MPs divided on Canada-Colombia trade agreement

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

MPs divided on Canada-Colombia trade agreement

By Jeremy Warren, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

9 May 2010

Increasing trade between Canada and Colombia would help fight drug traffickers and improve human rights in the South American country, says Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost. But critics say the country’s poor human-rights record should put any free-trade plans on hold.

A Canada-Colombia free-trade agreement is working its way through Parliament, and Trost is one of several Conservatives leading the push to ratify the agreement.

Trade between the two countries totals about $1.3 billion annually. That’s not a lot compared to other countries, but trade expansion could mean more than just the exchange of goods, Trost said in an interview from Ottawa.

The free-trade pact would mean more jobs for Colombians as companies expand trade with Canada, he said.

“Increasing trade with Canada allows industries to hire more and that’s a direct social benefit,” Trost said. “If you want to help people, give them a job.”

Conservatives aim to increase exports to Colombia for Canadian producers of goods such as wheat, barley, paper products and heavy agricultural equipment. Colombia’s exports to Canada include coal, coffee and bananas.

A free-trade agreement would also make investment easier for mining companies looking to expand in Colombia, according to Trade Ministry officials.

The elimination of tariffs would allow Canadian goods to compete with U.S. exports in South America, Trost said.

“The 15 per cent (tariff) in a commodity driven market really puts our guys at a disadvantage,” he said.

A Colombian-United States free-trade agreement has been signed, but ratification has been stalled in the U.S. Congress, where concerns about human-rights abuses in Colombia has slowed progress.

The federal NDP opposes Canada’s agreement for similar reasons.

“Colombia has an appalling human rights record,” said NDP MP Peter Julian, his party’s international trade critic. “Signing the trade agreement is likely to exacerbate the problem.”

The Colombian government has forcibly removed peasant landowners in order to sell land to international companies, and the government continues to ignore labour rights, Julian said.

About 2,700 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since 1986, although the numbers have dropped annually since reaching a peak in the mid-90s, according to Human Rights Watch.

Canada’s proposed agreement does nothing to ensure the rights of farmers and labourers are protected by trade expansion, Julian said.

“(An agreement) rewards a government that has its hands soaked in blood,” said Julian, who compares the situation to signing a trade agreement with North Korea or Burma.

“The Conservatives wants to sign an agreement as a smoke and mirrors attempt to coverup their lack of an economic strategy.”

Colombia and Canada signed the agreement in November 2008, but Parliament has yet to ratify the trade pact that was first tabled last March.

The bill has passed second reading in the House of Commons and is now in committee where MPs are bringing in witnesses — from union representatives to Colombians now living in Canada — before the bill heads to a third reading, which Trost expects sometime this June.

The Liberal Party has supported the agreement, but has proposed its own amendments.

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