Against the Odds: Fighting Canada’s Free Trade Deal With Colombia

The Canadian House of Commons passed a free trade agreement with Colombia on June 14, representing the deal's final major legislative hurdle. It still has to go through the Senate and be signed by the governor general, but this is basically a formality. For years Canadian activists have tenaciously fought to stave off the deal, which again represents the hemispheric vision and plans of the United States and Canada in the region based on the failed NAFTA model.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

June 14, 2010

Update: The Canadian House of Commons passed a free trade agreement with Colombia on June 14, representing the deal¹s final major legislative hurdle. It still has to go through the Senate and be signed by the governor general, but this is basically a formality. Below is an account of how Canadian activists have tenaciously fought to stave off the deal.

After the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in 2005, the United States and Canada were not about to give up on their hard-fought hemispheric vision. They embarked on a new strategy to promote the NAFTA model, pursuing bilateral free trade and investment arrangements with strategic political allies in the region. A key partner in this strategy was Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, arguably the government leader with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere.

It was in this context that a year later, former U.S. president George W. Bush concluded the controversial United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. Bush was fighting a bruising battle to ratify his trade deal in the Democratically controlled Congress when Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, stepped in to lend a hand.

Harper opened negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement with Colombia, as well as Peru, in 2007 as the centerpiece of the prime minister’s new Americas Strategy. At the time of this writing, ratifying the Colombia deal remains an active, though as yet unfulfilled, political objective of both the Canadian and Colombian governments and each country’s business elite. For Colombia, ratification by Canada would, no doubt, influence members of the U.S. Congress, given Canada’s recognized historical commitment to international human rights.1 And Uribe desperately needs to show the world that doubts about his government’s legitimacy are unfounded.

For Canada, trade expansion is a key element of the Conservative government’s foreign policy direction for the hemisphere. This trade policy must also be understood to include a strong security agenda in line with U.S. foreign policy post–9/11.2 The ideological thrust of this approach is to influence the growing polarization between U.S. allies and “pink tide” countries that are questioning neoliberal prescriptions for their development models. Its further purpose is to promote Canadian corporate interests in the region—especially those in the extractive sectors, which have billions of dollars invested in petroleum and mining, especially in the Andean region.

Harper believed he could wrap up negotiations on both deals (Colombia and Peru) in record time and then ram implementation legislation through Parliament. Indeed, the deal with Peru was concluded seven months later, ratified and in effect by August 2009 (its U.S. counterpart was implemented six months earlier). While there is a long history of Canadian international cooperation in Peru, there has not been decades of widespread solidarity and public education work on human rights problems in that country (as there has been on Colombia). A less severe “crisis” in Peru related to a continuing internal armed conflict—including trade union deaths, rural displacement, and so forth—together with Peru’s lesser geopolitical significance to the United States, also explain weak public and Parliamentary knowledge of Peru as a human rights disaster. Thus, enabling conditions for campaigning were absent, and Canadian civil society organizations (CSOs)—with much regret—concentrated their limited resources on opposing the Colombia FTA.

Why, then, with powerful leaders working so hard for it, has the Canadian Parliament still not ratified the Colombia trade deal almost three years later? As this article goes to print, new alliances in Parliament mean the deal may soon be passed. Whatever the result of these new negotiations, it is important to underscore why the deal has eluded governments to date. Two factors played a key role in this result: First, and most importantly, Canadian activists successfully mobilized a campaign to oppose the Colombia deal, working with opposition parties in Parliament. Second, with a minority in Parliament, the government had limited room for maneuver in advancing the free trade agenda, despite the best efforts of its most powerful leaders.


Many Canadians were shocked when Harper and his ministers claimed that the Colombian government shared Canada’s fundamental values of “freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” since they knew of Colombia’s violent and troubled history.3 For several decades, Canadian civil society—unions, faith-based organizations, human rights organizations, and development NGOs—had worked hard to focus public attention on widespread human rights violations and the root causes of armed conflict in Colombia: the influence of drug mafias tied to the army, politicians, and rebel groups, together with the pressing need for land reform and social justice.

As the Colombian guerrilla war escalated in the 1990s, and neoliberal policies intensified inequality, unemployment, and social exclusion, CSO strategies in Colombia and abroad focused on supporting a negotiated settlement to the conflict based on social justice. A specific advocacy goal of the solidarity movement was to ensure that Canadian funds, like those provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), respected labor, human rights, and environmental standards. CSOs also called for a moratorium on Canadian investment in Colombian territories where the armed conflict was taking place and where crimes against humanity were being committed. They specifically demanded an end to the killing of trade union and indigenous leaders, as well as an end to impunity for these crimes.

The campaign against the trade deal had other foundations to build upon, given the almost 15 years of controversy surrounding NAFTA. Canadian trade activists had accumulated knowledge and understanding of the profound political and socio-economic impacts of such free trade deals, and how they lock in a radical free market policy framework. These agreements limit the role of governments in shaping market outcomes through economic, social, and environmental policies, and provide substantive and unprecedented rights to investors with no enforceable rights for workers, consumers, indigenous peoples, the displaced, or others affected by investor actions. “Side agreements” negotiated for labor and the environment have proved largely ineffective in protecting workers and the environment from the negative effects of free trade.

In this context, a coalition of Canadian CSOs, trade unions, and grassroots solidarity groups launched a public campaign calling for trade negotiations with Colombia to cease until a full human rights impact assessment was carried out.4 The obstacles were many—including a hostile government, little access to the media, and the ideological fundamentalism of Canada’s new foreign policy directions in the Americas.

The campaign consisted of developing and distributing popular materials, speaking tours of Colombians, media outreach, education, and mobilization. Building on in-depth knowledge of the trade model and coordination with Colombian partners, Canadian organizations also provided expert analysis of the agreement itself, showing that applying its policies in a country like Colombia, without evaluating the agreement’s likely human rights impacts, was a recipe for “making a bad situation worse.”5 In turn, the question of whether the agreement could actually harm rather than help became a dominant frame of debate in both the media and Parliament.

The campaign captured the moral high ground in the debate, which had been cast, initially, by the prime minister as a battle about politics and ideology, not about trade. “Deepening both economic and political engagement between our countries is the best way Canadians can support the citizens of Colombia in their efforts to create a safer and more prosperous democracy,” Harper said.6 Activists know that it can be a struggle to make trade policy news-relevant to the general public. Facilitated by the government’s political framing of the trade deal, however, and the fact that Colombia and Canada are minor trading partners, Canadian CSOs were able to engage citizens and politicians on the political implications of doing business with a human-rights-violating government, the risk of complicity for Canadian business in a war economy, and the misuse of and damage to Canada’s reputation as a human rights champion. The contrast of the high road taken by the U.S. Congress, and the distrust of an overt alliance between Harper and Bush, also spurred citizen backlash at Canada’s recklessness (see “Harper’s ‘Wise Words,’ ”ADD URL).

It was clear to Canadian campaigners that the principled position of the Congress in Canada’s most important ally and trading partner was a potent asset. The U.S. Congress was well aware that the Canadian deal, if passed, could erode opposition to the U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia. In January 2008, seven Democratic congressional representatives wrote the Canadian Parliament to share their concerns. “No trade agreement with Colombia is acceptable at this time,” the letter read.7 Representative Mike Michaud (D-Maine), one of the letter’s signers, undertook a one-day visit to Ottawa to meet with then trade minister David Emerson and the leaders and key members of all three Canadian opposition parties to shore up opposition to the proposed deal. Michaud urged Canadians to “stick with your strong tradition about human rights and labor rights and continue to be the leader you have been for so many years.”8 A headline in Embassy, a Canadian newsweekly on foreign affairs, announced: “Opposition to Colombia Trade Deal Reaches Fever Pitch.”


Key factors in the Canadian campaign included strategically coordinating with opposition members of Parliament committed to stopping the Colombia deal, tracking political events as they happened, and adapting the strategy accordingly. In a similar situation to that in the United States at the time, the Conservatives controlled the government but held only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, where legislation must pass to implement the deal.

Under pressure from civil society, Parliament’s Standing Committee on International Trade (CIIT) undertook an in-depth study called “Human Rights, the Environment and Free Trade With Colombia” in 2008. The committee received briefs; heard testimony from government, business, and a broad spectrum of CSO representatives; and undertook an official mission to Bogotá. As the committee was nearing the conclusion of its study, but before it had the opportunity to submit its recommendations, the government announced that negotiations had been completed. The deal was done. Incensed at the disrespect of democratic process, the committee issued its report to Parliament on June 18, 2008, recommending that the trade agreement not be signed.9

The committee’s report called for an “independent, impartial and comprehensive human rights impact assessment . . . [to] be carried out by a competent body which is subject to levels of independent scrutiny and validation” and stated that “the recommendations of this assessment should be addressed before Canada considers signing, ratifying and implementing an agreement with Colombia.”10 Shortly after, Conservative MPs reneged on the unanimous recommendations, noting that the committee’s recommendations conflicted with the Conservative government’s position. Meanwhile, the proposal for a human rights impact assessment became a clarion call for the campaign, widely endorsed by major newspaper editorials, the three opposition parties, CSOs, and many concerned union members and citizens.

Neither members of Parliament nor the public would see a word of the trade deal’s text until five months after the committee’s report was issued, when the deal was signed in Lima on the margins of a November 2008 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. The legislation to implement the agreement, Colombia Implementing Legislation Bill (C-23), was tabled for first reading on March 26, 2009. (Bills in the Canadian Parliament must pass three “readings,” or periods of consideration followed by a vote in the House of Commons. After passing a second reading, a Parliamentary committee studies the bill in depth and can make changes before it is sent back to the House for the final vote. A bill then passes to the second chamber, the Senate, where it must pass another three readings before it can receive royal assent from the Canadian governor general and be promulgated as law.)

For the next few months, opposition parliamentarians questioned the Colombia agreement at every opportunity during debates, asking why the human rights impact assessment they had requested was not undertaken. The Bloc Québécois, for example, tabled an amendment to a second reading of the bill, requesting that it not be considered since the Parliamentary committee’s report had been ignored. The New Democratic Party led a spirited attack on the proposed labor side agreement, noting the past failings of such agreements, especially the inadequacy of the proposal that fines levied through the side deal could possibly remedy labor rights violations, such as assassinations.11 The Conservatives eventually pulled the bill from the order paper (the government’s agenda), fearing they would not have enough votes to move it forward. Although the Canada-Peru free trade agreement was signed almost a year before the Colombia bill came up for debate, the government waited and submitted both deals—Colombia and Peru—together for first reading. The Peru deal went through its three readings fairly quickly, with little Parliamentary or public resistance.

In the fall of 2009, the Liberal Party’s official position started to shift toward support for the Colombia trade deal. Although the Liberal caucus became divided over the issue, the party seems to have largely abandoned its commitment to the principle of ensuring a human rights impact assessment before ratification. After the summer break, the Conservative government reintroduced the Colombia trade bill as its priority legislation, gambling this time for Liberal support. But again, opposition members in the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois were vigilant, ensuring that their members were present in the House to maximize debate on the deal and to prevent procedural measures that could close the debate. Meanwhile, CSOs intensified a grassroots campaign focused on the divided Liberal caucus, given that this party would hold the balance of power in any vote on the bill.

When the Harper government formally closed (“prorogued”) the Parliamentary session in December, the bill died on the order paper like all other government bills. It had clocked a record 30 hours of debate on amendments.


It is almost unprecedented for a trade agreement to be stalled by domestic pressures in the Canadian Parliament. In 1988, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was easily passed in the House, even after a bitterly fought federal election in which the Conservatives won a majority of seats if not of votes in the House. NAFTA was then passed by the party that had campaigned against it after that party assumed government. In a parliamentary system, once elected, the government wields enormous executive power with very few checks and balances. It has full authority, for example, to negotiate and sign trade deals in virtual secrecy from the public and members of Parliament but must then put implementing legislation before the House.

The civil society effort on Colombia was effective at mobilizing public and political support, but the picture is more complex than merely one of CSO campaigning. Since 2004, Canadian politics has shifted to an era of minority governments—formed by parties that win a plurality of the votes but not a majority of seats. Under minority governments, Parliament assumes a much larger role in public affairs, since opposition parties working together can stop or delay legislative initiatives. Public opinion also gains greater influence since there is a sharper public and political sensibility that the government’s mandate is limited, the threat of confidence motions is potent, and parliamentarians are naturally more attuned to the mood in their constituencies.

The context of minority government in Canada is the other critical piece of the Colombia trade deal’s story.12 Harper had a minority mandate from the Canadian public during this period (as is still the case today), making sharp ideological swings in foreign policy more controversial. For diplomatic or military initiatives (like changing Canada’s long-standing views at the United Nations or pursuing combat roles in Afghanistan), which do not require legislative process, Harper has had free rein, despite the controversy. But a trade deal requires legislation to be implemented.

Opposition parliamentarians, propelled by public support and their own convictions, have maximized their influence in this new context and profoundly affected the public debate on the Colombia deal as a result. For example, the Parliamentary trade committee gave itself the mandate to undertake a major study on the impacts of the agreement on human rights and the environment. MPs also ensured that Uribe, who had at first been offered a private hearing at the International Trade Committee, would instead have to speak on the record to parliamentarians and in view of public witnesses, as is normal practice.

Where MPs from all three opposition parties have agreed, they have formed majority recommendations and positions. They have also made adroit use of debate procedures, motions, and amendments to ensure that their positions on the agreement are well-known to constituencies. As a result, the government was unable to control the pace or tenor both of Parliamentary debate on the deal in general and of debate on the bill to implement it in particular. Ratification was thus held up for at least two years.


When a new Parliament returned to Ottawa in March, the government immediately reintroduced the Colombia deal as its highest priority in Bill C-2. Following the trade minister’s tabling of the second reading, the two opposition parties and CSO campaigners were outraged to hear the Liberal Party trade specialist offer the government a quickly accepted amendment in which the trade agreement would be modified to require the Canadian and Colombian governments to produce yearly reports on human rights impacts.13 This shows that the proponents of free trade had to respond to the campaign’s human rights critiques, including the demand for a human rights impact assessment (a first for Canadian trade policy). But the measure, as proposed, was not credible. A broad range of CSOs and the other two parties rejected the idea that governments would write the human rights report themselves, rather than an independent monitor. They rejected the idea that announcing such a process should be sufficient to allow the trade agreement with Colombia to go forward as negotiated, rather than making changes to the agreement first based on the recommendations of a credible prior assessment.

At the time of writing, with the Liberal Party allying so strongly with the government to get the deal passed, it is unclear how the rest of the battle will unfold. Elections are not imminent but loom ever present on the medium-term horizon—the perpetual forecast in the context of minority governments in Canada. The position of the Liberal Party will ultimately decide the bill’s fate, as it weighs its constituents’ concern for human rights and Canada’s historic reputation with pressures to protect its free trade credentials.

Whatever the final outcome, the struggle against the Colombia trade deal has yielded both important achievements and lessons. First, an important precedent has been achieved: There is now widespread political and public support for an independent human rights impact assessment undertaken by the Canadian government as a basic step of due diligence before implementing a trade agreement, particularly with a country where serious human rights violations take place. Second, public debate and consciousness has been widened somewhat on how Canadian trade and investment in a conflict country like Colombia brings special risks.14

Finally, the major delay achieved in preventing Canada from backing a government deeply implicated in human rights abuses speaks to the potency and potential of citizen activism in Canada, as well as the strength it gains working with progressive opposition politicians and in cross-border alliances with citizen movements in Colombia and in the United States. Negotiations have also recently been completed for an EU-Colombia trade pact, though this deal is some distance from ratification. A new grassroots campaign against the EU trade deal opens possibilities for transatlantic cooperation at all levels. The efficacy of these alliances will shape, in an important way, the prospects for the struggle in Colombia to assert human rights over the rights of investors and corporations.

Sheila Katz has been a Latin American solidarity activist for more than 30 years, beginning with her membership in the Toronto-based Latin American Working Group (LAWG). Gauri Sreenivasan has worked for more than 15 years with Canadian civil society organizations on issues of economic justice, trade, investment, and human rights in Canada’s relations with the developing world.

1. Jeff Davis, “U.S. Politician Warns MPs Against Free Trade Deal With Colombia,” Embassy (Ottawa), February 6, 2008.

2. Sheila Katz and Teresa Healy, “Under the Umbrella of U.S. Hegemony: Canada and Colombia Head Towards a Trade Deal” (Ottawa: Canadian Labour Congress, 2008).

3. Foreign affairs minister Peter Mackay, conference speech notes, “Expanding Trade and Foreign Relations in the Americas: Canada Counts,” the Canadian Club of Toronto, May 25, 2007.

4. “Canadian and Colombian Labour Jointly Reject Trade Talks” (Canadian Labour Congress and the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia,, July 16, 2007).

5. “Making a Bad Situation Worse: An Analysis of the Text of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement” (briefing note prepared by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, the Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers, the Canadian Labour Congress, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2009).

6. “Canada Signs Free Trade Agreement With Colombia” (press release, Office of the Prime Minister, November 21, 2008).

7. Letter from the Congress of the United States to the Parliament of Canada, signed by Michael H. Michaud, Betty Sutton, Phil Hare, Linda Sanchez, Nancy Boyd and Marcy Kaptur, January 15, 2008.

8. Jeff Davis, “U.S. Politician Warns MPs Against Free Trade Deal With Colombia,” Embassy (Toronto), February 6, 2008.

9. “Human Rights, the Environment and Free Trade With Colombia. Report of the Standing Committee on International Trade,” House of Commons, 2d sess., 39th Parliament, June 2008.

10. Ibid.

11. See the website of National Democratic Party trade critic Peter Julian:

12. See Gauri Sreenivasan, “Continuity and Change: Trade and Investment Policy in the Harper Era 2006–2008,” in Teresa Healy, ed., The Harper Record (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008).

13. Bill Curry, “Bipartisan Deal Amends Free-trade Pact With Colombia,” The Globe and Mail, March 25, 2010.

14. See, for example, “Land and Conflict: Resource Extraction, Human Rights, and Corporate Social Responsibility: Canadian Companies in Colombia” (Mining Watch Canada, CENSAT-Agua Viva, and Inter Pares, September 2009).


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.