QUEBEC - As premiers and territorial leaders reached a deal on trade and labour mobility across Canada Thursday, they also expressed worries about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We feel it's very important as provinces and territories to do our share to nurture this relationship (NAFTA) and defend what is the most important trade relationship in the world," Quebec Premier Jean Charest said on behalf of his counterparts.
"There is a shared concern about the future of NAFTA and we feel the federal government needs to be very vigilant in defending NAFTA and making it very clear that if Americans choose to question this trade agreement everything will be on the table," he added.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has said he might want to renegotiate NAFTA if he is elected to the White House.
Premiers spent the day talking about trade and labour at the Council of the Federation meeting in Quebec City on Thursday.
They inked a deal to remove labour mobility barriers across Canada beginning next year. The agreement means workers trained in one province will be able to do their job in any other province.
"We believe working people and their families want to have a situation where they do not have to go through 13 separate accreditation processes, but rather one accreditation process," Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said at a news conference.
"We believe that a nurse is a nurse, a teacher is a teacher, a welder is a welder," he added.
Charest said it is important for professional qualifications to be recognized across the country as provinces face worker shortages.
"There are serious mobility constraints in about 25 per cent of jobs in Canada, so our task is to smooth away those last difficulties to create the most stimulating market," said Charest, who hosted the meeting.
The provinces expect full labour mobility to be effective on April 1, 2009, but will still have to work out how to harmonize professional credentials between provinces at a future meeting.
And certain professions will be exempted. Provincial labour ministers are to meet at a later date to develop a list of the exempted professions. It could, for instance, include pharmacists, who are allowed to write prescriptions in Alberta -- but not in other provinces.
"We're very pleased with the significant progress we made this morning on labour mobility," said Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. "This is a bold step forward."
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the agreement makes the country more competitive.
"I'm not worried about Alberta and B.C., I'm worried about China, India, the U.S. and Europe," he said. "Also, I've got 100,000 jobs in Ontario that I can't fill."
But labour officials from Canada, who are also meeting in Quebec City this week, don't see any silver lining in this deal.
"This is not the most pressing issue facing Canadians," said Jim Sinclair of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
"They are worried about the fact they can't afford to put gas in their car and where is the premiers' response to that problem?" he added.
The provinces will amend the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) by Jan. 1, 2009. The premiers will harmonize the different provincial requirements for job credentials at their next meeting, in August, 2009.
Also on the trade front, Charest stressed that the premiers fully support the conclusion of a Canada-European transatlantic accord that will be discussed between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Nicolas Sarkozy this fall.
The premiers also pressed the federal government to commit more financial resources to reduce the visa backlog at the Immigration Department in Ottawa. There are currently more than 900,000 pending requests and the provinces want to bring the figure down to 200,000 by 2011.
"It is unacceptable as it is right now," Charest said, adding many of those waiting for a visa to come to Canada are workers.
Also on Thursday, the premiers approved a new mechanism to resolve internal trade disputes that will include an enforcement tool.
The old dispute system is based on the consensus of the parties and contains no binding settlement mechanism or penalties.
"The former mechanism was weak, anemic and without effects," said Charest.
The new formula also provides for penalties of up to $5 million for failure to comply with the terms of the agreement.
The dispute mechanism will be implemented as of Jan. 1, 2009.
Labour federations voiced their own concerns about the new mechanism and said they fear it could open the door for corporations that might want to challenge a province's laws if they are deemed a barrier to trade.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the new policy could open the door to corporations suing all levels of government over actions that hinder trade and profits.
He also expressed doubts that Canada's labour-mobility rules required an overhaul, contending few workers experience obstacles when moving from province to province.
But the premiers stressed this new mechanism isn't a tribunal but a panel made up of a representative of the province complaining and of the default province, as well as a third-party member chosen by both parties.
Edmonton Journal, Page A3, Fri July 18 2008
Byline: Marianne White