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Canada is Trading Away its Environmental Rights

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

In 1997, Canada restricted import and transfer of the gasoline additive MMT because it was a suspected neurotoxin that had already been banned in Europe. Ethyl Corp., the U.S. multinational that supplied the chemical, sued the government for $350 million under the North American Free Trade Agreement and won! Canada was forced to repeal the ban, apologize to the company and pay an out-of-court settlement of US$13 million.

The free trade agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico was never designed to raise labour and environmental standards to the highest level. In fact, NAFTA and other trade agreements Canada has signed — including the recent Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with China — often take labour standards to the lowest denominator while increasing environmental risk. The agreements are more about facilitating corporate flexibility and profit than creating good working conditions and protecting the air, water, land and diverse ecosystems that keep us alive and healthy.

Canada’s environment appears to be taking the brunt of NAFTA-enabled corporate attacks. And when NAFTA environmental-protection provisions do kick in, the government often rejects them.

According to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, more than 70 per cent of NAFTA claims since 2005 have been against Canada, with nine active cases totalling $6 billion outstanding. These challenge “a wide range of government measures that allegedly interfere with the expected profitability of foreign investments,” including the Quebec government’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Quebec imposed the moratorium in 2011 pending an environmental review of the controversial gas-and-oil drilling practice. A U.S. company headquartered in Calgary, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing the federal government under NAFTA for $250 million. A preliminary assessment by Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement found fracking would have “major impacts,” including air and water pollution, acrid odours and increased traffic and noise. Fracking can also cause seismic activity.

According to the CCPA, Canada has been sued more often than any other developed nation through investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms in trade agreements. Under NAFTA, “Canada has already lost or settled six claims, paid out damages totaling over $170 million and incurred tens of millions more in legal costs. Mexico has lost five cases and paid damages of US$204 million. The U.S. has never lost a NAFTA investor-state case.”

NAFTA does, however, have a watchdog arm that’s supposed to address environmental disputes and public concerns, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. But Canada is blocking the commission from investigating the impacts of tailings ponds at the Alberta oilsands.

Environmental Defence, the Natural Resources Defense Council and three people downstream from the oilsands asked the CEC to investigate whether tailings leaking into the Athabasca River and other waterways represent a violation of the federal Fisheries Act. According to the complaint, the tailings ponds, which are actually much larger than what most people would think of as ponds, are spilling millions of litres of toxic liquid every day. Environmental Defence says the CEC found “plenty of evidence that tar sands companies were breaking Canadian law and lots of evidence that the Canadian government was failing to do anything about it.”

It’s the third time in the past year that Canada has prevented the commission from examining environmental issues. Canada earlier blocked an investigation into the protection of polar bears from threats including climate change and one concerning the dangers posed to wild salmon from B.C. fish farms.

Trade agreements are negotiated in the best interests of corporations instead of citizens. On top of that, federal and provincial governments keep pinning our economic hopes on volatile oil and gas markets, with little thought about how those resources could provide long-term prosperity. Recent plummeting oil prices show where that leads.

These priorities are screwed up. We end up with a boom-and-bust economy and the erosion of social programs as budgets are slashed when oil prices drop. Skewed trade deals allow corporations to override environmental protections that haven’t already been gutted, and create a labour climate in which wages, benefits and working standards fall.

It’s time for Canada to recognize that a diversified economy and citizens’ right to live in a healthy environment are more important than facilitating short-term profits for foreign and multinational corporations.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Image Credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper Photo Gallery

Like a kid in a candy store
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In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

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Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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