By Drew Garvie
On Wednesday, June 16, Chrystia Freeland, the Liberal Minister of International Trade visited her own riding of University-Rosedale in downtown Toronto in order to “listen” to the public as part of her promised consultation tour on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The message Freeland heard at the meeting was a clear and resounding “No to the TPP”.
It was a close to capacity crowd with hundreds in attendance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. A large crowd gathered outside in festival themed rally complete with a 30 foot, red-eyed, inflatable horse, meant to represent the TPP as a Trojan horse.
Inside, the Honourable Minister kicked off the meeting with an introduction talking vaguely about the importance of these consultations and with some painful pandering to University-Rosedale constituents. Jerry Dias, President of Unifor, opened the discussion focusing on the loss of jobs in the auto and manufacturing sector that will be a result of the TPP.
Michael Geist, a Law Professor at the University of Ottawa, spoke about how the TPP will bolster copyright laws that will limit works in the public domain, attack net neutrality, restrict any possible future pharmacare program, and of course threaten sovereignty and democracy through the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms. ISDS means that corporations have increased rights to sue governments.
The only proponent of the TPP on the panel was Daniel Schwanen, Vice President of Research at the C.D. Howe Institute, a public policy think-tank tied to Bay Street. Schwanen is a former CIBC economist and even his review of the TPP was far from glowing. He said the increased per-person income for Canadians would be about the same as the Liberal’s latest “middle class tax cut”, so a few hundred dollars. What he did not specify is which class exactly will be the recipient of increased income under the TPP. When he asked Freeland to decide if we’re in or we’re out, there was a loud response of “OUT” from the audience.
For the next 90 minutes there were questions and comments from the floor. The meeting went 45 minutes overtime and heard from just under 40 people. My tally sheet results were: 34 strongly against the TPP, 3 in favour, and 2 somewhere in the middle.
Some speakers urged rejection of the TPP because of the dangers the TPP posed in particular areas. A health care professional urged rejection because of the increased powers the monopoly pharmaceutical industry would have in driving up drug costs, which will mean the provinces may chose to forgo buying expensive drugs such as those used to treat hepatitis C, which affects hundreds of thousands of Canadians.
Climate change activists demanded urgent action on curbing carbon emissions from Canada and asked how the TPP would affect the ability of government to pass meaningful legislation when it comes into conflict with foreign investor rights under the TPP.
A representative of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries warned that an extension of copyright laws, adding an additional 20 years to the current 50 after an author’s death, will mean a reduction in publicly available literature, knowledge, art and culture.
An Indigenous woman associated with the UofT’s law program directed a plea at Freeland not to sign the TPP if the government is serious about their pledge to build a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples. She placed the TPP in the context of the struggle of Indigenous peoples and their right to exist saying that “the TPP is an act of aggression against Indigenous peoples.” She noted that the right to free and informed consent to development affecting Indigenous communities comes into conflict with corporate rights under the TPP.
A prevalent theme in the points raised from the floor was skepticism for the Liberal’s consultation process. It has been very unclear what the government is looking for, and what response it will take in order for them to reject the deal.
In fact, the consultation process has been called a sham by many, including the Council of Canadians and the Communist Party of Canada, well in advance of this meeting. Many of the consultations have been invitation only with a small group of big business representatives. This meeting in University-Rosedale was something relatively new in that there was a lot of discussion allowed from the floor, and it was less of an obvious government PR presentation.
But the question remains, is the government committed to consultations only in so far as they provide a veneer of democracy to their firm commitment to pro-corporate trade deals? Certainly many presenters felt that way and said so. A 93 year-old sister stood up and asked Freeland to clarify the process, “issue me a ballpark figure. How many roundtables will you need to scrap the TPP?”
Another brother made the comment that, “in these consultations you’re made to feel like a serf pleading to the king.” I would argue that the meeting had more of a peasant revolt vibe at times. Here are some memorable comments, all from different speakers:
“I don’t trust you. Is Trudeau just a pretty face and a marketing person? Big business runs the country and I’m tired of it!”
“The TPP really stands for Treasonous Privatization Plot.”
“The solution to our Plutocrat Problem is not the TPP [Freeland wrote a book about plutocrats]. We need to take our democracy back from the greedy bastards who stole it. The only solution is to tell the plutocrats enough!”
From a Unifor sister: “This is a free trade agreement. It’s free for the corporations and free-fall for the Canadian working class.”
“If you pass the TPP, I’ll leave the Liberal Party. I worked hard to get the corporate agenda of the Tories gone, and I hope it is.”
“You do not have a mandate to commit treason!!!”
These comments, and many more like these, prompted the most applause from the audience. They also prompted a comment in the wrap-up speeches from the ex-banker and C.D. Howe representative that discussions on trade agreements were a lightning rod for those who were disenchanted with the political and economic system more generally. This caused a lot of eye-rolling and a “nationalize the banks” shout from the audience. However, the more general comments talking about the TPP as part of the broader austerity agenda of privatization and the corporate drive to boost profits is exactly what the TPP is about.
So what about the lonely three people that spoke out in favor of the TPP at the meeting? One was a representative of a food exporter association, one was an independent researcher on the TPP, and one was a representative of beef producers. So in short, all were most likely being paid to be there. Another sister pointed out that the TPP might be good for agribusiness, but that does not mean it is good for farmers, food safety and food sovereignty.
After the overwhelming rejection of the TPP by the rabble in the audience, the tone switched back to polite policy discussion with short closing statements from each of the panelists and Freeland. Jerry Dias, President of Unifor, who again reiterated his union’s opposition to the TPP, tried to strike a more conciliatory tone than the many voices from the floor. He disagreed with the speaker from the floor who said she did not trust the Liberals. Dias said he “trusted the government to make the right decision” and pointed to the fact that these consultations would not have happened under the Harper Conservatives.
Dias’ willingness to work with the Liberals was foreshadowed in a bizarre exchange at the start of the meeting where he and Freeland both said that Dias should join “Team Canada”, a tri-partite negotiating team created by the Liberals to get better terms for corporate Canada in free trade negotiations.
The Labour movement should be concerned that the leader of the largest private sector union in the country is confused about the nature of the Liberal government and free trade to such an extent that he thinks his role is by their side in negotiating corporate trade agreements. Politely rejecting a bad deal, and pledging to work on a better one, is a losing strategy.
One of the last speakers from the floor put forward a winning strategy: learn from the workers of France who built a mass struggle on the streets to oppose the pro-corporate laws and politicians.
Freeland concluded the meeting with a few patronizing remarks, warning the audience not to “drown out minority voices” and making sure meetings are not “just an echo chamber.” She said she was taking heat from the press and the Conservatives about having too much consultation, but that this experience had reinforced “the importance of listening to Canadians.” Freeland shied away from making a final push for the TPP, but did say that she was very proud of the CETA deal, which had been partially renegotiated after the Liberal government was formed. This is keeping with an emerging government narrative that, “the TPP is the fault of the Conservatives, but we have to go through with it”.
Throughout the meeting a handful of people raised the point of view that the TPP is dead on arrival. Trump is against it. Clinton, originally for it, is against it. So why is Canada still pursuing it if it will not survive after the US election? Presumably the Liberal government knows what most should: that you cannot trust promises made during a US Presidential campaign.
The TPP is designed to isolate China and is the economic accompaniment to the US military’s “Pivot to Asia”, the build up of military forces in the region. The TPP has been described as “as important as an aircraft carrier” by the US Defense Secretary. As the global capitalist economy continues to wobble, we can assume that the drive to control resources and cheap labour, to crush working class resistance and isolate potential rivals, will continue. It is for this reason that the TPP and other agreements, like the TTIP and CETA, will continue to be pushed by big business, Washington and Ottawa. It is also why those of us who want fair and balanced trade which protect good jobs, unions and help raise living standards need to step up the fight against the TPP.
The more people learn about it, the more opposition grows, and we have defeated Free Trade deals like the FTAA and the MAI in recent history. Wednesday was a good start and it certainly showed that we do not have to put misplaced trust in Freeland, Trudeau, Trump or Clinton to do the right thing. We can defeat the TPP!