This is a republication of an editorial by CUPE National President Mark Hancock which appeared in the Toronto Star on December 11, 2017.

Look in any direction on Canada’s international trade landscape today, and you’ll find a situation in barely-controlled chaos – whether that’s renegotiations on NAFTA, where the United States effectively holds all the cards, a new attempt at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or a potential trade deal with China – talks that our prime minister has rather dramatically walked away from in recent weeks.

There is plenty in play, and a lot at stake, for Canada. We live in a global economy, where strong trading relationships are essential, but too often our political leaders lock us into trade agreements that set our country back instead of bringing it forward.

Across the country, ordinary folks and even mainstream economists are starting to recognize that we don’t have to agree to bad trade deals, and that walking away from a deal that doesn’t benefit Canadian workers, and the Canadian economy, isn’t going to cause the sky to fall.

NAFTA is the perfect example. Since the adoption of NAFTA, almost 25 years ago, Canada has become the most-sued government in the developed world. We’ve been sued almost 40 times under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, dishing out close to $250 million in public money to private corporations.

That’s a serious assault on the public purse, but more importantly on the right of governments in Canada to exercise and uphold their own democratic decision-making. (The US, by contrast, has never been successfully sued under Chapter 11.)

NAFTA has also cost us countless manufacturing jobs and put public resources like water, and our environment, in serious jeopardy.

During the negotiation of NAFTA, and in the years since, countless organizations and individuals raised the alarm about these very issues. While CUPE and groups like the Council of Canadians and Alternative for the Americas were calling for robust consultation, improved protections for workers, measures to address inequality, and the inclusion of environmental protections in trade agreements, our concerns were largely ignored in favour of more powerful corporate voices.

Those that promote unfettered free trade tend to fear-monger about all-but-certain economic armageddon when voices raise concerns about things like labour rights and environmental protection. And up until now, they have managed to drown out those voices.

But last week’s report from BMO titled “The Day After NAFTA” tells a pretty different story. Pulling out of NAFTA would have some economic downsides in the short term, but realigning trade priorities and shifting monetary policy “would work to mitigate the economic damage”, according to BMO Chief Economist Doug Porter. In other words, the sky wouldn’t fall after all.

That’s pretty much what organizations like CUPE have been saying since the 1990s. And, in fact, it proves Canada is in a position to walk away from NAFTA if we can’t get a deal that respects workers, communities, and the environment.

Now, that isn’t to downplay the significant downside of a potential NAFTA collapse for some industries and regions across Canada. But it does underline the need for a healthy amount of skepticism about some of the torqued rhetoric that all too often pushes aside valid concerns about our approach to trade agreements.

The reality is NAFTA, TPP and an eventual trade deal with China are all, to varying degrees, wild cards for the government of Canada right now. Trudeau and his ministers are visibly hungry for a deal – and Canadians should be concerned about our government signing any deal at all.

The prime minister deserves credit for drawing a line in talks this week with Chinese officials, and for pressing for stronger labour protections in NAFTA and TPP. He has increasingly acknowledged the growing and well-earned skepticism of citizens towards unchecked free trade.

It’s good to hear Trudeau acknowledge the importance of making trade deals that work for everybody, not just the one per cent. But it’s also hard to believe platitudes and rhetoric. Where does the rhetoric actually lead us?

Continuing down the same old path on trade – resulting in the degradation of public services and diminished ability of governments to regulate in the public interest – isn’t going to cut it any more.

Canadians deserve fair trade agreements that will stand the test of time, and our leaders must do more than simply slap the word “progressive” into titles and talking points. We need real accountable and transparent practices when our government negotiates deals, and we deserve respect for, and real responsiveness to, public input.

In 2018 and beyond, trade and investment deals shouldn’t be seen as ends in themselves, but as tools to achieve just and sustainable development. Good jobs, strong democratic process, and strong protections for communities and the environment – these are the hallmarks of a truly “progressive” trade deal.