NDP Leader Liz Hanson, left, and Yukon Party interim leader Stacey Hassard have not been briefed by the Yukon government on NAFTA. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Northerners keep an eye on NAFTA

Opposition leaders say they need to be briefed on Yukon’s position regarding trade talks

While Canada was involved in the first week of negotiations around the North American Free Trade Agreement, opposition leaders are accusing the Yukon Liberals of not being open enough about the territory’s position on the agreement.

NAFTA negotiations started last week between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

In April Premier Sandy Silver promised to brief both opposition leaders on topics related to NAFTA.

About 100 days later the leaders of the Yukon Party and the NDP both signed a letter saying they still haven’t been briefed.

“I think any time that the federal government is dealing on something that could significantly impact the economy of the Yukon we must be at the table,” said Yukon Party interim leader Stacey Hassard.

Hassard called the amount of trade the territory does across the border “a significant number for the Yukon” even if it’s not a large part of Canada’s overall picture.

Figures from the Yukon Department of Economic Development show that in 2016 the Yukon exported $200 million across the border to the U.S. That was mostly copper and other metals.

The territory also imported $50 million worth of goods and services from the U.S. that year — mostly fish and petroleum products.

In terms of trade with Mexico, the Yukon exported $2.3 million worth of goods, mostly in drilling and boring tools, and imported $35 million, primarily truck machine parts and fire extinguishers.

Those numbers include products that travelled though the U.S., Mexico and Yukon and on to other destinations.

NDP Leader Liz Hanson said opposition members need to know the government’s position on NAFTA to do their job.

“People ask you questions or they’ll make comments about things the territorial government is doing and not doing,” she said.

“I think we serve the interest of the public better if we understand where the government is coming from, what position they’re taking on any of these things.”

For its part, the government is promising to brief both opposition parties before the next sitting of the Yukon Legislative Assembly in October.

Barbara Dunlop, director of policy, planning and communications for the Department of Economic Development said the government needs to get a better sense of what is going to be discussed at the negotiation table.

“It’s hard to speculate on what the specific … interests are going to be from the U.S. and Mexico,” she said.

“Although Canada is leading the process, Yukon will be receiving regular briefings and will be in a position where we can analyze the issues as they come forward, identify those that are of interest to us, and look at them as the talks progress.”

Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, only recently issued a series of general ideals around what Canada would be looking for in the negotiations.

Along with calling for improvements to the dispute settlement process, Freeland said Canada wants “progressive” elements in a new NAFTA: stronger labour standards, tougher environmental protection provisions as well as chapters on gender and Indigenous rights.

Most of what Canada has said publicly about its requests is fairly vague at this point. But it’s enough to get some people interested in territorial issues to pay attention.

For her part, Hanson hopes the Yukon will support the call to strengthen the dispute resolution process.

Right now, if the Yukon government and local First Nations were to agree to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the territory, she said, and an American or Mexican company had plans to frack, they could lodge a complaint, she said.

“They could be sued because somebody could argue that they made investments here, so you owe us.”

She said there should be respect “for the unassailable right of the Government of Yukon and the government of Yukon’s First Nations to regulate in the public interest to not allow that activity to occur in this territory.”

One environmental group is pinning some hope on talk of tougher environmental protections.

Gary Blundell, program manager for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, said he’s hoping that whatever Canada is pushing for might include something to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the herd relies on.

Republicans in the U.S. have already stated their intention to try and open the land up for drilling which environmentalists and Indigenous people believe would dramatically impact the herd.

“If there could possibly be some mention…of maintaining the protection of protected areas that have already been established, not opening them up, for new development. That’s what we would support,” Blundell said.

Ken Coates, a historian and former Yukoner who is now Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, said including a request for an Indigenous chapter is a sign of the federal government’s values.

That idea came from Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, he said.

“We’re just getting used to these ideas that essentially what you do is to take a trade negotiation away from practicalities, which is how do we pass oil and gas across the border … into values.”

Coates admits that changes related to the environment, gender and Indigenous issues are unlikely to be agreed to by the Americans under President Donald Trump.

“Those are not issues to which the Trump administration is particularly well disposed,” he said. “They do not hold the same value system on environment and on Indigenous issues as the governments in Canada.”

Even if Canada’s requests don’t get any traction, that doesn’t mean they are without value, Coates said.

“I think it is somewhat symbolic to include the gender, environment and Indigenous issues on the table, but I actually think it’s a signal to the fact that Canada continues to change. That’s not inconsequential.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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