Silos suck.

07 January 2011 Politics

It’s common knowledge that one can do a job well, or do it quick, but rarely is it possible to do both. And in the glacial pace of government policymaking, often neither criteria is satisfied. Such is the case with the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Thursday’s Globe and Mail featured an excellent editorial by Maude Barlow that points out some of the environmental consequences of CETA (spoiler alert: it doesn’t look good). If CETA is brand new to you, peruse this backgrounder from Paul Wells. The negotiations have been going on for a long time - talks of cooperation between Canada and The Old Continent date back to at least 1998. It’s basically NAFTA, but on an intercontinental scale.

Canadian and European representatives are still in the thick of negotiations, so I’d like to chime in with my thoughts and observations in the hope that they will, in some small way, push our delegates in Brussels to think of the big picture.

In the article linked to above, Maude Barlow says that “… this deal is a bid for unprecedented and uncontrolled European access to Canadian resources.” In the same way, Canadian companies will have greater access to Europe’s natural resources once the CETA is implemented. This is a problem because more actors are competing over the same scarce resources, but more importantly, Canadian firms see Europe as an untapped market and nothing more. The farther removed a company is from its operations, the less it cares about the social and environmental impacts of its economic activity.

If you follow my logic, it’s like a slightly tweaked Tragedy of the Commons. Canadian firms feel more connected to and responsible for Canadian resources. We have a national identity (however fragmented it may be) that ties us symbolically to our forests, rivers, mineral deposits and groundwater. Europe’s resources don’t evoke the same kind of emotional attachment because  we feel further removed from them (and therefore, less guilty about extracting them to turn a profit). The same situation happens in the opposite direction with European investment in the oil sands because, hey, it’s not their oil sands, right? They don’t have to answer for the destruction of Alberta’s forests. In fact, they can sue the Canadian government if environmental regulations are too strict!

And that’s the crux of the problem. Social and environmental responsibility are nowhere to be seen in this trade agreement. In a questionnaire that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to gather public opinion from firms and industry associations, environmental regulations are presented as “Technical Barriers to Trade” and included in a long list of “issues” that would restrict the trade of goods.

The ministry is siloing itself. Its focus in these talks is purely on economics and trade, but CETA will have repercussions that reach much further. The rights of indigenous peoples, protection of the environment, and sovereignty over our resources are some of the areas that need to be discussed openly in these ongoing discussions. And to get there, we need to have more ministries at the negotiating table. Why is the Ministry of Environment not a part of these discussions? It’s plain to see that CETA will encourage heavier investment and development of the oil sands by European firms. Surely this agreement falls beyond the scope of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

The provincial governments are having their say at the negotiating table, too. I worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade last summer, and the water-cooler talk about the CETA negotiations was very centred around economic technicalities. Compatibility of certain Canadian business models in European markets, that sort of thing.

On my desk that summer I had a mousepad in the shape of a big red circle with the word SILOS crossed out. No silos. It’s an attempt to facilitate cross-communication between departments and ministries. To actively seek the big picture, to see the forest despite all the trees. It’s a noble goal.

Unfortunately, silos seem well-established in Canada’s provincial and federal governments. It’ll take some serious political will to break these barriers and broaden the debate around free trade. This is my challenge to all our Canadian delegates around the negotiating table to think bigger. There is more at stake than GDP or government procurement procedures or industry revenues. CETA is a sweeping change to the way international trade works, and all affected parties should have a meaningful voice in the decisionmaking process.

Sam Nabi

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