Values that rub off

Canada has two approaches when dealing with totalitarian regimes. If they have no money or inclination to invest, we are quick to condemn and to shut such nations out of the room (as in the case of Cuba in the meetings of the Americas Summit) or to storm dramatically from any room into which the dictator is allowed (as in the case of Iran.)

If they have money, we have a different approach. It is a carefully executed piece of hypocrisy that requires a sanctimonious tone. The listener is somehow to suspend disbelief in the face of a counter-intuitive advanced wisdom, which is this: ‘If we are really concerned about human rights, the best way to secure improvements is through trade and forging relationships with countries that abuse human rights.’ Over and over again, Canadian governments have advocated that trading with China will cause China to absorb, as if through some mercantile osmosis, Canadian values.

No set of diplomatic criteria drove Stephen Harper to refuse to meet with Cuba in the room, while courting Communist China. If Cuba had all the money, our prime minister would be smoking cigars in Havana every chance he got.

It was not always so. Former Prime Minister Mulroney led the charge to enforce sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Against the indomitable Iron Lady herself, Mulroney succeeded in getting South Africa ejected from the Commonwealth.

It was former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who first argued we had to trade to improve human rights as he inked a nuclear deal with the butcher of Beijing, so-called for his role in the Tiananmen Square massacre. On November 26, 1996, Chrétien made a quick visit to Shanghai and clowned around with former Chinese Premier Li Peng. Coverage of the visit noted that replying to Amnesty International’s criticism, ‘the prime minister responds that quiet diplomacy and stronger trade ties are the best way to promote political liberalization.’ (Jim Brown, ‘China deal warms China ties, sparks hot attack,’ November 27, 1996, Canadian Press.)

That nuclear deal is highly significant in light of Bill C-38. The 1996 CANDU deal marked the first time that in order to accommodate China, Canada violated its own environmental assessment laws, and, retroactively, weakened them.

In order to get China to buy two CANDU reactors, Canada lent China $1.5 billion. This was, at the time, the largest external loan in the history of Canada. The use of federal money triggered an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (as it was before C-38.) On discovering they had accidentally triggered a mandatory environmental review, the Cabinet met in a hasty late night session and passed a regulation to change the review of projects outside Canada. In January 1997, the Sierra Club of Canada, of which I was Executive Director at the time, launched a court challenge against evading environmental assessment law to accommodate the Chinese government.

Here we are, fifteen years later, and China still does not like our environmental assessment laws. According to a 2010 report, Canada’s environmental assessment laws are a barrier to greater Chinese investment (Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canada-China: Building a Strong Economic Partnership, July 2010.) In the 2010 Conservative budget implementation bill environmental reviews were weakened to accommodate China.

In the House, explaining why Bill C-38 must be passed, the Prime Minister said it was in order ‘to provide certainty to investors.’ (May 10, 2012). What investors would those be?

In the last few years direct ownership of Alberta oil sands by Chinese state-owned oil companies has gone from nearly nothing to over $12 billion. Chinese money is already invested in the Enbridge pipeline and tanker scheme, Petro-China wants to build the pipeline, and Suncor is talking about using lowerwaged Chinese temporary workers–just in time to drive down wages and environmental standards. Sinopec is the fifth largest corporation in the world with a board of directors appointed by the Chinese Communist polit-bureau. And now Sinopec’s 9% share in Syncrude has given it veto power over any future decision to refine Syncrude bitumen in Canada, rather than put it in tankers.

‘The servility of Canada’s political leaders…to the obvious manipulations of Chinese strategists who flaunt world trade and financial market principles and jail democracy–promoting authors for 10-year terms is a national disgrace.’ That quote was cited by Victoria writer Terry Glavin, who added, ‘It wasn’t some dweebish umbrage-taker from the Kitsilano Civil Liberties Union who wrote those words. It was Tony Campbell, the former head of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat for the Privy Council Office.’ (‘China has our forests, now we’re sending our oilfields too,’ National Post, January 17, 2012).

So, back to that wonderful transmission of values through trade. Does anyone else notice that it seems to be working? Canada is absorbing Chinese values respecting human rights, labour laws, and environmental protections. It is indeed a national disgrace.