What's the deal with Trudeau's 'progressive' NAFTA fantasies?

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Image: Office of the President of the United States

Once more unto the vortex, dear friends, by which I mean the NAFTA talks. Consider another obscure corner of that renegotiation: culture.

Anglo-Canada hasn't heard much about it but Quebec artists are circulating a letter asking the government to "Ensure that the NAFTA cultural exemption is maintained, and update the definition" to include new media. They also want to eliminate the "notwithstanding" clause, which I'll get to, er, "forthwith."

This goes back to our original 1987 trade deal with the U.S. Canada's Tory government promised to "keep culture off the table." Most countries support their own culture and artists with public funds and policy. It isn't seen as an unfair advantage over foreign artists and work. It's normal; there isn't even a culture clause in our deal with Europe (CETA). The U.S. alone does almost nothing in direct backing; culture is private business there, like everything.

So in 1987 Canada got a line that reads: "Cultural Industries are exempt from the provisions of this Agreement." One of the most straightforward statements you'll find in a trade deal. Alas, it's immediately followed by: "Notwithstanding any other provision of this agreement, a Party may take measures of equivalent commercial effect in response to actions that would have been inconsistent with this Agreement but for paragraph 1."

I stared at this for hours back in 1987 and it eventually made sense. But not for Canadian culture. It means if we go ahead and do what the lucid line before it says, i.e. support our culture; then the U.S. can claim we cost them money (for films, books, TV shows etc., that were cut out by our 'product') and charge us, i.e. Canadian taxpayers, the amount which they claim they lost.

It doesn't say how that would work and in fact they've never fully invoked it, though they've sometimes threatened it, like showing you're packing a concealed gun. The result is no serious Canadian cultural support programs have been created since then. In fact, it's always seemed to me that they could claim reparations for things like CBC, that existed even before the deal, since there's no time frame cited. I once asked a government trade lawyer about it and he said, "Oh, we don't think the Americans would do that."

So Canadian arts people would like to keep line 1 and eliminate line 2, which is what they've always wanted. Fat chance of that happening.

In fact, I can't figure out what game is being played in these negotiations. I watched Justin Trudeau's "media availability" Wednesday. He said, "We're pushing hard for an agreement that's more progressive...that improves workers' safety and security, protects the environment, addresses climate change, respects gender equality and the rights of Indigenous people."

He sounded like he was building his fantasy trade agreement, the way you draft your fantasy football team. It would feel great to get all those guys but you know they're never going to appear together in a real trade deal with the U.S. Is he assuming it'll all fall apart and he might as well look good in the process?

Here's another alternative, more sober, from soberer minds than mine: they think Justin may get some of these dreamy outcomes, but only in side deals, as window dressing, not in the body of the deal proper where they carry legal weight. They'll be like the toothless environmental and labour standards "annexes" now in NAFTA. I find that a stretch because it assumes Trump would want to look good in a feminist, environmental or Indigenous dress.

Then there's door number three, my fave: the NAFTA talks are part of a larger, elaborate workaround -- a hoax! -- meant to leave everything status quo but give Trump the sense that he's in charge while real power is exercised by others. It involves his own staff and even foreign governments. It's like The Apprentice but it's The President.

"Yes sir, you did nuke North Korea when you pressed that button and boy, they now know who's boss." 

"Yes sir, you cancelled NAFTA and you're being cheered for it everywhere. Even your detractors say it took guts."

It gets tense when he goes to rallies and brags about killing NAFTA. Some people eye each other quizzically, not having heard about NAFTA's cancellation. But most cheer, knowing that everything in mainstream media is fake news. He's their only source of unvarnished truth.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Office of the President of the United States

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