The spectre of abortion hangs over the home stretch of Canada’s plans to finally ratify the new North American trade agreement after a tumultuous and at times bitter negotiation with the United States.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday he intends to raise the “backsliding” of women’s rights in the U.S. with Vice-President Mike Pence when he arrives in Ottawa on Thursday — a visit intended to push the “new NAFTA” over the legislative finish line.
The government introduced its legislation to ratify the new deal on Wednesday ahead of Pence’s meeting with Trudeau. But with the rush of anti-abortion laws being passed in multiple U.S. states in recent weeks, that divisive social issue is nudging its way onto his agenda with Trudeau.
Trudeau said his discussion with the U.S. vice-president will mostly be on trade but that he will bring up the issue with Pence, who is a well-known opponent of abortion.
Numerous states have passed anti-abortion laws in recent weeks, attempting to force the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade case that provides constitutional protection for a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Alabama is set to make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions with penalties of up to 99 years in prison, while Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi are among the states trying to get laws through banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
“Obviously, I’m very concerned with the situation around the backsliding of women’s rights that we’re seeing through Conservative movements here in Canada, in the United States and around the world. I will have a broad conversation with the vice-president,” Trudeau said Wednesday.
The Liberals are trying to use the anti-abortion laws being pushed by conservative politicians in the United States as a political weapon against Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who has said he will not reopen the abortion debate in Canada should he become prime minister in the fall.
On Wednesday after question period, Bloc Quebecois MP Monique Pauze attempted to get unanimous consent to have Parliament vote on a motion in favour of standing up for a woman’s right to abortion. The attempt was met by a long and loud ovation from Liberal, NDP, Bloc and Green MPs but the only Conservative seen to join the applause was Sylvie Boucher from Quebec.
Pauze did not get unanimous consent so her motion didn’t make it to the floor of the House of Commons for debate.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O’Toole said Wednesday he doesn’t think Trudeau should bring abortion up with Pence in what is supposed to be a discussion about trade.
“A lot of our diplomatic relationships have been frayed largely because of Mr. Trudeau, his own brand, his progressive agenda,” O’Toole said.
The U.S. debate on abortion is not happening in Canada, O’Toole said.
“Look, the U.S. can do what they want. They have a healthy debate on a whole range of issues that will never come into our debate here in Canada and that’s the way it should be. What upsets me about the Liberals is they will use foreign politics like that, as an attack line on us and I think Canadians are now seeing through that.”
The overriding economic concern for Trudeau is to bring closure to the contentious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Donald Trump foisted on his continental allies.
Trudeau said earlier this week that Canada intends to align its ratification process “very much” with the time frame of the U.S. Congress, an institution that finds itself riven by partisan rancour.
But with fewer than 20 possible sitting days left in the parliamentary calendar before the House of Commons rises for the summer, it is unclear whether Canada will ratify the agreement before the October federal election.
In a speech to the Commons for the introduction of the ratification bill Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau recalled the tough slog in negotiating with the pro-protectionist Trump administration, whose president calls NAFTA the worst trade deal ever and threatened to tear it up many times.
Trudeau also celebrated Canada’s success in getting the punitive U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum lifted recently, which he said removed the final hurdle in ratifying the new trade deal.
“Canadians are nice reasonable people, but we won’t be pushed around,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau said the government succeeded by putting together a coalition of businesses, provincial premiers, unions and “even a former prime minister” — a reference to Brian Mulroney, who threw support behind the government’s attempts to negotiate with the mercurial Trump. Mulroney and Trump are Florida neighbours and Mulroney was given unprecedented access to the Liberal cabinet to offer insights on how to deal with him.
“Our partners are tough negotiators … but Canada always stood firm and we refused to back down,” said Trudeau.
But the country came together as “as one Team Canada,” the prime minister added.
“That’s how we’re moving forward today with this legislation — as one Team Canada,” he said. “It’s now time for the members of this House to ratify it.”
Scheer attacked the deal in question period, knowing that the ratification bill was coming.
“The greatest threat to Canada’s trading relationship with the United States is the weakness of the prime minister,” he said. “Any old deal would have been better than the deal that he came home with. Concession, after concession on dairy, on autos, on pharmaceuticals and now in order to get steel tariffs lifted, he had to give away the only piece of leverage that Canada had. He has actually agreed not to put strategic tariffs on other U.S. industries.”
Trudeau shot back that if the Liberals had just capitulated to the United States, they’d have had a deal much sooner.
Mike Blanchfield and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press