Trade rules

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Remember Gisborne Lake? The 28 square-
kilometre waterway north of Grand Le Pierre was the source of a proposal to export up to 100 billion litres of bulk water annually.

The project was vehemently opposed by environmentalists and trade experts, who warned it would be a Pandora’s box for Canada’s fresh water resources.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), once such an enterprise gets the green light, the way is clear for any entrepreneur on either side of the border to get in on the action.

Activists such as Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians painted a bleak picture of resource depletion if the doors were opened to bulk water exports. After all, water is becoming a precious commodity in the United States — and across the globe.

In the end, the federal government under Jean Chrétien agreed to ban bulk water exports, and the Newfoundland government agreed to comply, pulling the plug on the Gisborne Lake project.

That was more than a decade ago. Yet concerns about the undemocratic nature of international trade agreements has not gone away.

These deals wrench much of the control over natural resources out of the hands of local governments and into the hands of secretive trade tribunals. Such was the case in the showdown between this province and Abitibi in 2009. All local parties agreed that water and timber rights had to be protected, but the expropriation of Abitibi’s assets still violated NAFTA. Canada pleaded no contest and settled with the company for

$130 million.

Canada and the U.S. are both clewing up trade deals with Europe right now. In this province, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has been mostly hailed as a victory for opening up markets for seafood.

But a proposed deal between Europe and the U.S. is receiving stiff criticism in the press — this time on the other side of the Atlantic.

British environmental journalist George Monbiot wrote a stinging rebuke last week of plans to remove European trade barriers to U.S. interests.

In particular, he wondered why governments did not consult their people more directly before agreeing to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections,” he wrote in The Guardian. “Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.”

Most Canadians, it seems, have moved beyond protectionist fear-mongering. Perhaps NAFTA has desensitized us to the risks.

But if you believe bulk water exports will never happen, think again. Even Jean Chrétien — who imposed the ban in the first place — seems willing to take another look.

“Whenever we have a question on water it’s always a huge controversy,” he told an audience of leading water experts and policy-makers in Toronto two years ago.

“But when you look at the reality, here we have a lot of water. … Are we able to share this benefit we’re having that others don’t have?”

Organizations: NAFTA, CETA, Transatlantic Trade

Geographic location: Canada, United States, Abitibi Europe Newfoundland Gisborne Lake Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Brad
    November 08, 2013 - 13:18

    I would much rather see our water resource used as a drinking supply than what our governments both Provincial and Federal are doing with it. They are using it as a cheap way for the mining/oil industry to dispose of unwanted, toxic waste materials and there fore destroying lakes forever. Sandy Pond was an example of a pond that was pristina and would have been a fgreat source of drinking water and could have employed people forever if there was a bottling plant set up, yet the government felt it would serve a better purpose as a toxic waste dump. It would be better to it to good use than to destroy it.

  • wtf
    November 08, 2013 - 07:45

    If you have an agreement with anyone, whether it's a government or a business or another person, they have the right to pull you into court and let the lawyers have at it. That's not overruling "the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections". That's making governments keep their commitments. That's something they have a reputation of not doing.

    • Politically Incorrect
      November 08, 2013 - 09:04

      These aren't courts; they're tribunals consisting of three private individuals who are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from parliament. Why sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all indicates the willingness of these governments to abdicate the welfare of their citizens in favour of a privatised justice system for global corporations.