Éric Forest

Éric Forest
ISG - Quebec (Gulf)

Free trade is under attack — or so says just about every headline in the past few months.

But with Canada’s proposed free trade agreement with the European Union (formally known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA) now under review in the Senate, a perfect opportunity exists to address the shortcomings of past trade policies and the resulting threatened prosperity of our regions. 

I have been working in regional development, especially that of eastern Quebec, since the 1970s, where I created a farm housing network. Afterward, I had the privilege of being mayor of Rimouski from 2005 until my appointment to the Senate last November.

Having been appointed to the Red Chamber as an independent, I hope to make my modest contribution by helping to rehabilitate our parliamentary institution by modernizing it and by realigning it with the realities of Canadian society today. A large part of what the Fathers of Confederation saw as “sober second thought” was the job of representing the regions, minorities and the under-represented.

The Senate is the final hurdle to clear before CETA is implemented. The upper chamber has both an obligation to consider regional interests and an opportunity to improve the bill.

Most will agree free trade is a good thing, overall. The benefits to consumers and businesses are undeniable. Lower tariffs on the vast majority of goods will provide fabulous opportunities for Canadian exporters.

Moreover, diversifying our trade opportunities with Europe is prudent and necessary, particularly as our neighbour to the south — to whom we export nearly 70 per cent of all Canadian goods and services — is redefining its trade policies.

But it’s not enough to simply say a free trade agreement has been signed and the market will take care of the rest. The agreement is the first step. The next step is for the government to figure out how to implement the deal and what adjustments will be needed to make the most of it — we’re talking about everything from taxation and regulation to compensation packages and export support strategies.

Here’s where I would opt for taking the regional perspective.

Quebec's dairy industry has some very legitimate concerns about the additional 16,000 tonnes of European fine cheese that will be hitting the Canadian market once the deal is implemented. Today, Quebec produces more than half of all Canadian fine cheese. Those 16,000 tonnes represent nearly one-third of the current market for fine cheese in Canada.

So what will happen to the more than 5,000 dairy farms, generating some 83,000 jobs in Quebec? More than 5,000 of those jobs are in my home region of Lower Saint-Lawrence.

For one, we do know that there will be a compensation package. But when will it begin? That remains unknown. And will the proposed amounts cover the industry’s losses? Some analysts think not.

This leads us to a considerably greater issue — Canada’s regions are losing their young people. One of the biggest challenges facing society in the 21st century is managing demographics. Increasingly, young families choose where they want to work and live. It should be no surprise that many move to big cities, where job opportunities are more numerous.

This is why Parliament must do better at considering the long-term prosperity of our regions. We can’t keep creating policies that only cater to our biggest cities. It isn’t enough that figures such as the GDP or trade balance look good. When communities struggle, people know it.

We need to look at opportunities like this for the future of our regions 

In short, I will vote in favour of Bill C-30 — but without a doubt we’ll be reviewing this deal thoroughly with the ultimate goal of improving it in the interest of all Canadians, including those living outside of Canada’s biggest cities.

Éric Forest is a senator representing Gulf, Quebec. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, the Senate Committee on National Finance and the Senate Committee on Senate Modernization.

This article appeared in the March 23, 2017 edition of Le Devoir (French only).

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