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Fairness of TPP Hearings Questioned by Activists

Trade minister rejects claims, insists public consultations are meaningful and inclusive.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 18 Mar 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here./

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Meghan Sali of OpenMedia intends to partner with other organizations to collect public opinion about the TPP and share it online.

Groups concerned about the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement say they're only hearing last minute when stakeholder consultations about the pact will be held, preventing them from meaningfully airing their opinions.

Sujata Dey of the Council of Canadians said she believes the federal government isn't interested in hearing the public's concerns about the 12-nation corporate rights pact, despite commitments to consult with Canadians.

"This idea of this open consultation seems to be a bit of a smoke screen," Dey said. "It doesn't seem like the Liberals are living up to their promises."

Canada has signed but not ratified the controversial pact, and the federal government has promised to be "transparent, open and consultative" with Canadians regarding the deal.

Critics of the Trans Pacific Partnership claim it undermines democracy, because it would give international companies the right to sue Canada in closed hearings if the government's actions prevent profits from being made. They also claim it would cost Canadians jobs through outsourcing.

As part of its commitment to transparency, the Liberal government has been holding consultations with stakeholders across the country featuring expert panels and members of parliament, including International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Dey said the council and similar organizations that are concerned about the TPP's impact on equality and democracy have not been informed of the time and location of meetings until fewer than 24 hours before they take place.

The latest case happened with a stakeholder meeting held in Guelph, Ontario on Thursday, for which the council only received 20-hours advance notice, she said.

Consultations 'just the beginning,' says minister

But Minister Freeland's office rejects the claim that the government isn't holding fair and meaningful consultation meetings.

A statement from the office said the consultation meetings have included a variety of groups including labour, students and those in the agricultural industry.

"We have already held well over 200 consultations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- and these are just the beginning," it said. "We are firmly committed to continuing these consultations across the country over the coming months."

Dey's concern is that the government has not amply publicized recent public meetings, leaving little time for someone to attend or, if they were permitted, to prepare to present their concerns to government officials.

She said the short notice has happened in Halifax, Winnipeg, and yesterday, St. Johns. "I'm expecting a press release tonight telling me where they are tomorrow," she said.

Dey said she suspects that industry and other groups in favour of the deal are receiving earlier notice about the events. "I know industry reps are important, but so are citizens," she said.

Meghan Sali from the internet rights group OpenMedia said she, too, wants to know how much notice others are receiving about the meetings.

At a recent event at the University of British Columbia, Sali said she was told by Matilde Bombardini, an associate professor at the Vancouver School of Economics who acted as a panelist for the consultation, that Bombardini had been given a week's notice about the event.

Sali said she had been checking the government's TPP consultations website hoping to find out when and where the meetings were taking place, but could not find any information. She said she only found out about the UBC event the day before it took place.

While the event was not publicized on the government's site, the statement from Freeland's office said it was publicized locally and online via UBC.

Website less than informative

Sali also had complaints about the consultation process, saying the one at UBC only involved academics addressing the pact in a broad sense, before Minister Freeland listened to six audience questions, three from men and three from women.

"She didn't answer any of the questions at all; she just took notes on them," Sali said. "Then said, 'Well, we've got to be out of this room, see you later.'"

A look at the "latest consultation activities" on the government website dedicated to the consultations shows photos of the minister and other government officials with various people who've attended them.

The website reveals little about the substance of the meetings, and the photo captions don't reveal much information about the meetings beyond the state or province in which they were held.

"Minister Freeland discusses trade and TPP with Bob McLeod, Northwest Territories Premier," reads one caption next to a black and white graphic of the flag of the Northwest Territories.

Not knowing who attended the consultations and what they said hampers Canadians' efforts to understand the pact, Sali said.

Her organization, OpenMedia, now intends to partner with other organizations to collect public opinion about the TPP and share it online.

"Hopefully from there we'll drive as many of those people as possible to request to appear in person at the cross-country hearings," Sali said. "Once again, [we have] no idea when those are going to be, no idea where those are going to be."

The statement from Freeland's office highlighted the House of Commons committee on trade upcoming look into the deal, which will include further consultations with interested parties.

The statement did not reveal whether industry groups were being given more advanced and direct notice of meetings than the public.

The Tyee sent requests to interview two industry groups that were identified as having participated in the consultations, but did not hear back by deadline.  [Tyee]

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