by Kevin Mills and Neil Corbett
There is no danger that Abbotsford residents will compromise ownership of water rights if they vote in favour of a P3 water system, according to Abbotsford MP Ed Fast.
Opponents of the P3 proposal, including CUPE and a local linked organization Water Watch Mission-Abbotsford, have put forth the argument that private control of Abbotsford’s water could result from a P3 deal. They say a multi-national corporation could use the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the coming Canadian/European Union Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) to facilitate foreign ownership of Canadian water.
“Absolutely not. That’s hogwash – misinformation spread by people with an ideological opposition to P3 agreements,” said Fast.
Fast has a unique perspective from which to comment on the Stave Lake water referendum in his home riding on Nov. 19.
He was a member of Abbotsford city council for nine years, and has first-hand experience with the city’s water infrastructure.
This year, the third-term MP was appointed as minister of international trade. He is involved in CETA negotiations, and has spent the last five months learning the intricacies of trade agreements.
“I am very up to date, and I have a very full understanding of what’s involved,” said Fast, who points out when NAFTA was being negotiated, opponents said the government was “selling out” Canadian culture, jobs and water rights to the U.S.
“NAFTA has been in place 17 years, and none of that has happened,” said Fast.
The Canadian government has maintained a position that “water is not on the table.”
Any agreement that allowed the sale of Canadian water rights would be outside Canadian law – of no force and effect, said Fast.
“Canadian sovereignty over water will be fully protected.”
Critics of the P3 plan remain adamant that the danger exists.
Earlier this month, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow was in Abbotsford as part of a cross-country tour, called Canadian Communities Are Not For Sale.
One of her main concerns is CETA will give foreign corporations the right to sue Canadian governments if they attempt to interfere with the company’s ability to make a profit. She told those in attendance at the University of the Fraser Valley that Chapter 11 of NAFTA already allows corporations to sue for compensation, and CETA will do the same.
While Fast and Barlow are on opposite sides of a charged debate, Simon Fraser University’s Alex Moens has an academic view of the issue.
Professor Moens teaches international relations, specializing in American politics and U.S. foreign policy, as well as the policies of the European Union. In April 1999, he was a visiting fellow (an academic performing research) at the Center for Hemispheric Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
While he hasn’t seen reports on the Abbotsford issue, Moens said if the delivery of water is for individual consumer use in Abbotsford and is not going to be part of a further production process for commercial sale, there should be no NAFTA concerns.
“Given those conditions, I cannot see any possible angle where anyone could use Chapter 11 in the United States to argue that this opens a way, for example, for American companies to draw water from Canada for municipal use in the United States. I cannot see it – I want to be careful because I have not done the research – but I cannot see how this would apply to a NAFTA challenge.
“It seems to me to really be a stretch.”
Hypothetically, Moens said if the city opened bidding for water sales, and allowed U.S. bids, but then for some reason decided the U.S. can’t bid, he could see the possibility of a legal challenge.
Moens believes some of the concerns may be based on an emotional reaction.
“The history of water trade in NAFTA is a very interesting one because in the very beginning of this debate there were companies in eastern Canada that wanted to sell water from the Great Lakes to Asia.”
The companies were stopped by Michigan-based advocates who didn’t want the water sold. Moens said in Canada we think of the Americans wanting our water, but at first, it was the other way around.
As for the theory that a private company could begin changing the conditions of a contract, in an attempt to force the city to treat more water than needed in order to make more profit, Moens said its a “weak” notion.
“Nothing in NAFTA, by itself, removes regulatory powers of government.”
He said there would have to be a provision that absolutely specifies such a removal.
“… as far as I know there is no regulatory limit for the governments of Canada on how to manage its production of water that is subject to a NAFTA override.”
As for CETA, Moens pointed out that it is still in negotiation, and declined to comment.