The House

The Montreal Round: NAFTA talks at critical juncture

This week on The House, Chris Hall talks with two members of the NAFTA advisory council, Rona Ambrose and Hassan Yussuff, about what to expect from next week's round of negotiations in Montreal. We're also joined by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to discuss Ottawa's plan to put a price on carbon, and by Indigenous children advocate Cindy Blackstock to talk about her hopes for the upcoming emergency meeting to address the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gestures to photographers following a photo op with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Next week's round of NAFTA talks could signal the end of a golden age of free trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to members of Canada's advisory panel on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Donald Trump's hot-and-cold attitude and controversial proposals by U.S. negotiators have stalled months of attempts to find a quick way through the renegotiations, and some members of the advisory panel fear what might come next.

"It's not if but when he (Trump) triggers the six month withdrawal," Rona Ambrose told The House.

"The longer we go with nothing accomplished the more we start to think that Trump's likely scenario is he wants to be able to say 'There's no outcome, we're not making any progress, we don't have partners that are working well with us, we're going to trigger the six-month withdrawal," the former interim leader of the Conservative party said.

Threats from the president to remove the United States from the trade deal have been a regular occurence, but his administration is still subject to the clause that requires half a year's notice before withdrawal.

U.S. 'not looking for an agreement' soon

The sixth round of talks kick off next week and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has been forced to think outside the box.

Last week, she said she'd be bringing some "creative" new proposals to the table in response to U.S. inflexibility.

But if Americans negotiators are unwilling to bend — even slightly — it could seal NAFTA's fate.

"It is clear the Americans are not looking for an agreement anytime soon," Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said.

"I think it's really critical that we brace ourselves that NAFTA will be subjected to major thinking from the president to give us the [six months] notice."

Both Yussuff and Ambrose said it will be obvious from the tone of the Montreal meetings how the United States intends to proceed with NAFTA.

"We haven't seen any concrete gains to date," Ambrose said.

And that's concerning to both of them.

We talk to two members of Canada's advisory council on NAFTA: former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and Canadian Labour Congress president, Hassan Yussuff. 9:25

No federal carbon price break for Atlantic provinces

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is seen on the shore of Lake Ontario in Toronto on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Canada's national clean fuels strategy will apply to every kind of fuel, be it liquid, solid or gas, Environment Minister McKenna said Wednesday. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Atlantic provinces already meeting their emissions reduction goals won't get a break in the upcoming the carbon tax plan.

Catherine McKenna drove that message home when she outlined the next steps for Canadian carbon pricing on The House.

With the national price on carbon looming, the premiers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have been arguing their emissions reduction contributions should afford them some flexibility in their respective provincial plans.

McKenna, however, won't budge.

"We have been very clear on the standard we expect and we will be reviewing everyone's system to ensure that it meets that standard," she said.

Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have led the country in working to meet the emissions targets — namely, reducing 2005 emissions levels by 30 per cent by the year 2030.

"We really think we are going to be able to demonstrate we are hitting our emissions targets for 2030," Brian Gallant, New Brunswick's premier, told CBC News in December.

Persuading the environment minister to accept his current take on the carbon plan will be quite the task, as McKenna has already said the proposed system wouldn't meet Ottawa's requirements.

Similarly, Nova Scotia is set to release their new cap-and-trade system, but it's not clear yet if it will line up with the federal plan. 

As the September 2018 deadline for provincial plans looms, McKenna has maintained she is prepared to intervene if any province fails to mirror the government's plan.

Environment minister Catherine McKenna outlined this week what could happen if provinces fail to put a price on carbon... and not everyone is pleased with Ottawa's approach. The minister joins us. 8:45

Emergency Indigenous child welfare meeting needs 'political commitment'

Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. An outspoken child advocate is taking the federal government to task over its approach to a policy designed to ensure all First Nations children access necessary services, noting the issue will be the subject of public hearings this spring. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"You know better, so do better."

That was the message Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, had for the government ahead of next week's emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare.

The high proportion of Indigenous children in foster care is a crisis that has defied solution.

In 2016, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children under 14 represented more than half of children in foster care, according to Statistics Canada

It has become such a puzzle, that Jane Philpott, the minister of Indigenous Services, organized an emergency meeting set to take place late next week.

One potential problem is that many ministers and premiers with stakes in the file won't be attending — and that concerns Blackstock.

"The premiers should be involved, because this is a systemic issue that requires a broad-based approach," she told The House.

Despite the obvious empty chairs, Blackstock said the meeting still presents a chance for real change.

If four legal orders to address the issue couldn't spark action, perhaps the meeting can.

Next week's emergency meeting on the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care in Canada has a huge challenge to tackle. In 2016, young First Nations, Métis and Inuit represented MORE THAN HALF of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, yet they make up less than 10 per cent of that population. We're joined by the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Cindy Blackstock. 7:46

"I would expect to see an announcement of a real investment that makes a change at the level of children," she said.

"Meetings don't achieve very much on their own, unless there is that political commitment."

Rates trend high across Canada, but they surge when you encounter foster children in the prairies.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, almost 90 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, provincial reports from last year show.

"The child welfare system across the country truly has failed indigenous families," Scott Fielding, Manitoba's minister of families, told The House.

He agrees with Blackstock: partnerships, cohesive plans and financial supports need to be put in place now. 

Manitoba, he added, has already started its reforms and in reality, it's the federal government that needs to catch up.

"We think we all need to work together and if we can align our priorities together we think we can make a difference," Fielding said.  "If everyone is going in a different direction with things we're not going to be successful."

The current action is encouraging, said Blackstock, but any stall to fixing the issue puts more children at risk.

"The fortunate thing is the federal government has an opportunity to… make sure we don't raise another generation of First Nations kids who have to recover from their childhoods."

Manitoba's Minister of Families, Scott Fielding, joins us to discuss the upcoming emergency meeting on the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care in Canada. 6:21

Get out of debt, expert warns as interest rates climb

Bank of Canada Senior Deputy Governor Carolyn Wilkins and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz listen to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Wednesday January 17, 2018. The economy's impressive run prompted the Bank of Canada to raise its trend-setting interest rate Wednesday for the third time since last summer and to send a signal that more increases are likely on the horizon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It's not new to anyone who has been keeping an eye on the Bank of Canada over the last few months: interest rates are up again.

Interest rates have slowly been creeping up from record lows, and experts say the hikes won't end anytime soon.

Wednesday's quarter point increase to 1.25 per cent marked the third time since the summer the bank has moved its benchmark rate.

"This is a bit of a tough hit," Laurie Campbell, CEO of Credit Canada, told The House.

"People have to buckle down right now."

The average Canadian, complete with consumer debt and a hefty mortgage, will slowly start to feel the financial squeeze, she said.

It's getting so bad, in fact, that one third of Canadians can't make their monthly debt payments, according to MNP's consumer debt index.

But Campbell warned it's not just the interest rate threatening to catch unwary consumers off guard.

"It's not the creep in the interest rates that's going to put people over the edge. It's that on top of the fact that they're carrying record debt levels," she explained.

To avoid a personal financial crisis, Campbell advises paying off your debt as soon as possible and educating yourself about the economy.

What Canada needs now, she said, is a national campaign on how to get rid of your debt. If the problem isn't addressed, she continued, young Canadians will grow up into a vicious cycle of debt.

"There's a lack of financial literacy in Canada, we've got a whole group of young people growing up who really don't understand the basics of financial management."

The CEO of Credit Canada Debt Solutions, a non-profit agency that helps Canadians with credit counselling and educational services, talks about the impact of this week's Bank of Canada decision to raise its benchmark interest rate. 6:11

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