Madam Speaker, I would like to thank my colleagues from all parties who have already spoken in the course of this debate for letting us know their views.
We are debating another free trade agreement signed by this government in Central America, this time with Panama. So Panama is joining Colombia, Peru and Honduras, which have all negotiated or signed agreements with this Conservative government.
This agreement is just one more step in the Canada-United States strategy of prioritizing sequential bilateralism in the form of a NAFTA-style trade agreement. In my opinion, bilateralism is a very bad strategy. As was the case for the other agreements I have mentioned, this agreement presents problems, and that means we have a number of reasons for opposing the bill that has been introduced in this House.
This agreement presents a significant problem in terms of workers’ rights in Panama, and in fact there are no provisions in this trade agreement to ensure that Panamanian workers will not be denied their rights as they have been in the past. Two of the amendments proposed in committee by my colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster would have protected unionized workers in Panama by guaranteeing them the right to bargain collectively and by forcing the Minister of International Trade, the principal representative of Canada on the joint Canada-Panama commission, to consult regularly with representatives of Canadian workers and Canadian unions.
Those amendments, like all the others, were rejected by the Conservatives and the Liberals. Unfortunately, the result is a free trade zone where workers’ rights are cheapened, something that is already a serious problem in Panama.
The fact that these reasonable amendments were rejected by both the Conservatives and the Liberals reminded me of one of the last times we saw the two parties come together on an FTA in this region. I am referring to the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. It was during the last Parliament that many of my colleagues discussed and debated that agreement, eventually seeing its passage as the Liberals supported the Conservatives. However, that support came with a condition at the suggestion of the hon. member for Kings—Hants. Under that condition, each country would have to provide annual reports to their parliaments assessing the impact of the free trade agreement on human rights.
To the Liberals, this was the answer to the grievous human rights concerns that exist in Colombia. To the Liberals, this was the silver bullet, or as put another way by the member for Kings—Hants in a press release dated March 25, 2010, was the “new gold standard” for human rights reporting in free trade agreements.
With that deal in place, the Liberals signed onto the FTA and it went into force. Therefore, maybe it is appropriate timing that just last month the very first report under that agreement was published. Given what the Liberals had agreed to, we should have expected to receive a fulsome report on the human rights situation on the ground in Colombia, but what did we get instead? We got nothing, zero, nada on human rights in Colombia.
What was the excuse for this failure to report? The international trade minister told us, “the government did not have enough information to conduct a full assessment by the time it was required to submit the report to Parliament”. Seriously, that was the answer. He may as well have said that his dog ate his homework. If this is what the new gold standard is supposed to look like, then so far it looks like the Liberals were sold a big piece of fool's gold.
Under this FTA, the government is supposed to produce these reports every 12 months. How is it that it could not produce at least a preliminary report after nine months? Maybe it did not because it knew it would not be the most flattering and would create some political problems for it.
Regardless of the excuses for not reporting, the entire reporting process that was agreed to has major flaws.
First, these reports do not meet the United Nations' standard, which states that nations should complete human rights assessments before signing an FTA rather than after.
Also, this report is coming directly from the government itself, not an independent third party. We are counting on the Government of Colombia to tell us if it is violating the human rights of its own citizens. Throughout history that kind of self-reporting arrangement has never been viewed as the most credible approach, yet we are depending on it here.
But the coup de grâce really comes from the final problem with this approach, which is that under this FTA there are no negative consequences for any negative results that come from that report. So regardless of how bad the reports may be, there is not a single consequence for the Government of Colombia. How does the Conservative government expect the Government of Colombia to be motivated to improve the human rights situation in its country if it faces no consequences for not doing so?
After the Colombia FTA came into force, we saw the violence and the repression of human rights continue. Groups like MiningWatch Canada have brought forward reports from Colombia of incidents involving Canadian mining companies in Colombia, particularly regarding indigenous rights violations.
On September 2 Father José Reinel Restrepo was murdered in Marmato, Colombia. Father Restrepo just happened to be a very vocal opponent of a mining project proposed by a company based in Canada called Gran Colombia Gold Corp. Under this project his home community of Marmato would be obliterated in order to make way for an open pit mine.
There are other NGOs that have also brought forward stories and reports of human rights violations. Despite all these reports brought forward by reputable NGOs, I remind the House that the Conservative government said it “did not have enough information to conduct a full assessment by the time it was required...”. These reports seem to state otherwise.
I represent a riding where many of these same mining firms work and work well. They work with local communities and aboriginal nations to provide opportunities for the people who call our region home. I have personally negotiated many agreements with many of these companies on behalf of the Grand Council of the Cree in the past 20 years.
I have to ask myself why it is that some of these companies seem to not take this same approach when working in other countries. Maybe it is because under this FTA these companies simply do not have the obligation to do so. The Conservative government, by signing FTAs that do not truly protect human rights in these partner countries, is sending the signal that as long as they act like good corporate citizens at home, we will forget about what they do abroad. This “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach to corporate social responsibility is not only doing harm to communities in these other countries; it is putting a stain on the reputation of our country and the reputations of those Canadian companies that take their corporate social responsibility seriously.
The NDP believes that the federal government should stop following the NAFTA model exclusively, at the expense of other approaches. It should explore different ways of promoting trade. Our trade policy, here in Canada, should be based on the principles of fair, sustainable and equitable trade, trade that builds partnerships with other countries that support the principles of social justice and human rights, while not ignoring the need to expand our trade objectives. It is possible to have a better model, but the political will has to be there, and that is what is sorely lacking on the part of this Conservative government.
The NDP firmly believes that there is another model for trade relations, a better model, one that can be applied to Panama and any other country. That model includes the fundamental principle that all trade agreements must protect and promote human rights. There is a lot of work to be done to improve this free trade agreement with Panama. I hope the government is going to take our suggestions to heart and exchange its free trade model for our fair trade model, which is viable and realistic.