Mr. Speaker, I have the pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill C-18.
I would like to begin by saying that I was particularly interested in two aspects of the process for passing this bill. The first is the way the Standing Committee on International Trade had to do its work with regard to the bill to bring CUKTCA into force. The second part of my speech will focus more on the historic aspect of this new temporary agreement and the impact it could have on the scare tactics that are generally used on separatists when it comes time to talk about Quebec and the way it will conduct future negotiations when it becomes independent.
Yesterday, I had several opportunities to listen to my learned colleagues discuss how parliamentarians were informed of the results of the negotiations between the U.K. and Canada. In the words of my hon. colleague from Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, parliamentarians, through no fault of their own, became actors in a theatre of the absurd when they had to receive witnesses in committee without having seen the content of the agreement.
I heard some bizarre responses from the other side of the House to concerns expressed by parliamentarians seated to the left of the Speaker. I heard members say that complaints about how parliamentarians were kept in the dark were futile and petty because, ultimately, both Conservative and Bloc members intended to vote in favour of the agreement and the implementation bill.
With all due respect, our government colleagues are confusing two very distinct concepts: the ends and the means. Here is an example. Say I have to deliver a package at a specific time. I can leave late, drive 160 km/h on the highway, pass cars, cut them off and run red lights, and still arrive on time with a package in good condition that I can deliver like it is no big deal. I have achieved my end, but the means I employed were questionable at best. On the other hand, I could have left home on time, obeyed speed limits, got lost and backtracked, and even got stuck in traffic before finally arriving late with the package.
In both cases, the quality of the outcome in no way reflects the quality of the means used to achieve it. To make the comparison, one might agree with the contents of the deal and the legislation that it implements, but could still be justified in criticizing how parliamentarians were informed of its contents.
Let me give a very clear example of the situation. Parliamentarians were told repeatedly that it was no big deal that they could not see the contents of the agreement, since it was only meant to be transitional in any case. It was intended to bridge the gap between the previous agreement with the European Union and a new agreement to be renegotiated with the United Kingdom. If parliamentarians could have seen what was in the agreement, they would have noticed the missing sunset clause, in other words a deadline by which the two countries must have signed a final agreement. Such a clause, which would irrefutably confirm that the agreement before us is indeed only transitional, does not exist in the text.
We are required to negotiate within a certain timeframe, but not required to reach an agreement within that timeframe. It is unacceptable that parliamentarians were left in the dark, that the Standing Committee on International Trade received the text of the agreement the very day it was supposed to submit its report and recommendations on whether or not to approve its content.
The lesson in all this is that future negotiations for a final agreement not only could, but must offer more transparency to parliamentarians and all those who will be affected by the agreement. That was the approach during negotiations of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Members of both the European Union and the provinces were invited to at least express their position and demands in connection with the future agreement.
As far as the actual agreement is concerned, it should be noted that the British had the courtesy to at least admit that the negotiations were conducted a little late, at the last minute, something the Canadian government is still trying to refute.
With regard to the second aspect of my presentation on the issue of Quebec's independence, there is no denying the fearmongering we are subjected to when there are discussions on the future of an independent Quebec and any necessary future negotiations with other countries. The Brexit negotiations could have many similarities with the situation that will prevail right after a successful referendum.
The European Union is a customs union that provides for the free flow of goods and services within Europe with standardized rules for its trade relations with countries outside the EU. Member countries of the European Union do not negotiate directly with non-member countries. The European Union does so on their behalf, in the same way that Canada negotiates its international treaties with other countries instead of the provinces.
If Quebec were to leave Canada, it would do so the same way that the United Kingdom left the European Union. The U.K. withdrew itself from the agreements it held as part of the European Union and is seeking out new agreements as an independent state, relying on transitional agreements in the interim.
In the lead-up to the 1995 referendum, federalists sowed fear that an independent Quebec would be thrust into economic uncertainty and turmoil since, without agreements with other countries, it would undoubtedly sink into a dark hole, a legal vacuum with no trade partners. Federalists made it seem as though markets would start locking Quebec out as soon as the referendum was won and as though Quebec would be immediately removed from any Canadian agreements.
Professor Daniel Turp countered that argument by pointing out that countries party to agreements operate with the presumption of continuity. A new country popping up in the international community would therefore already have a connection to the trade partners of the country from which it seceded, and this would carry through until they negotiated a new agreement. However, at the time, Professor Turp's model applied only to multilateral treaties, in which the newly seceded party would be joining several other existing parties. It was unknown how the model would play out with bilateral trade agreements.
With Brexit, the United Kingdom just completed Professor Turp's analysis exercise regarding trade agreements, not just in theory but in very real and tangible terms. Leaving aside the issues of a lack of transparency and the last-minute work that I talked about at the beginning of my speech, one has to admit that the exercise is going relatively well, all things considered. The interim agreement that is about to be ratified maintains the status quo and ensures that there is no volatility or uncertainty in the trade relationship while the final agreement is being negotiated.
Even though Brexit put a nail in the coffin of the federalist argument that an independent Quebec would experience great economic uncertainty following a winning referendum, it is still interesting to see the extent to which Brexit itself is serving, for some, as a federalist scare tactic when it comes to Quebec's desire to become independent. Former Conservative minister Michael Fortier, who recently became a columnist for La Presse, gave his first article the title of “A Sneak Preview of Quexit”. In his article, Mr. Fortier painted a very sombre picture of the negotiations for the U.K.'s departure from the European Union. He talked about a cursory agreement that was also negotiated at the last minute and that failed to include many essential details, including financial services, that still need to be worked out. Mr. Fortier indicated that the people of Britain still do not really understand what their government negotiated. His article would have us believe that the people of Britain will one day regret voting in favour of Brexit.
I have talked to a number of people who are up on what is happening in the U.K., and I have asked them if they, too, see Brexit as a bad thing and if the British might ultimately come to regret their decision to leave the EU. As a separatist, I found their answer interesting. Financial services, which are one of the United Kingdom's main exports, if not the main export, are not yet governed by a formal agreement, but uncertainty about their future has not caused bankers to flee London and The City in droves, as some catastrophic scenarios predicted.
As for the people who voted yes to Brexit, it would be odd if they came to regret their choice one day because that vote got them what they wanted, and one of the things they wanted was the power to control their borders. That is something Quebec is clearly lacking right now in COVID times.
All the same, Brexit negotiations in general and a future final agreement between Canada and the U.K. in particular will continue to be of interest to parliamentarians. Bloc members will be paying even closer attention to get a sense of what awaits Quebec one day. It is not perfect, but despite its wrinkles, the likely outcome seems much less catastrophic than some predicted. One lesson Quebec can learn from this process is the importance of diligence and transparency.