the man who stilled the waters

On his first official visit to Canada, US President Barack Obama reassured America's largest trading partner that "buy American" provisions in his multi-billion-dollar stimulus package do not signal an end to "free trade" between our two countries.

On his first official visit to Canada, US President Barack Obama reassured America’s largest trading partner that “buy American” provisions in his multi-billion-dollar stimulus package do not signal an end to “free trade” between our two countries.

“Now is a time where we have to be very careful about any signals of protectionism,” Obama told the assembled press in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And with these words he stretched out his hands, and calmed the winds and raging waves in the Canadian political teapot.

US government contracts have always carried “buy American” provisions, both at the state and federal levels. To some extent these have been tempered by NAFTA and other trade agreements, but for the most part they include the very sensible provision that American taxpayers’ money would be spent, where possible, on American goods and services.

There was never any reason to panic, or even to be mildly concerned, about the latest assertion of America’s desire to use American materials and labour in government projects. Not only did it reflect long-standing practice in the US, it’s similar, if not identical, to Canada’s own policy.

According to the Ministry of Public Works 2008 supply manual, “The Canadian Content Policy is a cabinet-mandated policy. The policy encourages industrial development in Canada by limiting, in specific circumstances, competition for government procurement opportunities to suppliers of Canadian goods and services.”

Like the American policy, the “buy Canadian” clause contains exceptions for NAFTA and other trade agreements.

Only one government agency is specifically named in the Canadian content clause. According to the policy, the Canadian International Development Agency is obliged to buy Canadian on purchases made “on its own account”. In fact, the development agency’s entire operation is coloured by a commitment to Canadian goods and services, a policy known as “tied aid.”

As an example of the effectiveness of tied Canadian aid, when famine struck Niger in 2005, Canada’s insistence that 90 per cent of its aid dollars be spent on Canadian produce meant that the food arrived months late. The famine was essentially over, and the influx of free Canadian food drove down prices for local farmers.

In Bangladesh, the development agency funded the establishment of a free-trade zone where Canadian companies can benefit from the cheapest labour in the world. In Afghanistan, most of the money we claim to spend on our biggest aid recipient ends up in Canadian corporate pockets, or is linked to military spending.

In Haiti, the agency funded the right-wing political organizations that helped the US and its allies, including Canada, to engineer a violent coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide and paved the way for an expansion of “free trade zones” where Haitian workers are subjected to such abuses as being beaten and forced at gunpoint to work beyond the 10-hour-day legal maximum.

This week, Bev Oda, the cabinet minister responsible for the agency, announced the names of the 20 countries in which Canada will invest the bulk of its foreign aid. While dropping far more desperate countries – Kenya, Rwanda, Cameroon – the new list adds Peru and Colombia, two states with which Harper has recently signed trade agreements similar to NAFTA.

According to Oda aid Jean-Luc Benoit, the change in aid policy is “a function of need, of the capacity to deliver aid effectively, and supporting Canada’s foreign policy.”

In other words, aid is being redirected from the most needy countries to those most likely to further Harper’s political agenda of closer foreign-policy ties to the US and stronger trade agreements in the Americas.

This won’t be the Canadian International Development Agency’s fist venture into Latin America by any means. During the late 1990s, the development agency spent $11 million campaigning to rewrite Colombia’s mining regulations to reflect a “globalized perspective.” In effect, this was international aid aimed at opening business opportunities for Canadian mining companies.

The North South Institute, a Canadian independent development agency, describes the changes as a “regressive mining code that has weakened – rather than strengthened – democratic procedures.”

Liberal and Conservative fears that the storm of US protectionism would rise up and swamp our poor little economic boat were not only unfounded, they were pure political posturing, and Obama’s “peace be still” was little more.

In the globalist system laughably described as “free trade,” powerful wealthy nations can take whatever steps necessary to protect their own economies. It’s only the poor and weak who are forced to open their borders unconditionally.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.