The Canadian Federal election campaign and the resultant election of a new federal government have barely made a ripple in news coverage here in the Caribbean. It is a curious fact given that in the words of former CARICOM Secretary General, Edwin Carrington, Canada has always been perceived as a ‘special friend‘ to the Caribbean. This friendship, of course, has endured through consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments, including under the outgoing Conservative-led Stephen Harper administration. Given the current recession in Canada, most of the debates during the 78-day long federal election campaign focused on domestic issues,while foreign policy topics centred mostly on the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Keystone XL pipeline and broader US-Canada relations. Suffice it to say, Canada’s relationship with the Caribbean did not feature in the election campaign, nor was it expected to. In spite of this, the campaign platform of the majority elected Trudeau-led Liberal Party and its young charismatic leader’s call for a “more pro-active diplomacy”, do potentially bode well for enhancing Canada-CARICOM relations.
One of the areas on which this relationship can be deepened is trade. The volume of two-way merchandise trade between Canada and the countries of the Caribbean is admittedly small. As stated in a report, Caribbean trade represents less than one percent of Canada’s total annual trade and as such it is not surprising that the Caribbean is not on the radar of Canada’s current trade priorities. On the flip side, Canada represents the third largest market for CARICOM goods trade, only behind the US and EU markets and CARICOM actually enjoys a rare trade surplus with Canada, helped by the Caribbean-Canada Trade Agreement – CARIBCAN.
Inaugurated on June 15, 1986, CARIBCAN is a preferential agreement which gives one-way, duty free access for most goods exports originating from beneficiary countries in the Caribbean with the aim of enhancing Caribbean export trade and promoting their economic development. This agreement is limited to countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean namely: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
There are several reasons why this current trading arrangement needs to be addressed and replaced by a free trade agreement. Firstly, as a non-reciprocal arrangement which favours only Commonwealth Caribbean countries, CARIBCAN is not compatible with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) non-discrimination rules (more specifically Article 1(1) of the GATT 1994 which deals with Most Favoured Nation (MFN) treatment) and has had to receive successive waivers from the WTO’s membership.
Secondly, not all goods are afforded duty-free access under CARIBCAN. Those exceptions are products of HS Chapters 50 to 65 inclusive and products subject to MFN rates of duty which are more than thirty-five per cent (35%).Thirdly, CARIBCAN is limited to goods and does not include services-trade, which constitutes the crux of most CARICOM economies. Financial services and tourism are two major areas of services trade between Canada and the Caribbean. According to Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) data, Canada is the region’s third largest source market of long stay arrivals, accounting for 12.3% in 2014, after the US (49.1%) and the UK (19.1%). In regards to temporary movement of persons, Caribbean countries benefit under the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Programme ‘Farm Labour Programme.
Fourthly, CARIBCAN does not provide rules on investment protection or promotion. Canadian companies are major investors in the Caribbean region, particularly in the area of financial services. Three Canadian banks have a strong presence in the Caribbean: First Caribbean (CIBC), the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Caribbean low tax jurisdictions like Barbados are preferred domiciles for Canadian offshore businesses. However, only two CARICOM states (Barbados and Trinidad) currently have a bilateral investment treaty with Canada, while only Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago have a tax treaty with Canada.
Under the Stephen Harper government, Canada proactively expanded its trade and investment treaty network considerably, including the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. CARICOM countries have traditionally not shown much interest in pursuing a free trade agreement with Canada but finally agreed to discussions on a free trade agreement to replace the CARIBCAN arrangement in the 2000s. After seven disappointing rounds of negotiations beginning in 2007, Canada decided to end the negotiations due to the lack of an ambitious liberalisation target by CARICOM. In March 2015, Canada acceded to CARICOM’s request to seek another WTO waiver for CARIBCAN (until 31 December 2023).
The pros and cons of a CARICOM-Canada trade agreement have already been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. However, broadly speaking, a trade agreement would help create predictability for CARICOM-Canada goods trade and also allow for trade rules on investment protection, liberalisation and promotion and services trade (including mobility of skilled workers). CARICOM countries should use the election of a new Canadian government as impetus to re-engage with Canada on the negotiation and successful conclusion of a mutually beneficial trade and development agreement.
Another more ‘taboo’ area is the issue of marijuana. Trudeau has promised to legalise marijuana, a stark shift from the Conservatives’ stance. Jamaica has passed the Dangerous Drugs (amendment) Act which decriminalises possession of two ounces or less of marijuana and more recently, in May Jamaica’s University of Technology received a licence officially authorizing the cultivation of marijuana for scientific research. Under this new environment, there is scope for investment and cooperation between Canadian and Jamaica companies, researchers and research institutions on marijuana research, including medical marijuana, and marijuana-based products.
Due to shared values and common interests, Canada and the Caribbean have always had each other’s support on issues of a hemispheric and global significance. The Liberal Party Platform included a more pro-active stance on climate change and Mr. Trudeau repeatedly criticised Mr.Harper’s lack of leadership on climate change issues. This shift in Canadian climate change policy could be of benefit to the Caribbean small island developing states which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, coral bleaching and rainfall variability. A Trudeau-led Canada therefore could be a power ally for the Caribbean in continuing global awareness of the vulnerability of SIDS to the effects of climate change. At the same time, some developed countries’ climate change mitigation policies and environmental taxes run the risk of directly or indirectly affecting developing countries. A recent example is the UK’s air passenger duty (APD), which had an adverse effect on Caribbean tourist arrivals from the UK and was mitigated only after much lobbying by Caribbean governments. As such, Caribbean countries will have to lobby to ensure that any climate change mitigation strategies implemented by the new Canadian government help but do not hinder the region.
Canada has been an important development partner for the region. Trudeau’s campaign pledge to boost Canada’s foreign aid is encouraging and it is likely that some of the aid initiatives implemented under the Harper administration, such as the Improved Access to Justice in the Caribbean, Judicial Reform and Institution Strengthening in the Caribbean project announced at the Summit of the Americas in April 2015 in Panama City, Panama will be continued.
Canada has traditionally had a pretty ‘open door’ immigration policy, of which the Caribbean has been able to benefit. The Harper administration saw the introduction of several controversial measures which Trudeau criticised during the campaign. Caribbean immigrants in Canada have contributed to Canadian society in a variety of fields, including the highest corridors of government. The Haitian-born Michaelle Jean, former Governor General is just but one example. It should be noted that there are Canadians living in and contributing to the Caribbean as well. Trudeau’s platform includes a number of policies aimed at reforming Canada’s immigration policy and includes policies promoting family reunification, restoring the maximum age of dependents and repealing aspects of Citizenship Act under Bill-C-24 which he argued created “second class citizens”.This is encouraging for Caribbean immigrants living and contributing in Canada.
There is however one area of concern. In a marked shift from Harper’s tax policy, Mr.Trudeau has proposed a middle class tax cut financed by raising taxes on the ‘one percent’ and corporations. Canadian tax policy is of importance to offshore financial centres in the Caribbean, especially Barbados which has traditionally been one of the most attractive jurisdictions for Canadian businesses due to its low taxes. There has been concern that Canada’s widening network of tax information exchange agreements has undermined the attractiveness Barbados has had to Canadian businesses. In an effort to boost revenue collection, it is likely that there will be greater emphasis by a Trudeau administration not just on tax evasion (which is illegal), but also tax avoidance (which is legal), including Canadian companies’ use of Caribbean low tax jurisdictions for more efficient tax management. As such, this is something which Caribbean offshore jurisdictions will have to monitor closely to ensure they are not unfairly branded or punished as ‘tax havens’.
The economic challenges Canada currently faces, exacerbated by low oil prices and sluggish global growth, will all ultimately determine the new Canadian government’s trade and foreign policy priorities. In spite of this, Canada and the Caribbean’s ‘special’ friendship has been embraced by successive Canadian governments, including under Mr. Harper. Given the tone of Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric, it is unlikely this will change. While not specifically directed to the Caribbean, Mr. Trudeau’s campaign policy proposals appear promising for Canada-Caribbean relations and the many Caribbean descendants living in Canada. They potentially provide scope for greater Canada-CARICOM engagement in a variety of fora, something which Caribbean leaders should continue to actively promote.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and international relations.