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As feds 'sell' CETA, BC's Bell says he can't talk about trade agreement

The British Columbia government is barred from talking publicly about a proposed free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell told The Tyee this week.

Asked about a recent meeting he attended on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, Bell said, "Can't make any comment on CETA. We are bound by a confidentiality agreement with the federal government."

He added, "Any provinces participating in those discussions are obligated not to reveal the ongoing communications. Love to do it, but you'd be talking to a new minister if I did."

Both Bell and Premier Christy Clark had previously said there would be public consultations in B.C. on the CETA, but this week Bell said he's totally restricted from outlining the province's positions. "Our options were to sign the non-disclosure agreement or to stay out of the negotiation and I think what we're doing makes the most sense," he said.

The refusal to speak about CETA came in a week when the federal government is making a push to sell Canadians on the deal. The premier of at least one other province is on record expressing concerns.

James Moore, the federal minister of Canadian heritage and official languages, the senior cabinet minister for B.C., was to be in Vancouver today "to highlight the benefits to workers and families who rely on the fish and seafood and renewable energy sectors," according to a press release from International Trade Minister Ed Fast's office.

A spokesperson in Fast's office, Rudy Husny, said it is up to provinces what they want to say about the negotiations, which are ongoing. He said he's unaware of any non-disclosure agreement between provinces and the federal government. "No, there's no such thing."

After this story was published, Husny called to clarify that negotiators do sign a non-disclosure agreement saying they won't talk about the substance of negotiations, but there's nothing to prevent a minister or other politician from publicly discussing their province's interests. *

"I'm concerned," said B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix. "We have an agreement conducted in secret that's going to sacrifice public health care to private interests and the government doesn't want to defend public health care or talk about it. That's disappointing."

Europe reportedly wants among other things to extend patent protection for pharmaceuticals, which would increase costs for Canadian provinces, Dix said. "Clearly B.C. hasn't done what it needed to do to protect our public health care system, especially on the issue of prescription drugs."

He noted that Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has spoken publicly about the deal.

In a February interview with CBC radio when asked about CETA, Selinger said, "Manitoba's position is that our Crown corporations, hydro and auto insurance, should be protected, and we should have the capacity to do regional economic development."

He also mentioned patent protection for drugs, water, waste and hydro. "There are issues that are live and have to be addressed," he said.

* Paragraph added, 3:02 p.m. on April 27, 2012.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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