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Leader of the Conservative Party Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in Ottawa, on Nov. 29.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Back before Canada’s Conservatives started to tread down the path toward protectionism, one of their last acts in government was to sign a free-trade deal with South Korea.

The Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement that prime minister Stephen Harper’s government negotiated in 2014 promised tariff-free access to a fast-growing Asian economy for Canadian exporters. The deal nevertheless faced stiff opposition from Canada’s auto sector, which feared that more imported Hyundai and Kia cars would mean fewer jobs at assembly plants here.

In truth, Canada had little choice but to conclude such a pact after the United States had entered into a free-trade deal with South Korea in 2011. That deal had left Canadian companies at a disadvantage. Our exports to Korea fell sharply in 2012 and 2013.

“This agreement is a great deal for both our countries,” Mr. Harper insisted in announcing the Canada-Korea agreement in early 2014. “It will create jobs and opportunities for Canadians today, and just as importantly, for generations that follow.”

Since then, two-way trade between Canada and South Korea has more than doubled, to almost $22-billion in 2022. Canadian exports to South Korea soared from $3.5-billion in 2013 to $8.7-billion last year. Trade with South Korea has also taken on critical importance as part of Ottawa’s new Indo-Pacific strategy and efforts to “de-risk” economic relations with China.

Flash forward almost a decade to an apparently amnesiac Pierre Poilievre’s tantrum about the South Korean workers coming here to install equipment at the NextStar electric-battery plant that Stellantis and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution are building in Windsor, Ont.

Now Conservative Leader, Mr. Poilievre was a member of the government that signed the free-trade deal with South Korea, and even served as employment minister when it took effect in 2015. He of all people should know what is in it, including provisions that enable “contract service providers” from each country to work in the other on a temporary basis.

Most of the hundreds of workers that NextStar intends to bring in from South Korea will do so under these provisions, which exempt them from having to obtain a work permit. A smaller number are expected to come as temporary foreign workers, as long as NextStar can prove that Canadians could not perform their jobs. Since the South Korean workers will be coming to install proprietary technology that belongs to LG Energy Solution, that should not be a problem.

These workers will only be here for a matter of months. The plant could not be built without them, or at least not in time for battery production to be up and running by 2025. They will not “steal” jobs from Canadian construction workers nor occupy any of the 2,500 permanent jobs that Stellantis says the plant will create.

Mr. Poilievre has nevertheless worked himself into a tizzy about their arrival, even suggesting that Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill for their paycheques. “I love South Korea, wonderful country,” he quipped this week. “But they don’t fund jobs for Canadians and we shouldn’t fund jobs for their workers.”

Except that the $15-billion in production subsidies that the federal and the Ontario governments have promised to NextStar are only to start flowing once the plant begins to make batteries – or well after most of the South Korean workers have returned home. Ottawa and Queen’s Park have also promised $1-billion to NextStar to support the plant’s construction, which will provide jobs for more than 2,000 Canadian construction workers.

There are good reasons to question whether the massive subsidies that the federal, Ontario and Quebec governments have promised to Stellantis, Volkswagen and Northvolt to build electric-vehicle batteries in this country are worthwhile investments. But the fact that all three plants will need to bring in foreign workers to install proprietary equipment is not one of them. Without such workers, these plants simply could not be built here. It is as plain as that.

The success or failure of Canada’s experiment in battery production will only be determined in the course of time. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that it will take 23 years for Ottawa and Queen’s Park to break even on their investment in the NextStar plant alone.

Mr. Poilievre has not said he opposes subsidizing these battery makers. Rather, he is seeking to rile up working-class voters by falsely suggesting foreigners might be stealing their jobs.

As with his fictitious claim that the updated Canada-Ukraine trade agreement includes a carbon tax – a claim he is using as a pretext for opposing the deal – Mr. Poilievre has again shown he is willing to turn his back on the free-trade ethos his party once championed to score political points and scare voters. As such, he is taking the Tories in precisely the wrong direction.

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