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Consumers needed in interprovincial trade negotiations: report

|Written By Kelly Harris

A new report by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa advocates greater involvement of consumers groups when negotiating interprovincial trade agreements.

Janet Lo, counsel at PIAC and author of “The Consumer Perspective of Trade & Commerce Powers,” says the goal of removing interprovincial trade barriers should be greater competition and reduced prices. However, she questions whether consumers are being left out of a process that seems to be completed by the time the politicians in the jurisdiction involved announce the deals.

“TILMA [Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement] was introduced and the last year we’ve heard about the agreement of enhancing the Ontario and Quebec economic region, we’ve heard about the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick pair, and we’ve heard about the Western Economic Partnership,” says Lo. “But these are all sort of announced by the premiers and draft agreements are yet to come up and after they are announced we are sort of left wondering what is this about? What exactly is this going to accomplish? What is the text?”

The report favours the engagement of interest groups from the consumer side to go along with those on the corporate side. Lo says the engagement needs to be through all processes of the trade agreement, including dispute mechanisms.

The report favours increased oversight at the federal government level to protect standards including consumer safety. However, it does not specify what that oversight would look like.

Lo does mention the idea of an expert agency or tribunal on interprovincial trade as a single national oversight body that would allow for engagement of all interested parties.

“We didn’t really focus on process,” Lo says. “The main thing that our report speaks out for is increased parliamentary leadership. In particular, the biggest concern is the lack of transparency on the interprovincial trade agreements.”

Martin Masse, a commercial and regulatory law partner specializing in trade with Lang Michener LLP in Ottawa, questions the idea of federal oversight. Citing the difficulties the government has had in creating a single, national securities regulator, it shows the difficulty in the top-down approach.

“[The report] more or less suggests a solution that comes from Ottawa,” says Masse. “I think that in order to have really an effective reduction of trade barriers, you have to have the provinces to buy into it, and they have to want to do it.

“Setting aside the legalities, having a solution that comes from Ottawa would be a difficult sell.”

Masse also questions how engaged the public is on the issue of interprovincial trade, saying the greatest impact is on labour mobility amongst professionals.

“It is not a matter that captivates public attention too much, it’s not a very sexy issue,” Masse says. “I don’t think most Canadians understand it, and a lot of the trade barriers aren’t hugely evident, they don’t show up directly on their receipts or on their bills.

“So at the end of the day they are usually hidden and sometimes they’re just regulatory measures that impede business or professionals from offering services in other provinces.”

Lo says creating a forum for the public to be involved would allow interested groups, including labour unions, to become more engaged.

“There is a legitimate objective for businesses to operate in more than one province,” says Lo. “What this report strives to achieve, what the Public Interest Advocacy Centre is trying to do, is speak up for Canadian consumers because we don’t believe that case has been made yet.”

An interview request to the Retail Council of Canada regarding the report was declined.