Harper touts free trade, shies away from terrorism reports in Colombia talks

anwest News Service | June 10, 2009

Harper touts free trade, shies away from terrorism reports in Colombia talks

By Mike Blanchfield and Jorge Barrera

OTTAWA - As he blasted the "ideological" opponents of his free-trade deal with Colombia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper played down recent reports of a Colombian terrorism infiltration into Canada.

Harper affirmed his support of the controversial deal, which is opposed by left-leaning non-governmental organizations as well as the federal NDP and Bloc Quebecois, as he welcomed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to Ottawa on Wednesday.

While the free-trade deal was touted as the main topic of their meeting, both leaders had to contend with reports that Colombia’s FARC rebels set up operation in four major Canadian cities.

Neither leader disputed the reports by the Colombian broadcaster, RCN, that Uribe would also be bringing Harper a dossier on the activities of FARC in Canada.

"We don’t believe FARC presents a major threat to Canada, but obviously we monitor the activities of any group that is listed," Harper said, when asked about the reports.

"FARC is a listed terrorist organization. In Canada, all such organizations are carefully monitored by our security apparatus."

Colombian intelligence officials reportedly believe FARC has established a type of foreign relations office in Canada with operations in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and Vancouver.

The reports also say that Colombian intelligence officials had recently travelled to Canada to discuss the operations of the guerrilla group in the country.

The offices are said to be run in co-ordination with family members of Raul Reyes, a slain FARC leader, who was killed in a March 2008 raid in on a rebel base in Ecuador.

Harper said the drug trade poses a problem throughout the Western Hemisphere, not just in Canada and Colombia, because "supply networks are hemispheric wide and indeed worldwide."

Reports said that much of the information on FARC’s Canadian operations were gleaned from Reyes’ computer, which was retrieved by Colombia after the Ecuador strike.

FARC finances its operations through kidnap ransoms and drug trafficking, particularly cocaine.

Harper said the free-trade deal with Colombia would open up legitimate economic alternatives to the drug trade.

"Drug traffickers will trade with or without a free-trade agreement. We need a free-trade agreement to make sure that we open up other economic opportunities to draw economic activity away from the drug trade," Harper said.

Harper also called on Parliament to ratify his free-trade deal as soon as possible, saying it would send a signal against the forces of "creeping protectionism," particularly those in U.S. Congress that are pushing the Buy American provisions of the country’s massive stimulus spending bill.

The trade deal is expected to pass because key Liberals have indicated they will support it when it comes to a vote in Parliament, either this month or in the fall.

"I believe that any mainstream opposition party that chooses for ideological reasons to align itself with protectionism at this point in our history would be making a serious mistake in terms of judging where the minds of the Canadian people are at," Harper said.

"We cannot afford to have our Parliament, in any of our parties, led by people and led by organizations that have an ideological opposition to free trade. We got over that in this country 20 years ago. We see the dangers of that in the United States, and we’ve got to fight that vigorously in Canada."