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Environment minister confident Canada’s green goals can be met in new NAFTA

As the U.S. trumpeted concern that NAFTA is killing jobs, environment minister Catherine McKenna said talks are going well and progress can be made.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, holds a meeting in her office with members of the NAFTA Advisory Council on the Environment on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, holds a meeting in her office with members of the NAFTA Advisory Council on the Environment on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.

OTTAWA—Despite Canada’s different view on climate change from that of the United States — namely, that it is real — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is optimistic that progress can be made on the Liberal government’s goal of bringing tough environmental rules into the heart of a new NAFTA.

McKenna struck the hopeful note on the eve of the third round of talks to reform the trade agreement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, as union demonstrators marched past Parliament Hill and a blimp bearing the message “NAFTA hijacks democracy” floated in the sky.

“We’re going to be pushing hard for strong environmental standards. We actually think that’s good for North America,” McKenna told reporters Friday, after she met with the government’s NAFTA advisory council for environmental issues.

“I think we can always find solutions so we will have good discussions and I think the negotiations are going pretty well,” she said.

Ottawa will host the third round of talks over the next five days on the North American free trade deal, which is being renegotiated at the behest of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called the accord the worst “in history” and last month cast doubt that the ongoing efforts to revamp the deal can be successful. The three countries are trying to stick to an aggressive timeline: they want negotiations to wrap up by the end of the year.

The U.S. government has argued the deal has killed hundreds of thousands of jobs in their country. On Friday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote in the Washington Post that content rules for autoparts — a key component of NAFTA — is putting American manufacturing jobs at risk, and repeated his government’s call for new regulations that require more U.S.-made content in cars made on the continent. 

“If we don’t fix the rules of origin, negotiations on the rest of the agreement will fail to meaningfully shift the trade imbalance,” Ross wrote. “Our nation’s ballooning trade deficit has gutted American manufacturing, killed jobs and sapped our wealth.”

Canada’s goals include a push for a more “progressive” trade deal. These include the strengthened environmental provisions and protecting Canada’s right to create regulations to combat climate change. The Liberals also want to add new NAFTA chapters on gender rights and Indigenous peoples.

Friday on Parliament Hill, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus was critical of this “progressive” focus and said Canada should outline clearer goals for what it wants out of the negotiations.

“I would never say environmental issues are not important, or that the feminist side is not important,” he said. “(But) to put that at the front and to not have clear priorities, clear and precise on economic issues… that’s what is problematic.”

Céline Bak, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s Global Economy Program, said she expects to see progress on key issues during the third round of talks in Ottawa, such as rules of origin and the integration of new labour and environment standards into the deal.

She added that “it’s absolutely essential to have climate change referred to in the agreement,” as well as to make sure Canada can enact its own green regulations without fear of being sued or called into question by foreign governments or companies.

Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network, said that she would like to see NAFTA’s investor-state dispute mechanism — which deals with how companies can challenge government regulations — should be eliminated from the deal. Canada has only said it wants to protect its right to “regulate in the public interest.”

The third round of NAFTA talks starts Saturday morning and is slated to wrap up Wednesday. 

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