Canada-EU talks hit stressful patch over Thanksgiving

MONTREAL – Interprovincial harmony in the Canada-Europe trade pact was only achieved after a stressful moment over Thanksgiving turkey this week.

It was during the Monday holiday that the federal government advised provincial negotiators of its plan to more than double European cheese imports.

To Canada’s two biggest provinces, protecting the dairy industry was always a make-or-break issue in these trade negotiations.

So the news threw a wrench in Pierre Marc Johnson’s family dinner plans. The Quebec negotiator was settling in to munch, ironically enough, on some supply-managed poultry when he got the news.

“(We’re) having turkey sandwiches and they tell us it’s 17,700 tonnes (more dairy imports allowed),” Johnson, a former premier, told reporters Friday.

“We said, ‘Are we hearing this right? Maybe there’s one too many zeros?'”

He interpreted the 11th-hour, holiday timing of the news as a sign that Ottawa was “concerned” that the issue could scuttle the historic deal.

Things were smoothed out over the next three days, with premiers Pauline Marois and Kathleen Wynne eventually consulting each other on how to wrest compensation for farmers in exchange for more European dairy imports.

Both provinces have now declared themselves on board with the project.

In fact, Quebec’s opposition party has even said it’s “rejoicing” over the deal — which was initially spearheaded by the Charest government seven years ago.

That doesn’t mean the negotiations were problem-free in the later stages, however.

“When they told us (about dairy imports) we were stunned,” Johnson said. “I reported this to Quebec City. So we mounted an offensive, with Ontario.”

That offensive consisted of demanding help from the federal government for farmers hurt by the influx of European products. Quebec says that compensation mechanism might include money, or import licences, for farmers.

It took three days to work out the details with the feds.

But in the end, Johnson said, he was relieved to see Ottawa agree to compensation — and even more pleased to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly commit to it Friday during his appearance in Brussels.

Quebec said Friday that it wants to hear some specifics on compensation before its legislature votes to ratify the deal.

Other than that, count the province onside.

The pro-independence Parti Quebecois government has expressed its support for the initiative, which has support on both sides of the provincial legislature.

Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said he wished the federal government had negotiated different rules on cheese imports, but was pleased it agreed to an as-yet-unspecified form of assistance for farmers.

“It’s access for Quebec firms to a market of 500 million citizens, it’s the largest economy in the world, more than 20 per cent of the world’s GDP,” Marceau said.

“It’s an opportunity for growth, for jobs for Quebec,” Marceau said. “That is what we need in the context where we’ve seen our exports to the U.S. decline over the last 10 years.”

He said the Quebec government played a role in pushing for exemptions for certain sectors, including culture.

While the pro-independence PQ has historically clashed with the federal government on myriad policy fronts, free trade has not traditionally been among them.

In the 1980s, the original Canada-U.S. FTA had broad political support in Quebec. The Bourassa Liberals worked with the Mulroney government to rally skeptical premiers in other provinces, while the then-opposition PQ worked to rally public opinion in Quebec.

As for the modern-day Quebec opposition, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says he’s rejoicing over the deal, and he gives credit to his predecessor Jean Charest for getting the project launched seven years ago.

He says this deal, and the ongoing Pacific-region talks, demonstrate how Quebec benefits from being part of the Canadian federation.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne also expressed satisfaction.

She said she would want compensation for pharmaceutical companies, and dairy farmers, adversely affected by the deal.

But the message Friday was overwhelmingly positive.

“We think overall (it’s) a very good deal for Canada and for Ontario,” Wynne said in Toronto.

“You know, having access to a market of 500 million people, that’s a good thing. And our industries are happy about that.”

Quebec’s negotiator said he doesn’t expect any trouble getting the deal ratified.

Not that any deal is ever perfect.

Johnson said the federal government knew some provinces would be displeased with the changes in dairy policy: “They knew we wouldn’t be happy, because we told them,” Johnson said.

“Everyone knows this accord is geared toward the Canadian industrial base — the manufacturing sector, mainly, and a bit in the service sector and opening investments.

“So it doesn’t serve agriculture the most, even if there are important openings in agriculture too.”

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