Trading water: the answer is no

OPINION Column, The Western Producer

Wendy R. Holm, P.Ag. December 8, 2005 (931 words)

A scant year and a half after we did it, we're at it again. In the dead of winter and for no good reason, Canadians are going to the polls in an election we neither want nor need.

In February the taxpayer purse will be some $300 million lighter and another minority government will be in place in Ottawa.
Nothing much will have changed for farming.

It's not that there's any shortage of issues that should be on the table. It's just that they won't make it there. Elections, as former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell once said, are no place to talk policy.

Politicians of course will give great lip service to the issues they think will win them votes, but get them to deliver once in office? Forget it.

It's easy to promise respect for farming. But without a federal food policy to set the goals for farm policy, that promise is impossible to deliver.

Add to that a badly fragmented farm community, and ad-hocery prevails because campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no post-election accountability.

No wonder Canadians are cranky about a winter election. The prospect of trudging out to a candidates meeting in January to repeat what was said 18 months earlier has farmers scratching their heads. Like a trip to an empty barn in the dead of winter, it feels pointless and inconvenient.

Maybe this is the election for farmers to take back the process, raise the one farm issue that draws support from farmers across Canada, and emerge as local heroes to their communities.

In the Nov. 11 edition of the Globe and Mail, under the headline "A thirsty Uncle looks north," former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed predicts that within three to five years the United States will aggressively come after Canada's fresh water: "It's not the crude. What the U.S. most needs is our water. We must not let it flow through our hands... We need it for ourselves."

Two weeks later, the cover of the Nov. 28 issue of Maclean's showed a grinning George Bush, glass of water in hand, with the caption "America is thirsty. Let's sell them our water before they take it."

Inside, the five-page cover story attempts to persuade Canadians that "irresistible forces of supply and demand now shaping the world order for water" make the sale of our water to the U.S. not only logical, but profitable, humanitarian and inevitable.

Inevitable? I don' think so.

If this election is about nothing, then here's a perfect opportunity to make it about something. If the politicians insist on dragging us to the polls in January, let's take control of the process and make this the election that rescues sovereignty over Canada's water.

Impossible? No, actually, relatively simple. But first, a few facts.

Before the Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadians were repeatedly and publicly assured by Ottawa that water was not included.

As it turns out, under NAFTA and FTA, water is considered a commodity like any other. This confers unprecedented water rights to American companies - and companies with American investors -
that are not enjoyed by Canadians. Texan ranchers are already challenging Mexico under NAFTA Chapter 11 over rights to water in the Rio Grande.

Despite attempts to cast water as the poster child for the anti-NAFTA campaign, rescuing Canadian sovereignty over water resources is not a "kill-the-deal" issue. The fix is an explicit exemption for water under the goods, services and investment provisions of NAFTA.

Although popularized as an export issue, NAFTA rights also accrue to water use by American firms in Canada, for example, water flooding in the oil patch, for hydroelectric or industrial uses.
This is of particular concern to surrounding farming communities.

Nor is this an anti-export issue.

The rights of provinces to make decisions over their resources, including the sale of water, are defined by the Constitution Act.
If Canadians wish to limit the rights of provinces with respect to water exports, they can be done by enacting a federal water policy that, for example, limits exports to water in containers under 20 litres in size.

But this is impossible without first exempting water from NAFTA.

So how can farmers effectively make water the issue in this campaign?

Luckily, we have a tailor-made position waiting in the wings.
Remember the farmers resolution to exempt water from NAFTA? More than 200 farm groups across Canada have endorsed it.

Picture this: A media conference in Ottawa with a dozen or so respected, non-partisan Canadians who come together to put the following question to federal party leaders: will you, if elected, make a clear and unequivocal statement to the U.S. and other nations that, wording notwithstanding, nothing in the trade agreements applies to Canada's water in other than bottled form?

With more than 200 farm organizations already behind the farmers resolution to exempt water from NAFTA, farmers could easily draw a group together.

This chorus of voices could be the catalyst that puts this "nothing" election in the pages of Canadian history, re-establishes farmers as community heroes and flexes a brand new and powerful farm voice.

In the list of top 10 reasons why nations falter, losing control of governance structures is up there with losing control over resources, losing control of foreign investment and losing control of food supply.

Throw in feeling powerless and it becomes irreversible.

"We stand on guard for thee" must be more than lyrics in a song.
Lougheed and Macleans have laid out the issues. Farmers have a ready response.

Let's make this election for the future of Canada.

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