opposite situation that we have in Panama with tax havens, but the track record on tax havens by the government has been pretty appalling, so I cannot imagine that it is going to try to enact anything when it comes to Panama as well.
Anyone who has been in the House for any period of time knows my colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster and his passion for international trade and for fair trade. He has spoken to this many times in the House. He has done a lot of dedicated work on many pieces of international trade legislation and free trade deals, including this one. He actually proposed that the Canada--Panama trade agreement not be implemented until Panama agreed to sign a tax information exchange agreement. That sounds reasonable. We can do that. We can say that Panama only gets this if it does something. We can offer up a good faith piece that we can work with.
My colleague brought this up I think at committee. His motion was defeated by the Conservatives and the Liberals who argued that the double taxation agreement that Panama agreed to was satisfactory. The problem with the double taxation agreement is it only tracks legal income. We heard that Panama has some pretty big issues when it comes to non-legal or illegal income. What my colleague proposed would actually track all income, including income made through illegal means. As the OECD has noted, having a trade agreement without first tackling Panama's financial secrecy practices could incentivize even more tax dodging. We could be making things worse by having this agreement in place. Why would we not try to avoid making it worse, but also mitigate the problem in the first place? I think he came up with a really good solution. Considering Panama's history and reputation on these matters, it is pretty clear why this kind of agreement is absolutely necessary before signing a trade deal.
This deal also fails to take real action on addressing Panama's record on the environment and workers' rights.
First, let us look at the environment. I am the environment critic. While this deal includes an agreement on the environment, as we saw with the free trade agreement with Colombia which has a separate agreement on the environment, it actually provides no enhanced environmental protection or resources for affected communities. Given Panama's lax environmental regulations especially when it comes to mining, this oversight is extremely worrying. Let me illustrate.
One current proposal from the Canadian mining corporation, Inmet Mining, includes plans for an open pit copper project west of Panama City. This plan would see 5,900 hectares of mostly primary rainforest deforested. According to media reports, the controversial presence of another Canadian mining corporation, Corriente Resources, on indigenous lands has spurred protests from civil society groups and indigenous nations in Panama. Earlier this month reports surfaced of protesters being killed in violent clashes with police.
We know full well the devastating impact of deforestation, especially in that area of the world. Instead of taking real action to address the current and impending threats to Panama's precious natural resources, the Canada--Panama trade agreement risks encouraging a race to the bottom on environmental protection.
Why is the government so willing to ignore huge threats to Panama's environment? All trade agreements, including this one, should respect sustainable development and the integrity of all ecosystems. That is another carrot and stick idea. We could say we are not going to enter into this agreement until we see action, but we are not seeing any action on that.
Lack of concern for labour rights in this trade agreement is also deeply troubling. As Teresa Healy pointed out in her testimony before the Standing Committee on International Trade, this agreement is weaker than previous agreements when it comes to workers' rights.
This agreement does not include specific protection for the right to organize and the right to strike. It provides instead for the “effective” recognition of the right to collective bargaining. The Conservatives appear to assume that the free flow of trade and investment automatically leads to better wages and working conditions, but we know that is not the case, whether it is in Panama, Canada, or wherever.
The fact of the matter is that the agreement fails to ensure that labour rights are not denied to Panamanian workers as they have been in the past. In effect, this agreement creates a free trade zone that belittles the rights of labour. This is a serious problem that already is prevalent in Panama.
I have heard some comments from the other side that the NDP is at it again, that we are against trade. That is not the case. The reality is that fair trade should be the overarching principle, not just an afterthought, of any trade negotiation. It is possible. We see these winning examples in our local communities.
For example, in Nova Scotia there is a company called Just Us!, which in 1997 became the first certified fair trade licensed coffee roaster in North America. It is actually in the riding of Kings—Hants but it does have a coffee shop in my riding. It was the first in 1997 which was not too long ago. Now there are 250 licensed fair trade companies just in Canada. They are in communities all over Canada. They recognize the need for sustainable development, the need for relationships with communities in the global south, and the need for fair trade.
The motto of Just Us! is “People and Planet Before Profits”, but mark my words, it is a profitable company. It is doing very well. It has expanded. It has a museum of fair trade in its coffee shop in Wolfville. It has two coffee shops in Halifax. The company keeps getting bigger and bigger. It is all based on the principle of fair trade. This is an idea that came from our local communities and it is working.
I also note that behind the chamber's curtains there is a little area where we can have a cup of coffee or a glass of water. I note that the coffee there is fair trade. It is good enough for parliamentarians, but somehow it is not good enough for Canada, not good enough for Canadians, not good enough for our trade agreements. I do not understand how that works.
Canadians need an agreement that supports our sovereignty and the freedom to chart our own policy, an agreement that supports our ability to be a competitive force on the world stage. We need an agreement that upholds the principles of a multilateral fair trade system, but instead we have an agreement that shows complete disregard for corruption and money laundering practices that are rampant in Panama, not to mention the country's glaring environmental and labour rights records.
We need an agreement that puts people before big business.