The first round of the negotiations between Canada, Mexico and the United States kicks off Wednesday, as leaders voice their set of demands for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Canadian stakeholders have been lining up on either side of Ottawa’s NAFTA wish list — some say it covers key points while others worry about its silence on their top concerns.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland released a public list of demands earlier this week ahead of the first round of the deal’s renegotiation, which takes place in Washington.
The Canadian objectives outline about 10 core NAFTA objectives — from boilerplate trade goals such as cutting red tape, to a push for “progressive” chapters on the environment, labour, gender rights and Indigenous relations.
But for some stakeholders, it’s what was missing from Freeland’s list that worries them.
Privacy advocate Vincent Gogolek was disappointed Freeland’s priorities failed to come to the defence of privacy laws in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, which the United States has already targeted.
Last month, the U.S. served notice it wanted to get rid of measures that restrict cross-border data flows, or require the use or installation of local computing facilities. Some worry it would limit Canada’s ability to protect sensitive information such as health or financial data from foreign agencies.
“Of course, you don’t do these negotiations in public and these will be challenging negotiations for obvious reasons,” said Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
“But I think that makes it even more important that the government of Canada be very clear in terms of this is not something they’re going to bargain off.
“What we’re talking about here are privacy rights and rights shouldn’t be negotiated against trade in goods and services.”
The United Steelworkers initially criticized Ottawa for producing a strategy with few details — particularly its plan to pursue labour and environmental standards. But national director Ken Neumann said Freeland added more “meat on the bone” during a meeting Tuesday with labour leaders.
Neumann, however, still had concerns about Freeland’s intention to seek reform of NAFTA’s investor-state dispute settlement process.
It’s known as Chapter 11 and it involves companies suing governments. Freeland said she wants reforms so that “governments have an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest.”
“It is a bad mechanism and it cannot be reformed because it gives foreign companies the right to sue,” Neumann said. “We see no rationale for it.”
Other groups were encouraged by Freeland’s objectives to ease cross-border barriers by loosening bureaucracy, harmonizing regulations and opening up professional mobility.
These goals — particularly the desire to cut red tape — are also high on the wish lists of a pair of major industry associations.
“What the minister said was very consistent with our submission to the government,” said Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.
Corinne Pohlmann, a senior vice president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said some of Freeland’s remarks also aligned with her group’s priorities. She added that she would have liked to hear more specifics about Canada’s plan to support small businesses in the NAFTA talks.
The Sierra Club Canada Foundation applauded the government’s goal to push for environmental, Indigenous and gender chapters in NAFTA, calling them “positive steps.” However, in a statement, the foundation listed NAFTA demands it made earlier this year, including new provisions to protect the climate.
Dan Ciuriak, a former deputy chief economist for what is now known as Global Affairs Canada, said he thought Freeland’s message touched on most of the key issues — without showing all of the country’s cards.
Still, he too thought Freeland could have mentioned the important U.S.-Canada disputes over privacy issues related to data and wine. However, he noted it was merely an “opening salvo.”
WATCH: How will the U.S. NAFTA wish list impact Canada?
Ciuriak supported her call for NAFTA’s modernization to help Canada’s technology sector compete and allow all industries to benefit from the expansion of the digital economy.
He believes data will not only be important for the new digital age, but that it will also become increasingly important for preserving democratic systems.
For example, Ciuriak said democracies can be undermined by fake news and social-media messaging. Therefore, he said the negotiations surrounding data could be the single-most important element in NAFTA’s modernization.