Approximately 2,000 people joined a rally on Parliament Hill yesterday to protest the Security and Prosperity Partnership summit, which takes place in Montebello, Que., over the next two days.
Photograph by : Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen
The Ottawa Citizen
Not as ominous as advertised
The Security and Prosperity Partnership was established to tackle lofty issues, but in the two years since its inception, its now dull focus has been extremely narrowed, writes Richard Foot.
Richard Foot, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Monday, August 20, 2007
Despite all the fancy talk, the diplomatic pomp and the apocalyptic protests that will emanate over the next two days from Montebello, Que., the drab facts behind the summit of leaders from Canada, the United States and Mexico are far less dramatic than the grandiose meeting might suggest.
Regulations over food-colour dyes, common standards for hazardous materials containers, navigation systems for North American airways -- these are some of the myriad, bureaucratic measures that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will spend the next two days huddling over inside the world's largest log cabin with U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
"A lot of it," admitted one of Mr. Harper's officials last week, "isn't very interesting."
The stakes were meant to be much higher.
This week's gathering inside the walls of Chteau Montebello -- a magnificent, 77-year-old resort on the banks of the Ottawa River -- was initially intended as a political pit stop on the road to a stronger North American economic union.
In 2005, Paul Martin, Mr. Bush and then-Mexican president Vicente Fox met in Waco, Texas, to launch the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), an initiative aimed at deepening the integration of the three countries, forging a common customs area and labour market, and in the wake of the security threats posed by 9/11, making sure North America's internal borders remained as free and efficient as possible.
That same year, an independent report authored by an elite group of intellectuals from all three nations said the limited scope of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement was in urgent need of renewal.
It said a more genuine economic and security union was essential if Canadians, Americans and Mexicans hoped to compete and prosper against the economies of China, India and the European Union.
"The establishment by 2010 of a security and economic community for North America is an ambitious, but achievable goal," said the report, whose Canadian contributors included John Manley, the former deputy prime minister, Pierre Marc Johnson, the former premier of Quebec, and Allan Gotlieb, the former Canadian ambassador to Washington.
Last year, the leaders -- dubbed the "three amigos" -- met again, this time in Cancun, where already the grand ambitions of the partnership had been whittled down to more limited aims such as smart borders and energy security.
But even those goals have been hard to achieve. Earlier this year, negotiations broke off between Canada and the U.S. on a pilot project -- eagerly supported by industry -- for a pre-clearance customs facility for trucks carrying cargo across the border between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, New York. The facility was intended to improve transit times for cross-border cargo, but reports say the project was killed by nervous officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
One of the only tangible results of the summit process so far is the creation of the North American Competitiveness Council, a collection of 30 business leaders, 10 appointed by each country, to advise the leaders on how to move the partnership forward. Canadian executives on the panel include Dominic D'Alessandro of Manulife Financial, Paul Desmarais Jr. of Power Corporation, and Michael Sabia of Bell Canada.
The council is scheduled to meet privately at Montebello and present a progress report to Mr. Harper, Mr. Bush and Mr. Calderon. But it's precisely this kind of secrecy and exclusivity that may be one reason the summit gambit has stalled.
Critics of the partnership say the three governments are consulting only corporate leaders in the business community and ignoring everyone else -- scientists, labour leaders, human rights experts, police associations, environmentalists, even legislators.
"The problem with this process is that there has been no public consultation, and no parliamentary debate in any of our three countries, says Meera Karunananthan, a spokeswoman for the Council of Canadians, one of many organizations planning to protest the summit outside Montebello today and tomorrow.
Although the SPP hasn't generated huge public reaction in Canada, it has become a lightening rod of fear and anger in the U.S. -- on both the left and right -- and a popular subject of debate in presidential campaign meetings, on CNN television, and on the Internet.
Liberal critics say the process will endanger everything from labour to environmental standards. "Canadians will have to adapt to having more pesticides on our imported foods as Canada harmonizes -- raises -- the amount of allowable pesticides on imported fruit and vegetables to bring it in to line with U.S. and Mexican levels," says one statement released last week by a coalition of "citizen's groups" from all three countries. Meanwhile, conservative critics, particularly in the U.S., say the partnership will erode national sovereignty and reduce wages and working conditions for domestic workers.
No doubt the summit process could survive its critics if the three leaders had the political clout to give it momentum. But Mr. Bush now occupies an unpopular, lame-duck presidency. Mr. Harper and Mr. Calderon each have only a tenuous hold on power and may soon each face another election. None seems determined to invest much political energy into the process. That is likely why Mr. Harper's officials were playing down expectations for the summit in a briefing for reporters last week.
The summit process, having lost much of its momentum, might have to make room for more pressing issues -- from Afghanistan to Arctic sovereignty -- in the leaders' talks.
"There's no predicting with certainty," says Mr. Harper's foreign policy adviser, "what the leaders will actually discuss."
To view a video report on the protest ahead of the North American summit, go to Today's Videos at ottawacitizen.com
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007
Additional articles published in The Ottawa Citizen, Ontario, Canada:
Talks 'horrible, incestuous'
Critics denounce 'anti-democratic' summit
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Published: Monday, August 20, 2007
Politics, economics not a 'zero-sum game'
Chamber of Commerce chief says protesters misunderstand North American integration
Donna Jacobs, Citizen Special
Published: Monday, August 20, 2007
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