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This article was published 25/3/2009 (4365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA - International Trade Minister Stockwell Day says the economic crisis makes it imperative that Canada ratify a free trade pact with Colombia.
But some opposition MPs aren't convinced that anything justifies doing business with one of the world's worst human rights abusers. Day is to introduce Thursday legislation to implement free trade deals with Colombia and Peru. He's hoping to win parliamentary approval by the end of June, arguing that the sputtering economy necessitates urgency.
The deals "open doors of opportunities for entrepreneurs, for investors and of course for workers who will benefit by expanded trade opportunities," the trade minister said in an interview.
And Day said it's especially important for Canada to move on the deals "right now" because Colombia and Peru have already inked free trade pacts with a number of European countries, putting Canadian companies at a competitive disadvantage.
"If we don't get parliamentary approval, opportunities will be lost for Canadians," Day said.
"That will mean jobs can be threatened and especially at a time when we need to open doors, not close them, this would put Canadian producers and Canadian service providers and Canadian workers at a severe disadvantage."
Last year, Canada did $1.3 billion worth of two-way trade with Colombia, $2.5 billion with Peru. Canada exports heavy equipment, agricultural products and paper products to the two countries, where Canadian companies are involved in mining, oil and gas and manufacturing.
Day said he remains concerned about human rights violations in Colombia, where paramilitary and security forces are widely blamed for murdering and threatening human rights advocates and trade unionists.
But he said "considerable progress" has been made on that front which should be acknowledged through increased economic engagement. Moreover, he said the trade pact includes a side accord on labour, which will bind Colombia to adhere to international labour standards or face fines.
However, NDP trade critic Peter Julian said the "absurd fine system" won't do anything to prevent the killing of trade unionists. Indeed, he said Canada would be complicit in such abuses if it ratifies the agreement.
"Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in the world. It's the most dangerous country on the planet for trade unionists," he said.
The Bloc Quebecois is also expected to oppose the Colombian pact, leaving it to the Liberals to determine its fate.
Liberal trade critic Scott Brison said his party is keeping an open mind and generally agrees that economic engagement with countries such as Colombia helps promote improvements to their human rights records.
Still, he said it's "completely hypocritical and inconsistent" for the Conservative government to make that argument with respect to Colombia, a relatively tiny trade market, when it has spurned doing business with China, the world's largest market, over its violations of human rights.