Address by Foreign Affairs Minister at UNIFOR Convention on the benefits of the new NAFTA


August 20, 2019 – City of Québec, Quebec

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Thank you, Scott, for that really kind introduction.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered today on the traditional and unceded territory of the Huron-Wendat people.

It is a real pleasure to be here to address this third UNIFOR constitutional convention.

The theme of your convention is “Whatever it Takes”.

This is a particularly fitting theme for the days we are living in. Increasingly, we are seeing cherished ideals, like even the idea of liberal democracy, under great threat from a resurgent authoritarianism. The Prime Minister, all of my Cabinet colleagues and I believe that collectively, we must do whatever it takes to push back against this tide.

Around the world, we see a growing trend of leaders and voters who question the value of liberal democracy itself and of the rules-based international order that was founded out of the carnage of the Second World War.

As Robert Kagan argues in his recent book The Jungle Grows Back, “If the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature, preserving it requires a persistent unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without. Today there are signs all around us that the jungle is growing back.”

This threat comes from abroad. Authoritarian regimes are actively seeking to undermine us with sophisticated, well-financed propaganda and espionage operations. They seek to suborn smaller countries, those wavering between democracy and authoritarianism.

But it also comes from within as anti-democratic movements seek to undermine our own democracies.

It is time for countries like Canada, who believe in liberal democracy and the rules-based international order, to fight back. Doing so is not only about our values, it is also vitally important to our national interest. Canada, with just 36 million people, could never thrive in a great power world where might makes right. That’s why Canada today is one of the most ardent defenders in the world of liberal democracy and the rules-based international order.

Some of you may be asking yourselves, why is this international struggle important to me? Why is it relevant to the organized labour movement? Well, first of all, because all of you are smart, informed citizens and I know you care a lot about the world. 

But I chose to begin my remarks today by talking about the big global fight we are all engaged in for another reason as well.

Liberal democracy and the rules-based international order are under attack because of the hollowing out of the middle class, because of the attacks on workers’ rights across the industrialized west.

Angry populism thrives where the middle class is hollowed out. Where people are losing ground and losing hope—even as those at the very top are doing better than ever.

When people feel their economic future is in jeopardy, when they believe their children have fewer opportunities than they had in their youth, that’s when people are vulnerable to the demagogue who scapegoats the outsider, the other—whether an immigrant at home or a foreign actor. 

And the fact is, middle-class working families aren’t wrong to feel left behind. Median wages have been stagnating, jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain, housing, child care and education harder to afford. Now, there are a lot of reasons the middle class is losing ground. The technology revolution, for example, but also globalization done wrong, which can pit our workers against those in countries with weaker labour and environmental standards, creating a merciless race to the bottom for everyone.

The challenges facing the Canadian middle class in the 21st century are complicated. We know that technology can make some of our jobs obsolete, for example, but I think we also all realize that we would have no hope of maintaining our own standard of living and creating a prosperous future for our children if we were to allow other countries to adopt new technologies while we fall behind. So that part is complicated. But when it comes to defending workers’ rights and supporting the middle class, one thing is absolutely certain: no political force is more essential or more effective than strong unions. 

That has been true since the very beginning of the industrial revolution and it is true today. Let’s remember our own history. 

In 1872, following the Toronto printers’ strike, Sir John A. Macdonald, hardly a pro-union man, passed the Trade Unions Act, which stated that unions were not to be regarded as illegal conspiracies. That was a milestone for Canada because unions, often fighting outright hostility from governments and employers, have been instrumental in bringing important benefits to Canadian workers, including a shorter work week, employment insurance, improved workplace health and safety legislation, paid maternity leave and much, much more. Thank you for your work. 

And while it was unions that fought for many of these achievements, it’s important to remind all Canadians that they have helped both unionized and non-unionized workers alike. Indeed, robust academic research shows that strong unions mean higher wages for both union and non-union workers. That’s because non-union employers in a heavily unionized sector must pay more to retain qualified workers and because higher wages and broader benefits become the norm that all employers need to meet.

Our government understands the importance of strong unions. We know that strong unions mean a strong middle class and a strong middle class means a strong country. And let me say here what a committed supporter you have at the Cabinet table in my friend and colleague, Patty Hajdu. She is really, really great and I know she loves working with you guys.

When we formed government, one of the first bills we introduced was Bill C-4, which repealed anti-labour laws enacted by the previous government. We have ratified the International Labour Organization’s convention 98, recognizing the fundamental right for workers to organize, and passed Bill C-62 to amend the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act, repealing several anti-union and anti-collective bargaining laws the previous government forced through. We have also modernized the Canadian Labour Code to provide Canadians with the right to flexible work arrangements, to eliminate unpaid internships, to make bereavement leave more flexible and work schedules more predictable.

We’ve introduced equal pay, we've introduced pay equity and passed legislation to protect workers from harassment and violence in the workplace. We have expanded the Canadian Pension Plan and introduced the Canada Child Benefit.

The fight for Canadian workers begins at home, and we need to continue to ensure that unions are protected and that you and all of your brothers and sisters receive the wages, pensions and working conditions that you have earned. Canada, however, is not the only battlefield. The challenge to the rules-based international order means that Canadian workers do at times face threats from outside our country too. The two biggest during my time as Foreign Minister have been the U.S. threat to withdraw from NAFTA or to gut it of elements like Chapter 19 and the cultural exemption that provided crucial protection for Canadian workers, and the Section 232 tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.

Had the U.S. withdrawn from NAFTA, the jobs of 1.9 million Canadians would have been in jeopardy. The 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum put more than 100,000 Canadian jobs at risk. Our country faced a serious, you might even say, existential threat. But when life gives you lemons, what do you do? You make lemonade. And in that spirit, we chose to see the challenge to our trading relationship with the United States posed by the renegotiation of NAFTA as an opportunity. After all, many Canadian workers were not so thrilled with the original deal.

Over the course of these complex and highly charged trade talks, we were able to rebuff the worst of the U.S. demands while adding new provisions that will make the deal better for working people in all three NAFTA countries. We kept Chapter 19, the all-important dispute settlement mechanism, and we did not allow a single part of Chapter 19 to be changed.

We retained the crucial cultural exemption because, in English or in French, we are Canadians!

We ended ISDS (investor state dispute settlement), which gave U.S. companies the right to sue our government and limited our sovereign authority to protect workers and the environment. We got rid of the so-called energy proportionality clause that compelled us to keep our energy resources flowing south. We resisted the American demand for 50% U.S. national content in cars.

And in critical ways, we made NAFTA better for working people. Canadian workers have long been concerned by unfair competition from Mexico, thanks in part to weak labour rights and environmental standards. We fixed that. As part of this negotiation, Mexico has made dramatic changes to its labour laws. These new rights will, of course, be good for Mexican workers. 

And you know what?

They will also level the playing field for Canadians.

And Canada is working very closely with this new Mexican administration to help them with the technical aspects of actually implementing their labour reform. Patty was in Mexico last month working specifically on that.

We added a labour value content provision that requires a certain percentage of cars eligible for preferential treatment under NAFTA to be built in a high-wage jurisdiction like Canada. We strengthened the labour chapter and made the labour provisions subject to dispute settlement.

We strengthened the environment chapter and made it subject to dispute settlement, too.

We were even able to work some progressive elements into the deal to protect LGBTQ2 people, women and Indigenous people. 

Imagine that.

And by the way, if you hear anyone carping that Canada’s progressive trade agenda was inappropriate, you can tell them from me that they are wrong on two counts.

First, I will never apologize for a trade strategy that gives workers and their rights pride of place.

Second, it is the progressive elements of the new NAFTA that will be essential when the deal makes its way to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Democrats now have a majority.

As for the 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, where do I start?

We all know these tariffs were absurd from the outset. The true north strong and free is mighty, to be sure, but we know we could never pose a national security threat to the United States.

Come on.

On top of that, our trade in steel with the U.S. is balanced and fair.

So we knew that we needed to take a strong stand, and we did. Canada imposed perfectly reciprocal dollar-for-dollar countermeasures against the United States. This was our strongest trade action since World War II.

As I am sure you all remember, Canada’s resolute reaction provoked some pretty striking responses. Now, that made some people nervous, and there were calls for our government to capitulate.

We did not.

We held firm, and we got a good deal.

Today, Canadian steel and aluminum exports to the United States face no restrictions, no tariffs, no quotas while almost all other countries face either tariffs or quotas or both.

None of this would have been possible were it not for our very strong partnership with labour unions and labour leaders, including the amazing Jerry Dias and his team.

At the very beginning of this ordeal, Jerry and I had lunch with Steve Verheul, our chief NAFTA negotiator, who by the way, is a brilliant patriotic Canadian, an amazing guy, and Jerry said to me, you know, union people are pretty good negotiators. It’s kind of our job. So we should hang out a bit and maybe we can help each other out.

And that was absolutely the case.

In fact, when some Canadians were wavering, urging us to cave in to U.S. demands on NAFTA or on 232, all of you and your leadership were the ones who helped keep our national spine stiff.

And I’m so grateful to you.

Union people know you need to stand up and be counted, to fight for your rights, even if the other guy is bigger or stronger than you. That is something we learned as a country during the NAFTA negotiations with the U.S.

If you are smaller, after all, as Jerry and I know all too well, you have to be smarter and tougher. So I’d like to conclude by thanking all of you here for being such great fighters. We all stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight over NAFTA and 232. You were fighting for your own jobs, of course, but you also knew you were fighting for the whole country. You are strong advocates for union rights, and in that fight, you champion the entire Canadian middle class. When you win, all Canadian workers, unionized and non-unionized alike, win.

And finally, I’d like to say thank you to Canada.

As Foreign Minister, ironically, the most powerful thing that I’ve learned is that we are such an amazing country and all of us are so lucky to be part of this great place.

At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise, and angry populists in so many parts of the world are succeeding in dividing their societies into warring tribes, Canada has become the city on the hill, the strongest liberal democracy in the world. 

Strong unions are essential to a strong country. 

So thank you for how hard and how successfully you fight for our wonderful Canada.

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