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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asks a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa in early June. The Conservative Leader is criticizing the Liberal government’s efforts to weave enhanced environmental protections, gender equality and Indigenous rights into NAFTA negotiations, suggesting discussions of “social issues” are an unwarranted distraction and imperil Canadian jobs.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is accusing the Liberal government of jeopardizing Canadian jobs by pushing for increased environmental protections, Indigenous rights and gender equality in a revamped North American free-trade deal.

Mr. Scheer said the trade negotiations with the United States and Mexico are about ensuring market access to goods and services produced in Canada, and if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to engage in "social issues," he should do so in the House of Commons, not at the bargaining table.

"Using a trade deal to try to advocate for non-trade-related types of issues in a sovereign country, in some cases right down to the state level, to me is jeopardizing a very important trade deal," Mr. Scheer said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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"To think of the literally hundreds of thousands of jobs that are directly linked to NAFTA, to put them in jeopardy for the Prime Minister to engage in other issues, to me is completely inappropriate."

Mr. Scheer's comments come on the heels of Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole labelling Ottawa's push for such measures as "virtue signalling." Mr. O'Toole said the Conservatives are willing to offer non-partisan support to the government during the NAFTA renegotiations, but only if it sticks to economic issues.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said last month that the Liberal government wants a "progressive" trade deal, including chapters on gender and Indigenous rights, and a push for greater environmental protection.

Some trade experts have questioned the practicality of attempting to protect gender and Indigenous rights in a trade deal, or seeking commitments not to lower environmental protection as a means of attracting investment.

Liberal MP Andrew Leslie, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, rejected the Conservative complaint that the gender, Indigenous and environmental push is window dressing, arguing that Canada is leading the way on important issues.

"We have to include them; we have to be true to ourselves as a nation; we have to embrace this idea of being progressive," he said. "And we have to bring others into the fold."

The current NAFTA includes side deals on labour and the environment in which each partner agrees to enforce existing laws and trilateral committees examine the records of the various governments.

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In laying out the American list of goals, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argued the environmental provisions should be brought into the body of the agreement. While Ms. Freeland proposed language that would ensure governments do not weaken environmental protection to attract investment, the U.S. position would merely prohibit governments from exempting companies from environmental laws to attract investment.

In response to Mr. O'Toole's weekend remarks, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna defended Ottawa's proposal to include those protections, saying international agreements should recognize the rights of Indigenous people and women as well as the economic imperative of environmental protection.

"This is not radical stuff," she said in a Facebook post. "It is, however, responsible, good stewardship and smart economics."

National Chief Perry Bellegarde, head of the Assembly of First Nations, argued Indigenous rights should be a cornerstone of economic development in all three countries, as recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"Things have changed since NAFTA was first negotiated," said Chief Bellegarde, who serves on the government NAFTA advisory committee.

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