OTTAWA â€” A petition signed by 60,000 Canadians calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reject a â€œsecretive and sweepingâ€� Canada-China trade agreement.
The Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA), discussed mostly behind closed doors, comes as the Conservative cabinet reviews a Chinese state-owned oil companyâ€™s $15.1-billion bid to take over Calgary oil company Nexen.
Members of three opposition parties met with the members of two advocacy groups, Leadnow.ca and SumOfUs.org, that launched the petition two weeks ago over concerns that the deal would allow China to sue the Canadian government in secret tribunals, leading to a loss of control over natural resources.
The Liberal, NDP and Green Party denounced the lack of debate and vote over the agreement during a press conference on Parliament Hill Tuesday morning.
The agreement was tabled on Sept. 26 and can become law through cabinet order after 21 sitting days, which means the government could theoretically move to ratify as early as Nov. 1. A spokesman for Minister of International Trade Ed Fast said there is no date currently set for a cabinet meeting at which the agreement could be ratified.
NDP MP Peter Julian said that â€œnormal democratic processâ€� has been refused over and over by the Harper government.
â€œDon Davies, our trade critic, has brought forward at the committee level and also in Parliament, the call for debate, the call for witnesses, the call for due consideration of the FIPA with Canada and China and the government has refused systematically that type of democratic consideration,â€� he said.
Liberal MP Geoff Regan echoed the call for an open process before the ratification of the agreement that will have a lifespan of 31 years with no exit clause for the first 15 years.
â€œThe Liberal Party favours trade and investment with other countries; however we believe we have to have discussion,â€� Regan said. â€œWhat we essentially have here is King Stephen has used the royal prerogative to ram this through â€” and weâ€™re very concerned.â€�
During question period on Tuesday, International Trade Minister Ed Fast said the opposition already had an opportunity to debate the agreement but â€œpassed it up.â€� He said the agreement will give â€œconfidenceâ€� to Canadians who invest in China and lead to job growth in Canada.
â€œThis agreement represents a very significant step forward to protecting Canadians when they invest in China,â€� he said.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May said â€œthereâ€™s no question that Canadian investors in China will be better off with this deal,â€� but argued the benefits would not offset the risks.
Foreign Affairs department data shows that the relationship between Canada and China is lopsided. While Canadian firms exported $16.8-billion worth of goods and services to China in 2011, Chinese exports to Canada were triple that amount. Similarly, Canadian direct investment in China was worth about $4.5 billion in 2011 while Chinese investment in Canada was $10.9 billion.
Matthew Carroll, the campaign director for Leadnow.ca, said the secrecy in the process is just part of the concern. The agreement also allows the government to keep lawsuits and settlements private â€” which is not the case with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
â€œIf a Canadian government is sued under NAFTA, that becomes public information. But itâ€™s entirely up to the discretion of our government whether or not they make the information under this FIPA public,â€� he said.
May added that while Canada deals with the private sector in U.S. under NAFTA, Canada will be dealing with state-owned companies under the FIPA with China, meaning diplomacy becomes a factor.
â€œIt brings in geopolitical concerns. It brings in the economic clout of that government to say, â€˜All our investors in Canada might be very annoyed if you donâ€™t change that law. All our investors in Canada might have to leave suddenly,â€™â€� she said. â€œYouâ€™re dealing with an intimidation and political power pressure that simply isnâ€™t present in NAFTA.â€�
The agreement would give opposing parties a six-month diplomatic period before a legal matter would go before a tribunal, she said.
with files from Michael Den Tandt