Letter to the Minister of International Commerce concerning MAI

Thursday, March 26 1998

The Honourable Sergio Marchi
Minister of International Trade
House of Commons
Room 103-S Center Block
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Dear Mr. Minister:

On behalf of my fellow members of the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, I would like to express our grave concern that representatives of the Government of Canada are continuing their negotiations with representatives of the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development aimed at finalizing the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

From the available information, the proposed agreement falls into the category of a development strategy based on trade liberalization, deregulation and economic privatization. The implementation of this strategy and accompanying trade agreements has led to a significant increase in Canadian exports, particularly to the U.S. market. Our exports, in fact, have been the main engine of economic growth in recent years. Nonetheless, the effect of these agreements, coinciding as they do with wide-ranging reform of social programs, could be to have widened the income gap and increased inequity. A number of poor people have indicated to us that government policies have not really improved their living conditions. Everywhere, social programs are being radically scaled back — from the transformation of the Unemployment Insurance Program into the Employment Insurance Program, to the abolition of the Canada Assistance Plan in favour of the Canadian Health and Social Transfer, to substantial cuts in provincial transfer payments. Economic growth is an important part of the economic development of society. But it is only one part.

As Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, “Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every person and of the whole person.” “Integral” development presumes — in fact, demands — that people and communities are in a position to assume their responsibilities and control the levers needed to develop and pursue initiatives that will meet their social, economic, cultural and environmental needs. When individuals are being told that they must take greater responsibility for themselves and at the same time fiscal responsibilities are being decentralized to lower levels of government, is it not paradoxical that Canada is poised to sign an agreement that gives more freedom to big business and undermines political power?

Today, large multinational firms base their international activities on profitability, and we fear that the proposed agreement would strengthen their influence at the cost of weakening that of other actors at the local, regional and provincial levels. Since this agreement would be binding on all levels of government, what mechanism will the federal government provide that not only will allow but enhance community input into measures designed to enhance the common good? Again, according to Pope Paul VI, all rights, including the rights to property and free trade, must be subordinated to the common good. How will the federal government negotiate and reach agreement with provincial governments when they must in turn negotiate with municipalities? Given the number of parties involved and the breadth of the issues, the proposed agreement needs to be vetted in a broad, long-term consultative process.

We urge the Government of Canada to organize such a consultative process as soon as possible. The process of economic restructuring under way in many industries has sown uncertainty, worry and even despair among both the unemployed and those who have maintained their jobs. The proposed agreement,widely seen as another step in this direction, is encountering increasing opposition from citizens worried about their personal and professional prospects as well as about the future of their communities and regions.

While no industry has been spared the impact of this process, the fate of Canadian arts and culture is of particular concern to the people of this country. Canadian companies involved in culture and art do excellent work and enjoy international renown, yet it is difficult to compete with U.S. giants. We believe that the Canadian government must affirm its right not only to protect but to actively support the development of our artists and culture. In closing, we are also surprised that the governments of the developing countries have been shut out of these negotiations. We are opposed to this way of proceeding, if it means governments of the industrialized nations simply imposing their newly-approved rules of the game on developing countries.

We would be pleased to receive your response to our concerns.

Yours sincerely,

† François Thibodeau, CJM
Bishop of Edmundston
Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops