by Steve Proctor, Business Editor 

The Canadian Labour Congress is urging the province not to sign an interprovincial trade deal being heralded by the business community as a cure for what ails the country.

Erin Weir, an economist with the national labour lobby group, said Wednesday the benefits being attributed to the Trade Investment and Mobility Agreement are being overstated and its possible interference with governments’ ability to regulate in the public interest is being underplayed.

The deal, signed between Alberta and B.C. but now being considered by other provinces including Nova Scotia, lifts restrictions on workers moving between provinces and essentially erases all trade barriers between the signatories.

Welcomed by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives as one of the most important deals in the last decade, the national business groups have long held that interprovincial trade barriers have stifled economic growth and competitiveness.

To back their point, they cite a September 2005 Conference Board of Canada analysis that suggests the tearing down of trade barriers between B.C. and Alberta alone could add $4.8 billion and 78,000 jobs to B.C.’s economy.

But Mr. Weir has big problems with those assertions and the conference board report. He told a Chronicle Herald editorial board that while there has been lots of rhetoric around trade barriers, in the end there are really very few barriers in place supported by legislation.

“And the few that there are could be dealt with on an individual basis. You don’t need a wide-ranging agreement like this.”

He was especially critical of the deal’s enforcement scheme that could allow private interests to sue provincial governments, municipalities and school boards for up to $5 million over alleged violations. The result, he said, is that bureaucrats might feel constrained in their abilities to act in the public interest. He said it is also unclear how dispute-settlement panels, which meet behind closed doors, will interpret the extremely broad language of the 38-page agreement.

He also worries the deal will lead to lower employment standards because each province must accept the standards of all other provinces.

As for the Conference Board of Canada report, he said it was based on shoddy methodology and reflected information gleaned from a small number of businesses, more than half of which were offering goods or services that were exempted from the deal.

He said a better study is a February paper carried out by the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that demonstrated that interprovincial trade barriers had “almost no measurable economic effect.”

At minimum, he said, the government should conduct public hearings similar to those held recently in Saskatchewan on the matter.

Charles Cirtwill, acting head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax think-tank, said his group believes Atlantic Canada has the most to gain by signing the deal.

“If we don’t, we’ll keep on sending our people out west. If we do, we can keep people in Nova Scotia and sell what we make here out there.”

He said there are provisions in the deal that “will ensure it is not open season on regulators.”

No one in the province’s interprovincial trade section was available Wednesday to say where the province sits on the deal, but last year Economic Development Minister Richard Hurlburt said the province could benefit greatly from such an agreement, although it was too early to say whether the province would sign on.

Canada’s internal trade is estimated at $300 billion annually.

To read more about the TILMA, check out AIMS Breakfast Briefing with TILMA negotiator, Shawn Robbins, at this link.