For decades, Canadian governments have talked and talked about tearing down interprovincial barriers and turning Canada into a genuine free-trade area. They have repeatedly done nothing of the sort. Federal-provincial conferences have come and gone, with little improvement on the old Agreement on Internal Trade of 1995, which was itself only a partial dismantling of the trade walls between provinces.
The new Canadian Free Trade Agreement, agreed to on Friday, might be a big leap forward – eventually. No, it doesn't tear down all the barriers. But it at least catalogues its own defects.
The CFTA is based on the idea that interprovincial rules should be harmonized and trade should be free – except for exceptional exceptions. Those exceptions, which are legion, are documented in a "negative list." It reminds Ottawa and the provinces of the work to be done.
The listing of all the exceptions to free trade in a free-trade agreement is one of the reasons why the document is more than 300 pages long. The plan is to whittle down the exemptions over time. Supposedly, too, any new barriers will need to be approved by special negotiations, not the other way around.
It's awfully Canadian. It's not exactly a new broom sweeping away all internal trade barriers, harmonizing standards and recognizing professional credentials across provinces. Instead, the CFTA looks more like a process that has established a process to begin the process of processing all of the above. Yeah.
Much of the CFTA reveals daunting, unnecessary barriers – obstacles to trade in large, long-established industries such as energy, forestry, liquor and alcoholic beverages. Is it really so difficult to "harmonize standards" in cutting down trees? Does the CFTA really have to establish a committee to make "recommendations to enhance trade in beer, wine and spirits within Canada." Why is all of this so hard?