Photo: Canada is trading away its environmental rights

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation's Senior Editor Ian Hanington

In 1997, Canada restricted import and transfer of the gasoline additive MMT because it was a suspected neurotoxin that had already been banned in Europe. Ethyl Corp., the U.S. multinational that supplied the chemical, sued the government for $350 million under the North American Free Trade Agreement and won! Canada was forced to repeal the ban, apologize to the company and pay an out-of-court settlement of US$13 million.

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The free trade agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico was never designed to raise labour and environmental standards to the highest level. In fact, NAFTA and other trade agreements Canada has signed — including the recent Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with China — often take labour standards to the lowest denominator while increasing environmental risk. The agreements are more about facilitating corporate flexibility and profit than creating good working conditions and protecting the air, water, land and diverse ecosystems that keep us alive and healthy.

Canada's environment appears to be taking the brunt of NAFTA-enabled corporate attacks. And when NAFTA environmental-protection provisions do kick in, the government often rejects them.

According to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, more than 70 per cent of NAFTA claims since 2005 have been against Canada, with nine active cases totalling $6 billion outstanding. These challenge "a wide range of government measures that allegedly interfere with the expected profitability of foreign investments," including the Quebec government's moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Quebec imposed the moratorium in 2011 pending an environmental review of the controversial gas-and-oil drilling practice. A U.S. company headquartered in Calgary, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing the federal government under NAFTA for $250 million. A preliminary assessment by Quebec's Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement found "fracking would have major impacts," including air and water pollution, acrid odours and increased traffic and noise. Fracking can also cause seismic activity.

According to the CCPA, Canada has been sued more often than any other developed nation through investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms in trade agreements. Under NAFTA, "Canada has already lost or settled six claims, paid out damages totaling over $170 million and incurred tens of millions more in legal costs. Mexico has lost five cases and paid damages of US$204 million. The U.S. has never lost a NAFTA investor-state case."

NAFTA does, however, have a watchdog arm that's supposed to address environmental disputes and public concerns, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. But Canada is blocking the commission from investigating the impacts of tailings ponds at the Alberta oilsands.

Environmental Defence, the Natural Resources Defense Council and three people downstream from the oilsands asked the CEC to investigate whether tailings leaking into the Athabasca River and other waterways represent a violation of the federal Fisheries Act. According to the complaint, the tailings ponds, which are actually much larger than what most people would think of as ponds, are spilling millions of litres of toxic liquid every day. Environmental Defence says the CEC found "plenty of evidence that tar sands companies were breaking Canadian law and lots of evidence that the Canadian government was failing to do anything about it."

It's the third time in the past year that Canada has prevented the commission from examining environmental issues. Canada earlier blocked an investigation into the protection of polar bears from threats including climate change and one concerning the dangers posed to wild salmon from B.C. fish farms.

Trade agreements are negotiated in the best interests of corporations instead of citizens. On top of that, federal and provincial governments keep pinning our economic hopes on volatile oil and gas markets, with little thought about how those resources could provide long-term prosperity. Recent plummeting oil prices show where that leads.

These priorities are screwed up. We end up with a boom-and-bust economy and the erosion of social programs as budgets are slashed when oil prices drop. Skewed trade deals allow corporations to override environmental protections that haven't already been gutted, and create a labour climate in which wages, benefits and working standards fall.

It's time for Canada to recognize that a diversified economy and citizens' right to live in a healthy environment are more important than facilitating short-term profits for foreign and multinational corporations.

January 29, 2015

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Feb 03, 2015
6:53 AM

A country that puts it’s environment high on the list, naturally puts it’s citizens high on the list. However, when a country turns it’s back on it’s environment for short term profit, it turns it’s back on it’s citizens. The two are inexplicably linked and you can’t have one without the other. Humans are linked to nature and the current economic paradigm does not take either one of those into any sort of positive consideration. If we can begin to shift our priorities back to Environment and Citizens health, the rest will follow, including a stronger, more diversified economy. It works the same way positive thoughts have a positive influence on healing and well being. The foundation creates the outcome.

Jan 31, 2015
4:05 PM

Thanks David

This Government and the ones after should take into consideration that money is and never will be the root of our progression. If we don’t help protect and live with our environment than in the end we will have and be nothing. As a nation we should all stand up and demand that we are the ones that voted these politicians into office. An office meant to help and protect it’s citizens, not defile and destroy that thing that keeps this planet breathing. Our forests, oceans and wildlife can live without the human race. But our species cannot survive without them. Wake up Harper, if you like oil so much I’m sure that if you took a glass of water from the rivers close to the Oilsands I’m sure you wouldn’t have a problem drinking the poison that you say is ” Keeping the economy strong”. Try telling that to the citizens of that province that you’ve thrown to the wayside, and don’t care about anymore if at all. With a Government we have know I am ashamed. At least I can say I didn’t help and vote them in, but I still feel angry that there are those that will vote for them in the next election and not care to first look at the bigger picture first. Hopefully our future will end better then our past

Jan 31, 2015
3:09 PM

We end up with a boom-and-bust economy and the erosion of social programs as budgets are slashed when oil prices drop. Skewed trade deals allow corporations to override environmental protections that haven’t already been gutted, and create a labour climate in which wages, benefits and working standards fall. < That is precisely what the Harper Government wants. They cut Canadian’s freedoms during the bust and in periods of panic and do not bring them back when the good times return. (As if they were using Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ as a template,) Instead they divert the money into payoffs to their corporate sponsors. Harper’s economic policy is designed to make the average Canadian citizen into a disenfranchised serf. This is not accidental, it is deliberately done to further Harper’s ideology, which has very little to do with the traditional Conservative values of the party.

Jan 31, 2015
12:26 PM

Canada is suffering from the toxicity that comes with carbon fuel wealth. One of the signs of the disease process is a trend toward a monocultural economy.

People tend to stop engaging with their livelihoods creatively. That predominant belief that work is about making money may be key to this. Given that you can make more money sucking on the petroleum teat, that is what you will do.

It is also a sign of the accelerated wealth stratification process associated with these kinds of ‘bonanza’ industries. This includes the amplification of control they exert on any government willing to claim jurisdiction over the resources that are available for exploitation, and thus lay claim to some of the wealth and power.

It is fascinating to see how this is playing out for the First Nations.

Over time, European culture has exerted every possible influence in the attempt to bring their cultures to an end. This has included everthing from ethnic cleansing to industrial-scale kidnapping and confinement as part of the attempt to brainwash their children.

Under these conditions, a good many of them have been turned away from their origins and convinced of the essential value of possessing’personal property’ in the struggle to achieve a sense of self-worth.

Nontheless, a significant number continue to associate ‘wealth’ as something that brings status because it can be shared.

If we could somehow replace the materialistic, self-agrandizing mores of free market capitalist culture with such values, we would be prepared to begin to solve our self-induced, apocolyptic problems.

Jan 30, 2015
9:03 AM

What no one seems to have recognized is that we can use NAFTA’s Chapter 11 BS to our advantage! That’s because it gives companies the right to sue governments for lost future profits — that means lost profits for future shareholders. And that gives us a precedent for saying that future generations can (should and must) be given legal and economic rights.

Which is pretty much what our fight for a safe, viable climate is all about. And it’s what your Blue Dot “right to a healthy environment” is all about. So let’s use the NAFTA Chapter 11 precedent of rights for future generations in lawsuits to safeguard the future!

For more info, see:

Jan 29, 2015
3:28 PM

The maintream (neoclassical) economic theory that promotes free trade, among other things, forms it’s own box. The environment and social concerns are regarded as “externalities” to that box. The theory itself is increasingly discredited by the observable and measurable purely economic facts, and yet, the stronger the attacks the academic critics make, the tighter it’s faithful try to hold on to their free market beliefs, and their favored position in the limelight.

At the end of the day it’s the major shareholders of large corporations and those in political power serving their interests who decide how long this charade continues. Most voters and probably most politicians do not have a clear enough picture of the range of political-economic options that are available to help move out of the current nose dive toward both neo feudalism and environmental destruction, while those benefiting most are blinded to the greater reality, seemingly either unable (or unwilling) to look outside that box.

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