OTTAWA (CP) — Canada's worker and food safety standards are at risk in talks next week to expand a North America-wide security and prosperity agreement, activists warned Saturday.
Thousands of protesters were expected to take to the streets of Ottawa Sunday, in advance of a two-day summit meeting of leaders from Canada, the United States and Mexico being held in western Quebec.
The demonstrators are opposed to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, or SPP, a two-year-old framework designed to more deeply integrate North American trade and security.
Integrating trade regulations across the continent would reduce overall safety standards in Canada, says Christine Jones, co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance.
The alliance is concerned that Canada's tougher food and worker safety standards, among others, could be eroded in the interests of furthering the integration agreement with the U.S. and Mexico.
''Several of these standards in terms of worker safety, in terms of environmental protection, in terms of corporation licensing are a lot more lax in countries like Mexico and the United States,'' Jones told a news conference Saturday at the national headquarters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
''I would argue that the integration process is really going to bring us down to a lowest common denominator.''
The federal government maintains that Canadians will benefit from the partnership through more secure movement of goods and people across borders, increased consumer protection and high health and safety standards.
The partnership agreement would also ''protect the environment, combat infectious diseases and ensure a safe food and energy supply,'' according to a Government of Canada website.
However, harmonizing food safety and labelling would reduce Canadian food safety standards and hurt Canada's ability to produce its own safe food supply, argues Jones.
''This actually poses a profound and deep and serious threat to our food sovereignty from all of our countries,'' she said.
Social activists also complained they are being left out of the summit while business leaders have a seat at the table.
Some 30 top business executives will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, on Tuesday.
They want to pressure Bush into offering trade concessions to Prime Minister Harper to keep the SPP alive.
NDP Leader Jack Layton called on the leaders to allow social activist participation in the summit.
''If the leaders are to be meeting with opinion leaders and legitimate stakeholders in society, then it shouldn't just be one tiny subset composed of the most powerful economic sectors,'' Layton said in a telephone interview from his Toronto riding.
''It should include a diversity of points of view.'' he said.
''The fact that's not happening, and that everything is taking place in such a secretive fashion, is a double damnation of the process that's being followed here.''
Peace activists also added their voices Saturday to a call earlier in the week from federal Liberal Leader Stephane Dion for the prime minister to tell president Bush that Canada will withdraw from its current mission in southern Afghanistan.
Dion wants Harper to make immediately clear to Bush, and to NATO and the Afghan government, that Canada will withdraw from its combat role in southern Afghanistan by February 2009.
Activist groups including the peace alliance, however, want Canadian soldiers brought back home from Afghanistan immediately.
They also call on the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
President Bush is expected to push at the summit for expanded efforts to end Mexico's bloody drug wars.
The meeting comes as the U.S. government gears up a major aid plan to Mexico to fight drug trafficking and violence.
However, the main topics of discussion for leaders will involve broader economic themes, such as border security, energy and building stronger North American business alliances to better compete with the giant emerging markets in India and China.
Consumer product safety will also be a major theme in light of recent recalls of faulty or dangerous products manufacturered in China.
The trade of fresh water could be discussed at the summit, Liberal Leader Dion said Friday, suggesting that the Harper government was engaged in ''secret negotiations'' to allow bulk water exports from Canada.
The Conservatives dismissed the allegation, calling on Dion to prove his claims.
''Mr. Dion has made a serious allegation in a public forum,'' said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre.
''He now either provides facts to support his claims of conspiracy, or he demonstrates — once again — that he is a weak leader.''
The Conservative Party and its legacy parties have a strong record of opposition to negotiating bulk water exports from Canada, Poilievre said.
The International Boundary Waters Treaty Act prohibits the bulk removal of water from water basins along the Canada-U.S. border.
''Our government has repeatedly made clear the fact bulk water exports are not on the agenda,'' said Poilievre.
''Yet the Liberal leader remains seized with bizarre and unfounded notions of conspiracy.''