At the May 13 meeting of Standing Committee on International Trade in Ottawa, Conservative Member of Parliament Brad Trost reminded his fellow Committee members that their role is to determine whether the proposed Canada-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA) is good for Canada, not whether it is good for Colombia.
Despite significant opposition, it hasn’t been hard to find Canadian apologists for the deal.
There was Andrew Casey from the Forest Products Association of Canada highlighting the lower tariffs and increased market access for Canadian newsprint, pulp and uncoated paper that the deal would bring; the Canadian Cattleman’s Association promising that “With the FTA in place, Canadian beef exports to Colombia could climb to more than triple, exceeding $20 million annually.”; and the case made by Carlo Dade, executive director of Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), who said, “In terms of the importance for Canada, you can look at it sector by sector, province by province. In agricultural products, Alberta has $60 million worth of exports to Colombia; Saskatchewan close to double this, at $117 million, and these are only wheat, barley, and pulses. Quebec is sending $40 million a year of machine parts, including flight simulators and autos; and Ontario, $67 million in similar products. Even in paper and cartons, Nova Scotia, with $23 million, has an important market for that province’s paper and carton industry.”
That the agreement benefits Canada has not been contested by even those opposed to it on moral grounds, and by Trost’s logic, this means it should be up to the Colombians to decide whether or not they want the agreement. A sensible enough premise, it presumes that the opinions of Colombians can not only be voiced, but measured. And for Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties, this is accomplished though a cursory analysis of the polls.
The argument goes like this: the polls show that Colombia’s Polo Democratico Alternativo party has 4% of the vote, and as the only Colombian political party in opposition to the trade deal, this means only 4% of the country oppose it. In other words, for Canadians to fight it and presume to speak for Colombians is misinformed and sanctimonious, if not arrogant. Because even if the allegations of electoral fraud are well founded, as Carleen Pickard suggested before the committee on May 13, it would not change the fact that the majority of the population support it. And even if her time spent in Colombia observing March’s congressional election led her to the conclusion that “the bar for Colombian democracy is pretty low,” that vote theft, political intimidation and all the other violations to which she bore witness are disturbingly common – this still wouldn’t change the fact that the FTA is something most Colombians support.
But can a presidential election poll really be considered an accurate way of gauging support for a specific initiative?
Not according to the human rights lawyer Yessika Hoyos Morales. “I am aware that the three union federations are against the free trade agreement, that indigenous communities are against the FTA, that peasants and agricultural workers are against the FTA, that more than four million people who have been displaced are against the FTA. The families of the victims of crimes committed by the state are against the FTA too.” To say 96% of the population is in favor might be a logical leap-of-faith for many, if not a complete non sequitur.
Free trade agreements are complicated animals, and unfortunately made even more so by the wealth of opinions and statistics available. For that reason alone, it only makes sense that we try to simplify complex and nuanced arguments and break them down into something we can process and vote for or against. But there is only so far this can go, because in our pursuit of simplicity, we often drift towards hyperbole.
Last week’s “Tweet-in for Colombia” was intended to preempt any Conservative attempt to shut down debate in the committee, and to the extent that Parliament isn’t sitting this week, and the debate wasn’t shut down, it was effective. So what happens from here? In the short term, more witnesses telling the committee exactly what Colombians want; because what that is seems open to interpretation.