Canada is concerned that the political and economic turmoil in Venezuela will spark a refugee crisis for the South American country and its neighbours, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday.

Freeland said that she and Peru's foreign minister would take that message to the United Nations in New York City on Monday, following her appearance at a business conference in Toronto.

Canada and Peru co-chaired a meeting of ministers from the Lima Group of countries last week in Toronto. Freeland and Peru's foreign minister Ricardo Luna were delegated to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Apart from Canada, the group's 12 members are in Latin America.

But Freeland said Monday that Venezuela and Canada are in the same geographic "neighbourhood" and that Canada has a role to play in supporting the country's democratic institutions and respect for human rights.

In The News May 18 20170518

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned Monday of a possible regional refugee crisis as result of the political and economic unrest in Venezuela. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"I do think. . . this is a humanitarian crisis as well as a political one. We are seeing real preventable suffering of the people of Venezuela," Freeland said at the Toronto Global Forum before heading to New York for the U.N. meeting.

"And I think . . . there are mounting signs of a regional refugee crisis as well. Colombia and Brazil are facing a lot of pressure. So I think it is an area where Canada needs to be very engaged."

Venezuela — an oil-rich country that was led by outspoken socialist Hugo Chavez from 1999 to 2013 — has suffered an economic meltdown since his death.

The dramatic drop in global oil prices since late 2014 and the devaluation of the country's currency have fuelled triple-digit inflation that has resulted in shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Chavez, has also been accused of grabbing power by creating a new constitutional assembly that claims supreme authority over other arms of the government, including the opposition-controlled congress.

Troubling proposals

In September, Freeland announced that Canada had imposed sanctions against 40 key figures in the Venezuelan regime, including Maduro, who she said had helped undermine the country's stability.

Freeland said Monday that support from allies would help pressure Venezuela further.

"So I think it is an area where Canada needs to be very engaged...We'd be delighted to see the EU joining us in applying pressure on the government of Venezuela," Freeland said.

Earlier in an on-stage interview by Frank McKenna, a former Liberal premier of New Brunswick and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, Freeland acknowledged that the NAFTA trade talks have included some "troubling" proposals from the United States.

Freeland specified two issues: the U.S. insistence of removing dispute-resolution measures contained in Chapter 19 of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as its proposal to review the trade pact every five years.

But she said the Canada-U.S. relationship is "robust and very deep" — noting the two countries are partners in the NATO and Norad military alliances and that Canada is a bigger market for the United States than China, Japan and the United Kingdom combined.

Trading outside NAFTA

Freeland also said that barriers to trade under World Trade Organization rules have been reduced since NAFTA was signed by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

"We looked at the actual trade — not the just the agreement but the actual trade that is happening — we found that around 40 per cent of Canadian exporters to the United States don't use the NAFTA preferences that are available to them," Freeland said.

That suggests the differences between WTO and NAFTA rules have decreased and that administrative red-tape involved is a bigger barrier to trade than preferential tariffs in the three-country agreement, she said.

"It's very technical. Things like electronic forms at the border, things like regulatory harmonization," Freeland said.

"It really matters to Canadian and U.S. businesses and in most chapters (of the agreement) we're going gangbusters in a very positive way."