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U.S. top trade official promises enforcement of new North American trade deal

North America's new trade agreement finally became the law of the land Wednesday, complete with a celebratory warning from the Trump administration that the United States intends to make sure Canada and Mexico live up to their end of the bargain.

Robert Lighthizer hails deal as signature accomplishment of U.S. President Donald Trump

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right to left, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, U.S. President Donald Trump, then-Mexico's secretary of economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, and then-Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto participate in a signing ceremony for the new trade deal in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

North America's new trade agreement finally became the law of the land Wednesday, complete with a celebratory warning from the Trump administration that the United States intends to make sure Canada and Mexico live up to their end of the bargain.

U.S. trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer lauded the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) as President Donald Trump's signature achievement, a landmark trade pact that tilts the benefits of continental managed trade back towards workers, farmers and labourers and away from the giant corporations that reaped the rewards of its NAFTA predecessor.

"That's a monumental change," Lighthizer said in a statement that promised more jobs, protections for workers, wider access to continental markets and new growth opportunities for businesses of all sizes.

"We have worked closely with the governments of Mexico and Canada to ensure that the obligations and responsibilities of all three nations under the agreement have been met, and we will continue to do so to ensure the [CUSMA] is enforced."

While the White House and scores of Trump allies in Washington tweeted partisan support for the occasion, the president himself spent the morning preoccupied with some of his favourite foils: the "fake news" mainstream media, Black Lives Matter supporters and presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer lauded the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement as President Donald Trump's signature achievement. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The USTR also named 10 people to its roster of arbitrators under the agreement's dispute-settlement mechanism, a list that includes Julie Bedard, a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who heads the international litigation and arbitration group for the Americas at Skadden, a prominent New York law firm.

Other names on the U.S. list include former chief federal claims judge Susan Braden, D.C. arbitration expert John Buckley Jr., former international trade commissioner Dennis Devaney and ex-federal prosecutor Mark Hansen.

The panel also includes Stephen Vaughn, the USTR's former general counsel and key lieutenant to Lighthizer himself who served as acting trade ambassador in the early days of the administration.

The trade agreement is designed to ensure more people in all three countries can reap its benefits — the principal U.S. complaint about the old NAFTA, said Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. and a key player over the course of the often-arduous 13-month negotiation.

"The original NAFTA was extremely successful for us economically, and that's important to remember," Hillman said in an interview.

"It was, though — as we all know — dated, and also it was perceived to be, I think fairly so in some respects, not sufficient for ensuring that the benefits of trade were fully utilized by all segments of our society."

Deputy Prime Minister and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks with Canada's top CUSMA trade negotiator Steve Verheul as they wait to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade Tuesday on Feb. 18 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's negotiators focused on reaching a deal that would improve the lot for workers at home, reduce red tape for small- and medium-sized businesses and smooth the growth of digital trade — an especially important component given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on traditional commercial models.

Alberta's economic development, trade and tourism minister welcomed the deal, saying it's an important milestone for the province and Canada.

"For Alberta businesses, this means we can broaden our commercial ties with certainty and forge bonds with job creators across the continent," Tanya Fir said in a statement. "We have the opportunity to accelerate the flow of Alberta's goods and expand our exports throughout North America.

Canadian dairy producers and processors have assailed the federal government for allowing the agreement to come into force before August. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Not everyone is celebrating the agreement coming into force.

Canadian dairy producers and processors, who will see increased U.S. competition in their domestic markets and limits on exports of key products like diafiltered milk and infant formula, have assailed the federal Liberal government for allowing the agreement to come into force before August.

Waiting a month would have given the industry a full year to adjust to the terms of the deal, since Canada's dairy year begins Aug. 1. But now, producers and processors have just 31 days before the Year 2's provisions in the agreement take effect next month.

Both the Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Dairy Processors Association of Canada have insisted they were assured by Ottawa the agreement would not take effect before Aug. 1.

Public Citizen, a left-leaning U.S. consumer advocacy group and outspoken opponent of trade agreements, in particular the original NAFTA, acknowledged that the new deal makes an effort to improve labour and environmental standards and expand the impact of the benefits of global trade.

But it falls far short of the ideal, said Lori Wallach, director of the group's international trade watchdog, Global Trade Watch.

"Renegotiating the existing NAFTA to try to reduce its ongoing damage is not the same as crafting a good trade deal that creates jobs, raises wages and protects the environment and public health," Wallach said in a statement.

"The new NAFTA is not a template, but rather sets the floor from which we will fight for trade policies that put working people and the planet first."

Wallach also said that the agreement is coming into force with a prominent labour lawyer behind bars in Mexico. Susana Prieto Terrazas, known for leading a crusade for higher wages and union protection for workers in border assembly plants, was arrested June 10 on charges of inciting riots, threats and coercion.

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