Canada's economic future is being hampered by "free-trade deniers" whose "inward-looking" vision for the country threatens opportunities for growth and prosperity, the international trade minister said in blunt remarks Wednesday.
The Conservative minister's comments – aimed squarely at the opposition New Democratic Party– came on the 25th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, and as the federal government hopes to sign a free-trade deal with the European Union by the end of this year.
Despite "positive experiences in Canada with our free-trade agreements with 14 different countries around the world, there are still those in Canada who are ideologically and fundamentally opposed to expanding our trading relationships," Ed Fast told reporters after a speech in Toronto.
"I've referred to them as free-trade deniers. I do so very deliberately, because what they are doing is, in denying Canada the ability to open up new trade opportunities, they're denying Canadians an opportunity to benefit from economic growth and long-term prosperity."
Two competing visions have emerged for Canada, he said: one in which Canada thrives and prospers on the global stage, or one that "lacks confidence, a nation that cowers in the face of competition, and a country afraid to take up the challenges of a global marketplace."
The NDP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The federal government has signed nine free-trade agreements in the past six years. It hopes to conclude a deal with the EU by year's end, one with India next year and is currently in negotiations with Morocco and several other countries.
A Canada-EU trade agreement is expected to increase bilateral trade by 20 per cent, and bring a $12-billion annual boost to the Canadian economy, the equivalent of 80,000 new jobs, the minister said.
"Unfortunately, there are still some activists that slavishly oppose our efforts to open up new markets for Canadian entrepreneurs."
He slammed those who oppose free-trade agreements, including the pending Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, as taking a "timid and inward-looking" approach.
Various groups, including unions and some municipalities, have raised concern over the Canada-EU trade deal and its impact on intellectual property, government procurement and employment. The New Democrats, meantime, have opposed prior free-trade deals.
Mr. Fast used the anniversary of the NAFTA deal to highlight the benefits these agreements can bring – and suggest criticisms of that deal were overblown.
Twenty-five years ago, "these very same anti-trade activists claimed that a trade agreement with the U.S. would wipe out millions of jobs, hollow out our economy, compromise Canada's sovereignty over its fresh water, and cause us to lose our Canadian culture," said Mr. Fast. "None of these claims came true."
Free trade should remain a key priority for governments, despite global economic uncertainty, James Baker, former U.S. secretary of state, told the forum. "Current concerns about free trade, I suppose, are understandable, because when countries engage in free trade, there are always individual winners and individual losers," he said. "But when the precepts of free trade are adhered to, not only do the economies of the nations involved grow, but the cost of goods and services are reduced for everyone."