Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-24,, an act to implement the Canada-Panama free trade agreement. It will be of no surprise to those in this House that I will be speaking against this agreement because of my strong concerns about the impact of free trade agreements that lack adequate environmental, labour and human rights safeguards.
While this package does include side agreements on labour co-operation and environment, both of these are extremely weak. The Conservatives and the Liberals joined together to defeat amendments proposed by the member for Burnaby—New Westminster which would have strengthened those agreements by providing both dispute resolution mechanisms and enforcement mechanisms. Without those safeguards, I cannot support this free trade agreement.
In debate today, some members on the other side of the House have asked the New Democrats, as the official opposition, why, if we supported the free trade agreement with Jordan, we were not supporting the agreement with Panama. Part of that answer lies in the differences in the agreements that I just mentioned. The side agreements in the Jordan free trade agreement were far stronger, had enforcement mechanisms and had dispute resolution mechanisms included in them. There is a difference in the agreements themselves.
The other part of that is the feeling I have that we ought to choose our partners very carefully when entering into closer economic associations. There are large differences between Jordan and Panama. For instance, Jordan is not a tax haven while Panama continues to refuse to implement a tax information exchange agreement with Canada. That lack of transparency means that Panama remains a major centre for money laundering, especially from the drug trade.
When I hear members on the other side talk about the provisions in this agreement for closer relations in financial institutions, this raises a big red flag for me about why we would want closer relations with a country that lacks that transparency and is a major transfer point and money laundering point for the drug trade in the Americas.
Again, on the question of why Jordan and not Panama, one only needs to look at the human rights and labour standards of these two countries. Here again, Jordan has made great progress and Panama has not. Jordan has made progress in raising labour standards and enforcing those standards, including several recent raises to the minimum wage and activities to try to enforce basic safety in the workplace conditions.
Panama has made no such progress. In fact, in Panama, the existence of sweat shops and other exploitive labour practices remain a real problem. Labour organizers working on these issues also come under very severe pressure, both from the government authorities and under threats from unidentified forces who we can only imagine are perhaps associated with those other illegal activities in Panama.
Not only do labour organizations face human rights threats in Panama, so do journalists attempting to cover labour and justice issues in Panama. Professional organizations of journalists have reported that over half the working journalists in Panama now face or have faced criminal defamation proceedings brought against them by the governments or businesses. These defamation suits carry penalties of up to one year in prison and very hefty fines.
This places an extreme chill on journalism and the freedom of expression in Panama, a problem that does not exist in Jordan. This has become so extreme that, in 2011, two Spanish nationals who had permanent resident status in Panama, Francisco Gómez Nadal and Maria Pilar Chato Carral were detained while covering a demonstration by the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people in Panama City. They were detained for 48 hours before being permanently expelled from Panama. This, again, placed a very severe chill on the activities of all journalists operating in Panama, because Mr. Francisco Gómez Nadal and Ms. Chato Carral were extremely prominent journalists, working both for the daily newspapers in Panama City and also filing stories for newspapers in Spain.
We on this side have been very consistent in calling for trade agreements that have labour standards, human rights standards and sustainability built into those agreements. When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about sustainability that is both economic and social, as well as environmental.
In Panama in the past few years, there have been very severe conflicts over development, in particular between mining companies and hydroelectric projects and local communities, and especially indigenous peoples in Panama. Indeed, this was the subject of a CBC documentary this week which attracted the attention of international human rights organizations.
According to Amnesty International, one protestor died and more than 40 were wounded during clashes at a blockade of the Pan-American Highway by the Ngäbe Buglé indigenous people who I mentioned earlier. They are asserting their rights to be consulted and to give informed consent before any development project on their lands proceeds in the province of Chiriqui. Similar protests by local community organizations occurred earlier this year over the reopening of the Cerro Cama open pit gold and copper mine by a Canadian mining company.
These conflicts over development also involve a lack of enforcement in environmental standards. At the Santa Rosa mine, which operated throughout the 1990s and was operated by a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company, Greenstone Resources, the mine finally closed in 1999, leaving three large tailing ponds, which are now very strongly suspected of having contaminated local water supplies. Local protests have broken out again very recently from the local community as this mine is now being reactivated without there ever being any attempt by the government to address these environmental concerns.
When members on the other side say that we are opposed to trade, they get it wrong. What we are opposed to is entering into these agreements which will provide advantages to multinational corporations, some of them Canadian, to impose working conditions that are dangerous, to develop projects that have severe environmental consequences and to undertake development in a country where freedom of expression comes under very severe threat.
Therefore, when we talk about trade on this side, we prefer to see multilateral agreements that have some basic principles inserted within them. However, if not, and obviously the government will not pursue the multilateral agreements, then we would like to see the same kinds of principles in these bilateral agreements, the principles I have just talked about: environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.
Of course, in a country like Panama with a large indigenous population and a large poor population, this means working with poor communities and working with indigenous communities for development that would help them build their communities and build their lives in a sustainable manner. We see nothing of the kind going on in Panama at this time.
We also want to see agreements that have very strong benefits to both parties. Therefore, we have called upon the government, before implementing free trade agreements, to have some kind of independent assessment of what the effects of the trade will be. We have not seen anything of this kind coming down the pipe from the government.
When we talk about competition on the international stage, we on this side support free trade based on efficiency and innovation. If a company can be more efficient than another company, and Canadian companies are often very good at this, then it should have access to markets and it should succeed. If a company is more innovative than other companies, it comes up with new ideas that would help advance the quality of products or develop new products that would fill a niche in the market, then it ought to be able to succeed in that trade.
What we do not want to see is companies that succeed in international trade by offloading their environmental costs on to future generations. What we do not want to see is companies that succeed in international trade on the basis of paying the lowest wages in the most dangerous working conditions. Therefore, if we are to build closer economic relations with new trade partners, we need to ensure it is on the basis of shared values of democracy, human rights and sustainability.
When my colleagues on the other side asked why we supported the trade agreement with Jordan, we said that it was not because it was a perfect agreement, but that it is a good agreement. Jordan shares those same values with us and has shown demonstrable progress in the areas of democracy, human rights and labour standards. When it comes to the Panama agreement, we see exactly the opposite.
Therefore, I would question why we would want to enter into this agreement with a partner that has shown a disrespect for human rights, that has some of the lowest labour standards in Central America and where Canadian companies are involved in projects that often have quite severe environmental consequences.
I would ask the government that when it thinks about new partners, that it go back to those basic values. Yes, we want to see trade, but we want to see trade based on efficiency and innovation. We do not want to see trade on the basis of offloading environmental costs, paying low wages, dangerous working conditions and those which threaten the rights of free expression in order to proceed with those dangerous economic conditions. When we do that, I think we will find many good partners around the world to trade with and that trade will advance the interests of both nations.
Therefore, for the reasons I have outlined, I will be voting against the free trade agreement with Panama and I will be urging all members of the House to do so.