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Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with U.S. President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with U.S. President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Gary Mason

Trade talks ain’t what they used to be (open) Add to ...

Once upon a time, major international trade pacts were the source of controversy and great debate in Canada.

The North American Free Trade Agreement ignited a national uprising. On Parliament Hill, opposition parties railed against the accord’s potential to make Canada the 51st state of the U.S. It made national figures out of anti-NAFTA crusaders Mel Hurtig and Maude Barlow.

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Those were the days.

For a few years now, Canada has been negotiating a free-trade agreement with Europe that is absolutely massive in scope. Ultimately, it could affect everything from health care to the environment. Yet, while the Council of Canadians and a few other groups have been sounding the alarm on the impact this deal could have on the country, theirs have been mostly voices in the wilderness.

Trade talks with the EU have gained little traction nationally. It would seem Canadians will learn what we’ve been signed up for once the deal is announced.

Which brings us to this week’s news that Canada has been allowed provisional entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations – a trade deal much bigger in scale than NAFTA. Along with the United States, Mexico and eight other Pacific countries, the economic partnership would cover a region of 658-million people with a combined GDP of more than $20-trillion. You’ll be hearing those figures a lot in coming months.

And that may be about all.

In fact, negotiations have been going on for more than two years. Canada and Mexico are late entrants. Until now, there has been little information released about what the talks entail. Secrecy has been the trademark of the discussions and will no doubt continue to be.

There has, however, been one leak: a chapter of the proposed agreement involving investment. The Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Public Citizen has been able to verify the text as authentic.

Noteworthy in the draft is the concern that the negotiations are occurring without any oversight by the media or elected officials. This takes on a more troubling hue when you consider that the document indicates negotiators have already agreed on some fairly controversial measures, in particular ones around the rights and privileges of foreign corporations.

According to Public Citizen, the trade deal would limit the extent to which signatory countries could regulate foreign firms operating within their boundaries, effectively giving them greater freedoms than domestic firms.

It also reveals that all of the countries except Australia have agreed to terms around the operation of foreign tribunals, which would arbitrate disputes. The tribunals would be staffed by private-sector lawyers who would rotate between acting as judges and acting as advocates for the investors who might be suing a particular government over a TPP-related matter. Talk about a potential conflict of interest.

And these are just a few of the more contentious issues discussed in the leaked draft. There are others. Lots of them. And remember, this is just one chapter of what we can only assume are several.

Of course, this doesn’t make any proposed deal bad. There’s little question that such a pact has tremendous upside for Canada. If Japan joins the negotiations – and China and India down the road – the potential of this Pacific partnership becomes even greater.

But the clandestine nature of the talks is concerning. As are reports that Canada and Mexico – as part of the terms of their prospective entry into the club this week – were told they could not reopen any parts of the deal that had already been agreed upon by the original nine member countries. And that we might have abided to that stipulation without even seeing the existing draft document. (Although that seems beyond belief.)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada has not agreed to any specific measures. But we can only guess what that means. Just as we can only guess what such a trade agreement would ultimately do to the business life of this country and everything that flows from it.

Back in the day, the thought of that would have caused a real commotion in this country. Maybe no longer.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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