Feds face calls to protect aluminum industry as new NAFTA deal appears close

U.S. labour groups want to tighten the definition of North American steel

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Mexico President Enrique Pena Neto, left, as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, looks on after participating in the USMCA signing ceremony, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A deal on amending the new North American free trade agreement appears close following a busy weekend, with hopes Canada, Mexico and the United States will approve a rewritten deal in the next 24 hours. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Mexico President Enrique Pena Neto, left, as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, looks on after participating in the USMCA signing ceremony, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A deal on amending the new North American free trade agreement appears close following a busy weekend, with hopes Canada, Mexico and the United States will approve a rewritten deal in the next 24 hours. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The federal government faced calls Monday to take a strong stand in defence of Canada’s aluminum industry and its workers as a deal to revise the new North American free-trade agreement appeared close to completion.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was signed by the three countries last year, but U.S. ratification has been stalled for months as congressional Democrats and organized labour have bickered with Mexico over labour rights as well as the agreement’s treatment of steel and aluminum.

There were concerns the agreement, which aims to update the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, would not be approved before Congress disperses until 2020 and its focus shifts to next fall’s presidential election.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was cautious Monday amid chatter of an imminent deal.

“In the lives of ordinary Canadians, there is perhaps no issue in our relationship with the United States that matters more than trade,” she said in question period.

“The prime minister raised the ratification of the new NAFTA and other trade issues in his meeting last week with the president and we have been working intensively, including many conversations over the weekend and this morning with our American partners, on getting the deal finalized.”

READ MORE: U.S. can’t show harm from Canadian softwood industry, NAFTA panel says

The breakthrough appears to have followed Mexico accepting — with a five-year phase-in period — a U.S. demand to tighten the definition of North American steel in a section of the agreement dealing with where cars and their parts can be said to originate.

Products that officially originate in North America get more favourable treatment than ones that originate abroad but come through one of the countries in the agreement.

However, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said his country would not accept the same tighter definition for aluminum because the raw materials are not produced in Mexico.

Mexico also rejected U.S. demands for American inspectors to be sent in to ensure Mexican auto workers are being paid $16 per hour on average, though U.S. officials were said to have accepted Mexico’s offer to allow dispute-resolution panels to review labour-law compliance.

Labour unions in the U.S. were to be briefed on the proposed amendments on Monday with the hope they would agree to the changes, which would pave the way for the Democratic leaders to offer their own approval.

The Trump administration as well as the Canadian and Mexican governments would then be asked to agree formally to the amended deal before introducing legislation to put it into force.

Details of the amendments had yet to be communicated to Canadian industry and labour groups Monday, but those representing the aluminum sector and its workers were upset the deal may not include a tighter definition on what constitutes North American aluminum.

“We’re certainly not happy with this at all because it simply means Mexico wants to keep an open door to foreign metal coming in from China, from the Middle East, from India,” said Aluminum Association of Canada president Jean Simard.

Noting the industry was battered by U.S. tariffs last year, Simard added: “Canada has taken the case of aluminum as much as steel up to now and we certainly expect Minister Freeland and the Canadian government to hold their position on this like they’ve been doing up to now.”

READ MORE: Canada ‘very encouraged’ by progress on US-Mexican NAFTA talks — Freeland

Ken Neumann, national director in Canada of the United Steelworkers union, which represents employees in both the aluminum and steel industries, was also critical of Mexico’s demand for a five-year phase-in period for tightening the definition of North American steel.

“We strongly would anticipate or hope that our government is going to stand up for our aluminum workers,” he said.

“So we’re going to keep our fingers crossed. We’re going to consult with the government of Canada to make sure they’re going to stand up for what’s right for the steel industry and for our aluminum workers.”

Neumann and other members of the United Steelworkers’ leadership team in Canada were scheduled to fly to the U.S. to be briefed Tuesday on details of the proposed amendments.

“At this stage of the game, all eyes are on where organized labour is on Mexico’s newest proposals,” said Dan Ujczo, an Ohio-based trade lawyer with law firm Dickinson Wright and an expert in Canada-U.S. trade. “If they agree, it’s likely House (of Representatives) Democrats will sign off on this.”

Yet while there is a chance that legislation could be introduced this week and passed by Congress before Dec. 20 to bring the deal into force, Ujczo warned there still could be unexpected hurdles.

“Nobody has seen the implementing bill soup-to-nuts,” he said. “So we’re closing Phase 1 of the deal process, then we’re on to Phase 2, which will be we’ll all have to take a look at the implementing bill.”

The new trade pact would replace NAFTA, which came into force in 1994 and eliminated most tariffs and other trade barriers involving the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Critics, including Trump, labour unions and many Democratic lawmakers, branded NAFTA a job-killer for America because it encouraged factories to move south of the border, capitalize on low-wage Mexican workers and ship products back to the U.S. duty-free.

Mexico ratified the new North American deal in June while the Canadian government has said it is waiting to ratify the agreement at the same time as the United States.

—With files from The Associated Press

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kennedy Nikel, applied marine biologist at Cascadia Seaweed, here seen in late September, shows off bull kelp (in her left hand) and rock weed. The company is spear-heading an annual seaweed festival scheduled for May 13-21, 2021, with Sidney council have signed off in principle. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Cascadia hopes to see Sidney host seaweed festival in May 2021

Council supports the idea in principle following a presentation by Cascadia Seaweed

Trevor Davis, base manager of the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation in Sidney, stands in front of the Hecate Sentinal, an oil skimming vessel based at Sidney’s Van Isle Marina. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Oil spill response base taking shape on Saanich Peninsula

Enhanced base with elements in North Saanich and Sidney to be fully operational in fall 2022

The O’Meara family – (left to right) Mari, Max, Adam and Rei – spent Saturday afternoon picking out the perfect tree. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Santa’s Forest tree sale in Saanich implements one-way perusing, curbside pick up

Christmas tree, wreath sales in Braefoot Park through Dec. 24

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement forecasting windy weather Sunday and Monday. (News Bulletin file photo)
More windy weather on the way for Vancouver Island

Environment Canada issues special weather statement for Victoria, east coast of Island, north Island

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Kevin Bieksa during his days playing with the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo: commons.wikimedia.org)
Bieksa to guest on free Canucks Alumni ‘Hot Stove’ on Zoom app

Former NHL player has become a game analyst on Sportsnet

A small crash in the water south of Courtenay Saturday afternoon. Two men had to be rescued, but reports indicate there were no serious injuries. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Small plane crash in Comox Valley waters Saturday afternoon

Two rescued from plane that had flipped in water; no serious injuries reported

A photo from 2017, of Nuchatlaht First Nation members outside court after filing a land title case in B.C. ( Submitted photo/Nuchatlaht First Nation).
Vancouver Island First Nation calls on B.C. to honour UNDRIP in historic title case

Nuchatlaht First Nation says Crown counsel continues to stall the case using the ‘distasteful’ argument that the Nation ‘abandoned’ their land

West Vancouver Island’s Ehattesaht First Nation continues lock down after 9 active cases were reported today after a visitor tested positive last week. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Ehattesaht First Nation’s COVID-19 nightmare: nine active cases, a storm and a power outage

The Vancouver Island First Nation in a lockdown since the first case was reported last week

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

The Ahousaht First Nation confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Nov. 26, 2020. (Westerly file photo)
Ahousaht First Nation on lockdown over COVID-19

“Emotions are high. The anxiety is high. We want our community to pull through.”

Most Read