Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she wants to see environmental provisions strengthened in a re-done North American Free Trade Agreement, but it’s not clear exactly how far Canada’s top diplomat will go to get climate change into NAFTA.

The Trudeau government minister said Monday that strengthening environmental provisions is “absolutely a Canadian goal going into these talks.” In three separate public appearances on the same day — one at the University of Ottawa and two on Parliament Hill — she sought to reinforce a message that environmental protections are a clear focus.

Canada wants to “ensure that the member countries can benefit from protecting the environment and investments,” said Freeland in front of the House of Commons environment committee. She said Canada would "fully support efforts to target climate change.”

But the minister has so far declined to answer definitively whether Ottawa would walk away from negotiations if the term “climate change” doesn’t wind up in the deal’s final text.

Freeland has been part of a massive, across-the-board push by the federal government, provincial and territorial governments, businesses, political parties and organizations to engage with Americans on the upcoming NAFTA talks. The talks were triggered earlier this year when U.S. President Donald Trump said he wanted to renegotiate the deal because he believed it wasn't fair to American workers and countries.

Trump nearly sent formal notice in April that the U.S. would withdraw from the trade deal. But he changed his mind after phone calls from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Freeland said the Canadian government has made 185 visits to the U.S. and met 200 members of Congress, as well as 50 governors and deputy governors.

Part of this push involves reminding the United States of the two countries' interconnectedness, she said. In a discussion about the importance of Quebec's relations with the United States, Freeland paused to mention an "example" that grabbed everyone's attention.

"The electricity in Trump Tower comes from Quebec," she said, before quickly moving on.

The province’s utility sends over 40 per cent of its exports per year to New England and has been looking to expand power sales to the U.S. Northeast.

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his desire to withdraw from the Paris climate accord during a speech at the White House on June 1. Canada has a "different view," said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Aug. 14. Screenshot from White House video

'No secret' Canada, U.S. diverge on climate views: Minister

The question of how forcefully Canada will push to see the language of climate change reflected in a new NAFTA deal matters in light of the Trump administration’s continued rejection of the global scientific consensus on climate.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a “Chinese hoax,” is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate pact, alarming environmentalists, businesses and national governments pushing for a low-carbon future. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, who also doubts climate science, has shut down greenhouse gas emissions data collection and has yanked webpages on climate change off the internet.

“It’s no secret to anyone that Canada has a different view of probably the most important step the world has taken when it comes to the fight against climate change, which is the Paris Accords,” said Freeland. Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed his disappointment at Trump’s decision to withdrawal from Paris, she noted.

“Having said that, we continue to work at all levels of government with the U.S. on the environment, not least because we have many shared environments that we have shared stewardship of,” said Freeland.

“And this U.S. administration has said both in public and in private that it continues to have a very strong interest in working with us on protecting those shared spaces.”

When National Observer asked Freeland whether climate change was a dealbreaker, the minister discussed boosting environmental provisions and how environmental standards are “much higher than they were when the agreement was first negotiated, and this is an opportunity to bring them up.”

Canada has a “shared interest with all of our North American partners” to ensure a fair deal, Freeland continued. Strong environmental standards “are one way that we can ensure that Canadian workers don’t suffer unfairly, because of the high standards that Canadian society quite rightly wishes us to have.”

The NDP’s international trade critic Tracey Ramsey on the roof of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. on June 7. Ramsey said Monday that the NDP would consider not including climate change in the deal to be a "red flag to all Canadians." Photo from Ramsey's Twitter account

Not including climate change would be 'red flag' says NDP

Inserting the language of climate change in the deal is a matter that the opposition NDP believes should be a red line for Canada.

“I believe that including that language addresses the very real reality that we face [on] the globe right now,” said the NDP’s international trade critic Tracey Ramsey, appearing in front of reporters after Freeland’s comments.

“Trying to remove or erase climate change from this agreement will be a red flag to all Canadians,” she said. The Trump administration is “starting to turn their eye away from addressing climate change,” and “it’s very important to Canadians that the environment and protections are included in trade agreements.”

Asked what she thought Canada should give up, if climate change were to be one of the country’s dealbreakers, Ramsey said it was hard to tell since negotiators haven’t revealed what’s at stake.

“This is an interesting question, because that’s what we didn’t hear today” during the committee meeting, said Ramsey.

“This is a question for the negotiators, this is a question for Minister Freeland. How important is the environment to them in NAFTA? How important is climate change?”

During the committee meeting, Ramsey had also asked the minister about including the language in the deal. But her question included another element on labour provisions which the minister tackled first, and her allotted time ran out before she could get to the second part of the question.

Tories wary carbon tax will add 'hurdles' to trade

Meanwhile, the Conservatives see it another way: that the government’s decision to march into crucial trade talks while sticking with a plan to implement a carbon tax is unnecessarily hindering the country’s negotiating position.

Conservative trade critic Gerry Ritz compared it to Ottawa’s strong pushback against a proposed import tax that was canned at the end of last month.

“We made a lot of noise about the border tax that the U.S. was going to bring in, and how unfair that would be,” said Ritz.

“The same thing is going to happen with any product trying to be exported into the U.S.; it’s going to have a carbon tax price added onto it,” he said.

“Then coming in from the U.S., is it going to have to measure up to that level as well in order to come through? It adds hurdles at the border. Everybody talks about red tape...having a carbon tax in Canada that nobody else has is certainly one of those [barriers].”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here in Ottawa in June, helped Trump change his mind on withdrawing from the NAFTA trade deal after a phone call. Canada now says it wants a "good deal, not just any deal." Photo by Alex Tétreault

'Committed to a good deal, not just any deal'

Freeland elaborated on Canada's core objectives Aug. 14, focusing on a half-dozen goals that included opening up access to government procurement rights, more professional movement, defending Canadian rights to supply management and reforming the investor-state dispute settlement process.

"In all these discussions, we will come to the table with goodwill, and Canada’s characteristic ability and willingness to seek compromise and find win-win solutions," she said at an earlier speech at the University of Ottawa.

"But we are committed to a good deal, not just any deal."

In addition to environmental protection provisions, Freeland is also calling for new "progressive" elements in NAFTA 2.0 such as stronger labour standards and chapters on gender and Indigenous rights.

On that front, Canadian negotiators plan to use Canada's recently negotiated trade agreement with the European Union as a reference, Freeland said.

"Progressive elements are also important if you want a free-trade deal that's also a fair-trade deal," Freeland said in a question-and-answer session following the speech at the University of Ottawa.

Ottawa also aims to cut down on bureaucracy, harmonize regulations to ease the flow of cross-border business, push for more mobility for professionals and free up the market for government procurement, she told her audience.

Canada's positions will also include work to maintain key elements of the 23-year-old deal, including the process to ensure anti-dumping and countervailing duties are only applied when truly warranted.

Freeland injected some personable comments throughout her committee appearance, trying to strike a light-hearted tone at some points, and pointing out different attendees in the packed committee room.

Canada received over 21k submissions on NAFTA consultations

Ottawa's negotiating team will sit down with their American and Mexican counterparts Wednesday in Washington, D.C. for the first round of talks.

Last month, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer released the Trump administration's set of priorities for the NAFTA talks.

At committee, Freeland laid out the economic advantages of NAFTA as it stands today. Canada, the United States and Mexico account for a quarter of global GDP, she said, despite holding only seven per cent of the world’s population. Canada’s economy is 2.5 times larger than it otherwise would be

"We are seizing this opportunity to improve upon an agreement that is already good,” she said.

Canada is "America's biggest overall customer, by far,” said Freeland. "Quite a few of us have uttered that sentence in recent months.”

Canada received over 21,000 submissions in its NAFTA consultations, said Freeland, including from 16 “academics and think tanks,” 158 associations and 55 businesses.

Freeland said at the University of Ottawa that she believes Canada and its NAFTA partners can find common ground on new chapters for labour, the environment, gender and Indigenous rights.

But she also warned that Canadians should brace for some tense exchanges during the NAFTA talks, in general.

"I think we all do need to be prepared for some moments of drama," she said. "We should just see that as an expected part of any trade negotiations."

--With files from The Canadian Press