Opinion: Focus on social issues slows trade deals

What gives Canada the moral high ground in negotiations with Indonesia and other Asia-Pacific nations?

Canadian producers who eagerly await a trade pact with major Asian markets will have to exercise patience and should be prepared for some nauseating moral posturing by politicians.

Bilateral talks with Indonesia are expected to formally open this year, setting the stage for broader negotiations involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a block of 10 member states.

While momentum for these long-awaited deals (the pursuit of an ASEAN-Canada pact is three years old) is growing, and producers’ desire for additional markets to access is strong, there are major roadblocks. 

Most respondents to a recent consultation on Indonesia-Canada trade outlined market access and eliminating trade barriers as a priority. However, there will be continued focus on issues less relevant to industry but important for politicians seeking re-election.

The federal Liberal government takes every possible opportunity to pat itself on the back for focusing on issues like labour, the environment and gender issues during trade negotiations. 

An environmental impact assessment, for example, will be done on a potential deal involving Indonesia.

Throughout the process, the deal will be subject to gender-focused analysis.

Stakeholders consulted on a possible deal spent more time highlighting issues around technical trade barriers or labelling requirements. For example, submissions from those involved in exporting meat raised concern over how Canada’s inspection system meshes with requirements in Indonesia.

But despite one-third of respondents being from the agricultural sector, only a couple of paragraphs in the summary of consultations from Global Affairs were dedicated to outlining industry concerns. 

Instead, much attention in the Global Affairs report focuses on “inclusive trade issues” despite clearly stating those issues don’t rank among top priorities for stakeholders. 

Indonesian officials, and experts here, have warned any trade talks that focus too much on issues of labour and the environment could come up short. Canada isn’t that valuable of a market for Indonesia.

A trade attaché with the Indonesian Embassy in Ottawa said recently that tackling those issues has been, and will continue to be, a challenge.

People with knowledge of the technical discussions caution Canadian officials are already spending significant efforts on the inclusive side of the trade deal. Already, some are pointing to these issues as the reason why talks aren’t progressing faster.

Traditionally slow trade negotiations might move even slower.

And while Canada’s ambition to be a world leader — and world changer — by actively working social and environmental issues into trade deals is admirable, is it also a little shallow?

Should Canadian officials justifiably call for another country to do better?

Canada’s environmental record is poised to improve, but even the Liberals’ “green agenda” to significantly reduce emissions is criticized for not being effective enough. Critics argue legislation to reduce emissions lacks enforcement and targets to achieve emissions reductions are unclear. Also, domestic emissions continue to rise.

A “national disgrace” is how a federal member of cabinet described migrant farm labour in Canada. Everyday Canadians, throughout the pandemic, have watched and read stories about migrant workers falling victim to COVID-19. 

Food insecurity continues to disproportionally impact racialized communities and racist sentiments can be found far too easily online or in day-to-day living.

Efforts to reconcile with First Nations communities are moving painfully slow and governments around the country continue to ignore, or fail to implement, recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

We also continue to actively and enthusiastically engage in trade with a whole swath of other nations responsible for doing some pretty bad things throughout the years. 

What gives Canada the moral high ground in negotiations with Indonesia and other Asia-Pacific nations? Where does the privilege to police behaviours of other nations come from? Why do the goal posts for what is, and isn’t, considered “inclusive” change?

Protectionism and isolationism are on the rise, making it more difficult to liberalize trade. 

Canadian politicians and policy makers who try to force countries like Indonesia into an inclusive trade deal are slowing free trade and showing a collective lack of self-awareness.

About the author


D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.



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