News Article

Bringing the SPP Out of the Shadows - Protesters mobilize against new trade and security talks

By Tim McSorley, The Dominion, Canada

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Pesticide limits are barriers to trade that must be eliminated. Integrated, high-tech border and secretive security measures are needed to ensure our safety against terrorists. Closed-door meetings between the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US are advised only by a panel of 30 top CEOs from each country.

Pesticide limits are barriers to trade that must be eliminated. Integrated, high-tech border and secretive security measures are needed to ensure our safety against terrorists. Closed-door meetings between the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US are advised only by a panel of 30 top CEOs from each country.

At first glance, many may dismiss this list as the fears of the isolationist far-Left, what New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman derided as the new Flat-Earthers who would deny the supremacy of globalization. But for those who are following the movements of the Security and Prosperity Partnership(SPP), these fears are slowly becoming a reality –- one that takes its next form at the so-called “Three Amigos” summit in Montebello, Quebec.

On August 20 and 21, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, US President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon will meet in this small resort town to discuss the next steps of the SPP. And while many Canadians have never heard of the partnership, activists from across North America are planning to make their presence felt at the "3 Bandidos" summit and hope to shed some light on what many are describing as 'NAFTA Plus'. On August 19, a march will proceed from Ottawa City Hall to the Parliament buildings, starting at 1pm. On Aug 20, the first day of the meetings, a broad-based protest in Montebello begins at noon.

The SPP was founded in 2005 at a meeting in Waco, Texas, between Bush, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin and then-Mexican President Vincente Fox. Proponents of the partnership hail it as a simpler way of ensuring that Canada, Mexico and the United States can gradually move beyond barriers on trade and safety issues. The partnership, reads the Canadian government’s website on the SPP, “is a dialogue […] by which the three countries can resolve unnecessary barriers to trade and a means to improve our response to emergencies and increase security.”

But for critics of both the North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas(FTAA), the SPP is the next step in submerging the rights of citizens to the rights of big business and –- more recently –- the ability for the US to carry out its War on Terror. “It is quite literally about eliminating Canada’s ability to determine independent regulatory standards, environmental protections, energy security, foreign, military, immigration and other policies,” Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, stated in testimony to the parliamentary Committee on International Trade last May.

Because the SPP is not a formal treaty, but rather an ongoing round of discussions between various government officials on everything from border security to the further elimination of perceived barriers to trade, the partnership does not need to be approved or discussed in parliament or go before public hearings. Its meetings, like the one being held in Montebello, are held behind closed doors. The only official consultative body was formed in 2006. The North American Competitiveness Council(NACC) consists of 30 top businesspeople, 10 from each country, who serve as advisors on the policy being developed and discussed at the various SPP meetings (other encounters under the auspices of the SPP are held regularly by lower-level members of cabinet on issues of trade and security). The Canadian SPP website heralds this body for ensuring the private sector’s voice is heard in these ongoing discussions, but remains silent on what role the public’s voice should play in these discussions.

Over past months, more information has been emerging about what the SPP engenders. A 2006 report from SPP trade talks, revealed in the media in early May, calls pesticide-residue limits in Canada a “trade irritant.” In response, Canada announced it would be lowering its restrictions on pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables in order to better “harmonise” with US regulations –- already found to be some of the lowest in the world.

Organisers for the days of protest are hoping to highlight these types of questions and force debate about the SPP onto the public agenda. "If we can get it out from the cover it's under now, then it's a big success," Rick Arnold, a co-ordinator with Common Frontiers, a group opposed to free trade in the Americas, recently told the Ottawa Citizen. But even holding a public discussion on the SPP has proven difficult. Plans by the Council of Canadians to hold a forum on the SPP on August 19 in Papineauville, a 15-minute drive from Montebello, were put on hold when the Surete du Quebec, the US Army and local police informed the community centre where the event was to be held that they could require use of the centre for security reasons and asked them to cancel the event -- which they did. Instead, the debate will now take place on the same day in Ottawa, featuring representatives from nearly all major political parties (including the Green Party) –- the exception being the Conservative party.

While recent so-called anti-globablization demonstrations have often been portrayed by corporate media outlets as violent actions dominated by black-clad hooligans, that kind of description is hard to apply to the groups organising for Montebello. Ranging from political parties like the New Democratic Party and networks like the Council of Canadians, to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist groups like People's Global Action, the groups represent the gamut of issues that many feel are at stake: environmental standards, immigrant rights, labour standards and minimum-wage, freedom of speech and transparent democracy, to name a few. The groups hope to ensure that local residents know what is happening in their backyard by organising a series of workshops and events, both leading up to the summit and across the country on the day of. These will include public meetings in communities around Montebello to discuss the demonstration with local residents, a national day of protest on August 16 against the summit's planned security measures (including a Summit of the Americas-type fence around the Chateau Montebello) and solidarity rallies in Vancouver and other Canadian cities on August 20.

While the talks may be held securely in the aptly named ‘castle,’ it's clear that the issues being discussed may not be hidden away for much longer.

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