The three largest opposition parties are criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the latest version of the new North American free-trade agreement, accusing the Liberals of failing to secure enough protection for Canada’s aluminum sector.
Mr. Trudeau rejected their concerns Wednesday and pledged to work with the opposition to ratify the deal as soon as possible.
Facing opposition questions for the first time since the United States, Mexico and Canada announced a revised deal, Mr. Trudeau said it will benefit Canada’s aluminum producers by guaranteeing minimum levels of content from the three countries in North American-made vehicles.
Canada’s aluminum sector, which is largely based in Quebec, is concerned the revised deal does not include stronger assurances that aluminum used in Mexican plants is sourced from North America.
The minimum-content rules were part of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement signed in November, 2018, to update the existing NAFTA. However, further changes were agreed to this week for the Republican administration in the U.S. to secure the support of the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives. The latest changes were primarily aimed at Democratic demands for stronger labour standards in Mexico.
Having been reduced to a minority government in October, the Liberals will need the support of at least one of the three largest opposition parties – the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois or the NDP – to pass legislation through the House. None of the three parties was prepared Wednesday to pledge such support and all were strongly critical of the government. Conservative and NDP MPs said they need time to read the details before deciding how to vote.
However, in Question Period, some Conservative MPs condemned the deal.
“There could not be a worse trade agreement than the one that Canada just negotiated,” said Conservative MP Richard Martel, who represents the Quebec riding of Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, where the aluminum sector is a significant employer. “The Prime Minister has abandoned our workers.”
Mr. Trudeau accused his critics of stoking fear and anxiety unnecessarily.
“This trade agreement represents a gain for workers,” he said. “Anyone who votes against that agreement would be voting against aluminum workers in the Saguenay and elsewhere in Quebec and Canada.”
With the House of Commons scheduled to rise on Friday until late January, the issue of parliamentary ratification will likely be pushed into 2020.
“We understand the challenges of [the] parliamentary calendar limit our … speed compared to what the other two jurisdictions will be able to do [on ratification]," Mr. Trudeau told reporters on his way into Question Period. "But I’ve given my word that we would work very quickly to ratify it as soon as possible.”
Jean Simard, president and chief executive of the Aluminium Association of Canada, said this week that the latest deal means Mexico is “more or less China’s North American backyard” for aluminum imports into the North American market.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she has raised these industry concerns with her U.S. counterparts. She also noted that the issue is connected to U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs – called Section 232 tariffs – that are imposed on all such imports. Those tariffs were imposed on Canada between May, 2018, and May, 2019, as the new NAFTA deal was being negotiated.
“I think where the concern is, is that there could be trans-shipments into Mexico that would then go into the United States and that that could be a way for non-North American countries to avoid being hit by the 232 tariffs,” Ms. Freeland said. “And I think it’s important for us as Canadians to remember the 232 tariffs are imposed by the United States on other countries. And monitoring the effectiveness of those tariffs is first and foremost a question for the United States.”
There were conflicting signals this week in Washington as to how quickly the U.S. side will ratify the new deal. A spokesperson for President Donald Trump said the White House wants ratification to occur this year, while U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested it would not happen until after the Senate deals with an impeachment trial of the President, which would push ratification into 2020.
Mexico was the first to ratify the deal in June. However, Ms. Freeland said Mexico will have to hold another ratification vote in light of the latest round of changes.