It went unnoticed in the salacious cloud surrounding the Jafferlena scandal, but the Harperites again showed their enduring contempt for parliamentary procedure by suddenly forcing a vote on the Canada-?Colombia Free Trade deal late Monday.
Since both the Cons and the Libs are gaga over it, the bill passed second reading. Now it bounces back to the trade committee, where NDP and Bloc members opposed to the bill will have one last chance to save Canada's tattered international reputation, at least some of it.
Let's hope they do. This may be the first trade deal on record where no one can really say how it benefits the Canadian economy - or Colombia's, for that matter.
Voicing local concern, 200 people packed into New Horizons Auditorium at Dufferin and Bloor on a rainy Thursday night (April 8) for a forum on the subject, which I moderated.
When federal NDP MP Peter Julian, a panelist, asked how many in the audience had ever spoken out in support of human rights or trade unions, over half the crowd put their hands up. "Well, in Colombia," he pointed out, "all of you would have been risking your life."
Turns out you run that risk even if you live in Canada. The lone Colombian on the panel, Yhony Muñoz, an OPSEU solidarity activist, was approached after the event by another Colombian who had been heckling throughout the evening.
According to Muñoz, this person threatened his family in Colombia, warning Muñoz to stop talking about human rights. He reported this threat to the police.
In case you think Muñoz was over-?reacting, consider this: a decade back, the union activist worked alongside indigenous leader Kimi Pernia Domico fighting the Urra Dam project, which had flooded huge swaths of land in Colombia.
The dam was backed by Canada's Export Development Corp loans. Months after speaking here on the issue in 2001, Domico was abducted at gunpoint in Colombia. Paramilitary forces later claimed responsibility for his death. Fleeing for his own life, Muñoz arrived in Canada as a refugee in 2002.
The threat at the meeting "proves the point we are trying to make," says Muñoz. "This is the way the government of Colombia behaves. It is used to doing whatever it likes with impunity."
Indeed, if Colombians living in Canada are facing this kind of danger, you can imagine what it's like there, where paramilitaries (after a failed demobilization) as well as guerrilla activity and massive drug cartels, are still terrorizing human rights defenders and unions.
So let's get this straight. Trade with Colombia is minuscule - about 0.1 per cent of our total. By contrast, trade with the U.S. represents 80 per cent. And, most importantly, it isn't expected to increase all that much once the deal is done. So why would we be so gung-ho about teaming up with Colombia, which has more displaced people than any other country besides those beacons of democracy Congo and Sudan?
"This is not going to have a big impact on the Canadian economy," says U of T economist Albert Berry. Colombia needs a deal for public relations purposes, he says, to further its true quest - a free trade deal with its chief trading partner, the U.S. That pact has stalled in Congress, mainly over human rights.
"Canada is a respected country. If Canada signs the CCFTA, some in the U.S. will say, ‘Canada is going ahead with this. Why wouldn't we?' And while it's more important for Colombia [than for Canada], this deal won't be an important job creator there either."
What's driving this agreement, tarted up by a weak side deal that will see both countries, not an independent third party, reporting on Colombia's human rights record? Look to our resource sector - the major foreign investment players in Colombia - and Canuck companies like Pacific Rubiales, one of Colombia's major oil producers, which will expand capital investments to $853 million in 2010.
Last Monday, the same day the pact got first reading, it was reported that Canada's Greystar Resources plans to invest about $39.3 million this year in gold and silver mining in Colombia - and plans to increase that to $600 million by 2012. Canada's Medoro Resources aims to sink about $100 mil into gold exploration.
John Stephenson, senior VP of mutual fund company First Asset, says the advantages of the pact for Canadian mining and energy firms will be significant. "There will be fewer travel restrictions, fewer hurdles to get visas, and it'll be easier to transfer money. Canadian companies are looking to buy assets in Colombia in search of natural resources, so when the government is opening up a new piece of land Canadian investors will have fewer barriers to bid."
But these companies aren't just any old enterprises. Mining firms represent one-quarter of the companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Resource firms also happen to have friends in high places.
Mining Watch's Jamie Kneen says, "Whether it's Brian Mulroney's close ties to Barrick Gold or the mining sector's recent donations to the BC Liberals, Canadian mining's political connections are undeniable. People at the embassy level and at Foreign Affairs are quite supportive. Most of the benefits of these connections go to shareholders, who are mostly foreign."
U of T's Berry agrees that "the significance of this deal is mining." Colombia, he says, has fallen victim to the "natural resource curse," which inevitably leads to corruption and war while stunting other economic possibilities. "This is understood by very few, and they are mostly economists."
Many predict that a free trade pact with Canada would further distort Colombian society. The country is, after all, primarily agricultural, yet Canada is lauding the pact's ability to boost Canadian wheat, pork and barley exports.
Some studies suggest, for example, that 50,000 to 90,000 Colombian jobs will be lost in the pork processing sector alone when Canadian products pour into the South American country.
"Is a few million dollars in pork sales really worth it for Canada?" asks Kneen. "It is going to push all their small-scale farmers out of business to bolster our pork industry."
But many Canadians will benefit from the trade boost in one way - if we don't mind profiting from the displacement of Colombians shoved off their land because of rich mineral deposits below. Turns out the Canada Pension Plan holds a lot of mining stocks.
"We are all going to retire at some point, so indirectly we will all benefit from this deal, whether we've invested in RRSPs, CPP or a company pension plan," says Stephenson.
Hmm. Retirement just got more fraught than it already is? Do we really want to plant a seal of approval on a regime that can't and won't stop its death squads?
"How many Canadians know that the Colombian ambassador to Canada in 2005 had to resign his senate seat in 09 under suspicion that he had ties with the paramilitaries?" asks Berry. "One side of Colombia is very pleasant. The dark side is hell."
Just ask Yhony Muñoz.