Originally appeared on the Alberta Green Party’s website in 2008.
Remember the protests that erupted this past summer in Montebello, Quebec, as Prime Minister Harper and President Bush met to discuss the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America? When politicians tried to show how the SPP would permit commodities such as jelly beans to be traded more freely, journalists jokingly dubbed the meeting the “Jelly Bean Summit.”
Yet, the SPP is no joke. As critics warned, the SPP “threatens Canada’s ability to set its own independent regulatory standards, environmental protection measures, energy security, foreign, military, immigration and a frighteningly wide range of other policies.”
Here in Alberta, our provincial Tory government signed a similar deal with British Columbia—only it’s a called TILMA: the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s why: In April 2006, the agreement was signed… behind closed doors.
So much for the democratic process. In its “Father Knows Best” approach of signing the deal with no consultation, our provincial Tory government made it patently clear that organizations such as AUMA, local school boards, and other elected authorities deserved no say in the structure of the agreement. Chances are, most Alberta’s aldermen and councillors still don’t even know what TILMA is.
In 2007, a full year after the agreement was signed, the Tories finally went out on the road to “consult” with various organizations. Even so, a submission from AUMA (the Alberta Urban of Municipalities) to the Minister asking to be at the table in discussions proved that it felt excluded from the consultation process. In September, AUMA was still trying to understand the impact of the agreement.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but as an Albertan, I find it shocking that an organization that represents the province’s 284 urban municipalities had to BEG to be involved in negotiations around an agreement that strikes at the very core of what its membership does—that is, governing on behalf of us— the citizens of this province.
Why so secretive? What is the Tory government hiding?
The answer is “plenty.” If you take a look at the wording of the agreement, TILMA forces all levels of governments to consider the impact of pending new laws and policies on trade, investment, and labour mobility on commerce, thus ensuring that any negative impacts on business as a result of their regulations are “justified and necessary.” The end game of all of this is that business concerns would take legal precedence over public security and safety, protection of human, animal or plant life or health, protection of the environment, and conservation and prevention of waste of non-renewable resources, as none of these areas are exempt from TILMA’s power to trump them (Source: http://www.tilma.ca). Putting it simply, TILMA states that regulations in these key areas of public interest must be as “non-restrictive as possible.”
Non-restrictive to what?, you might ask. To business profit, of course.
UBCM, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (AUMA’s counterpart in our western neighbour) has had more time to form an opinion about TILMA as it has been discussing the agreement with the BC government since December of 2005. UBCM’s policy papers states, “the agreement is vague and there are no precedents, so one of the issues for councils and boards is the uncertainty that surrounds TILMA.” The document also states that “unlike other agreements that identify what is specifically covered within it – a positive listing – the TILMA utilizes what could be defined as an exclusion listing, which means everything is included unless expressly excluded…As a result, an environment of uncertainty for local governments and others has been created. This uncertainty for many UBCM members has translated into angst and, in some cases, outright opposition to the Agreement.” (Source: Local Governments and TILMA, UBCM website)
How TILMA will affect our municipal governance is the sixty-four million dollar question. Opponents suggest, for example, that school boards could “lose the ability to mandate healthy lunch programs” and that municipal governments could “lose the right to limit building heights or ban pesticides, regulate nursing homes, protect waterways from being sold, and fail to protect public health care as it could fall to litigious medical profiteers.” (Source: The National Post). These would be serious concessions.
Furthermore, a municipal council that doesn’t adhere to TILMA’s standards could face a fine up to $5 million—a penalty that must be paid by a town or city if the provincially appointed panel rules in business’s favor. Yes, you heard right. A small panel of paid political appointees will be authorized to make binding rulings about whether school boards, health authorities, towns and cities are in compliance with the agreement. The panel, alone, will carry the authority to levy heavy penalties that could intimidate or bankrupt even the wealthiest municipalities.
With TILMA, what seems like a few common sense trading ideas—to eliminate some levels of bureaucracy and enable an easier flow of workers between the two provinces, for example—have been trumped by a wholesale give-away of common good legislative powers. It’s a proverbial example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater as it mixes in a few, sensible regulatory changes with ones that give away the farm. What better way to confuse the public and make them think the entire agreement is a beneficial one?
The idea of creating this “seamless” (or some might say “soulless”) western trading block has attracted dubious attention in Saskatchewan, as well. Perhaps anticipating that the province would also sign onto the agreement, the Saskatoon City Solicitor prepared a report advising the City Council to be excluded from the pact. Saskatchewan has so far refused to join the Alberta-BC trade deal, but we’ll see with its newly elected government whether its opposition stance will hold weight.
The City of Burnaby has also opposed TILMA. The city’s Director of Finance warned that the agreement has the potential to have “far reaching negative impacts on municipal objectives.” Thus, he recommended that Burnaby ask the Union of B.C. Municipalities to “review the agreement and consult with the provincial government and municipalities, with the intent of making required changes, exempting municipalities, or having the province withdraw from the agreement in its entirety.”
Even the Sierra Legal Defence Fund has prepared an analysis of TILMA and its impact on local powers ability to protect the environment. The report warns that “the reduction of greenhouse gases, protection of endangered plants…or the reduction of air pollution” would all be subject to the TILMA litmus test, which forces the municipalities to prove these critical environmental protection measures are NOT overly restrictive towards trade, investment or labour mobility (Source: Sierra Club).
By signing TILMA in 2006, Ralph Klein and Alberta International, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations Minister, Guy Boutilier (who seeks re-election, I might add) went behind the backs of virtually every stakeholder group attempting to protect the public commonwealth in this province. Klein, in effect, thumbed his nose at democracy on his way out the door.
A number of Facebook and Google website groups have voiced their members’ opposition to TILMA, but so far, the mainstream media has barely touched on the issue.
The question is: Are Albertans going to stand by and allow this agreement to take effect, or will we oppose it now?