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Canada, U.K. in ‘informal talks’ on trade ahead of key Brexit vote

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The United Kingdom’s high commissioner to Canada says informal talks that could lead to a U.K.-Canada free trade deal in as little as a year are underway — which could ease the economic uncertainty surrounding her country’s fraught debate over when and how it will exit the European Union.

A key vote on Brexit will be held in the British Parliament on Tuesday. High Commissioner Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, the U.K.’s chief diplomat in Canada, said London wants to keep the disruption in its trading partnerships to a minimum.

“We can formally start negotiating a free trade deal on the day we leave the European Union,” she said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio’s The House.

The U.K.’s exit from the EU is set for March 29.

Behind the scenes, informal trade talks are already happening, d’Allegeershecque said.

“These informal talks underline the importance of this relationship in a trade and economic sense,” she said, citing the fact that 40 per cent of Canada’s exports to the European Union go to the U.K.

“I think we’re both acutely aware of the potential negative impact of a cliff-edge and nothing being in place to allow that [relationship] to continue.”

Canada’s no-deal Brexit safety net

A trade deal between Canada and the U.K. would only come into effect in a year’s time if Parliament votes against British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan — a vote that’s scheduled for January 15 — and goes ahead with a no-deal Brexit.

A no-deal Brexit would mean the U.K. cutting ties with the European Union overnight, without a transition period.

Great Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union at the end of March, and this New Year’s Day was filled with mixed emotions as the tumultuous Brexit situation is set to continue during the new calendar year. 2:11

If May’s deal is accepted, however, the U.K. would enter a two-year implementation period on March 29 during which the country would be free to negotiate new bilateral trade deals.

The lack of clarity on the Brexit path can be frustrating for Canadians with business interests in the U.K., d’Allegeershecque acknowledged.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “When people ask me what’s going on, at the moment it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen.

“The difficulty, of course, is that many Canadian businesses use the U.K. as a way into the rest of the European Union, and it’s that uncertainty that is very difficult for companies to deal with.”

Although Prime Minister May has said that a no-deal Brexit would be “the worst outcome,” the government is preparing for that possibility, d’Allegeershecque said.

“We’re working very hard with the Canadian government and ministries to put in place a sort of safety net in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so that business can continue unaffected.”

That safety net would cover things like air travel between Canada and the U.K. and the transition of CETA, the trade deal between Canada and the EU that will remain in place for the U.K. while it negotiates Brexit, she said.

Co-operating on China

While Canada’s future trading relationship with the U.K. is still up in the air, d’Allegeershecque offered clarity on one issue: the U.K.’s support for Canada in its current dispute with China over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

“Our support for Canada and our concerns about the reciprocal action in China is pinned on the principle of upholding the rule of law,” she told the CBC’s Chris Hall.

“Obviously there are consequences to that, but the U.K. has never held back from calling out unacceptable behaviour.”

In December, the U.K. joined the U.S. in condemning China for an alleged series of cyberattacks the country’s Foreign Office described as a “widespread and significant” campaign targeting intellectual property and sensitive commercial data.

D’Allegeershecque said the U.K. chose to speak out “despite the possible negative implications” for the country’s relationship with China.

Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat recently detained by China, speaks during an interview in Hong Kong March 28, 2018. (Associated Press)

“We’ve seen what China has done to Canadian citizens. There’s always a risk that any government that feels slighted or badly treated will act in a way that’s detrimental to the interests of the other country. And we have … all sorts of links that are potentially on the table if a country wanted to retaliate. But I think it shouldn’t stop us doing the right thing.”

China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, suggested this week in an op-ed in the Hill Times that Canada and its Western allies — Britain included — are demonstrating “Western egotism and white supremacy” in their approaches to China.

“What they have been doing is not showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling the rule of law,” Lu wrote.

D’Allegeershecque said she doesn’t agree with the Chinese envoy.

“I think the rule of law was very clearly applied in Canada,” she said.

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For the love of eel: N.L. company developing new product for international market

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For years North Atlantic Aquaponics has been shipping live eels to markets in Korea and Ontario, but now they’re working to take their products to a tasty new level. 

The company, which started on the west coast community of Robinsons, is collaborating with the Functional Foods Laboratory at MUN’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook to test and develop a new recipe for kabayaki eel. 

“Kabayaki is just barbecued or grilled eel with a specific type of sauce,” said facilities manager Justin Stacey. 

“We’re doing different testing and analytics of the eel itself to find the best way to keep and maintain the most nutritional value that we can. On top of that, we’re trying to find the best tasting, best esthetically pleasing, all the variables that go into developing a product like this. And with MUN’s facility, we got it all here.”

Justin Stacey, facilities manager with North Atlantic Aquaponics, was on hand at Grenfell to oversee product testing. (Jennifer Grudic/CBC)

There is a stigma attached to it, so when you approach a market in Newfoundland or in Canada in general, we kind of have to calibrate our approach.– Justin Stacey

The Functional Foods Laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Raymond Thomas, allows students from a variety to backgrounds to test, analyze and develop food products.

This week the public was asked to take part in a tasting experiment that got them to rate and rank four different kabayaki samples based on things like appearance, flavour and texture.

Graduate student Melissa Hamilton is overseeing the project. (Jennifer Grudic/CBC)

The survey involved groups of people, 10 at a time, given sample plates through a small door and then asked to answer questions on the computer in front of them. 

Science meets product development

Graduate student Melissa Hamilton is leading the project, which she says incorporates elements of both psychology and chemical analysis, as well as real-world practicality. Once the consumer testing is complete, they’ll be able to provide North Atlantic Aquaponics with information to help them develop their product. 

The lab can accommodate 10 testers at a time, each with their own computers to answer survey questions. (Jennifer Grudic/CBC)

“Let’s say that the consumers say the product is a bit too salty, then we’ll have to make an adjustment in that regard. Or say they like a certain packaging, because that’s one of the options as well, then we’ll use the one our participants are leaning towards,” said Hamilton.

She said the lab is ideal Corner Brook’s campus attracts people from different demographics.

“So it’s the ideal place to conduct this type of survey to get people from all over the world and get their perception of the food we’re trying to develop.”

Changing attitudes

If everything goes according to plan, Stacey said, they hope to soon be shipping their new kabayaki product to markets in Korea and Ontario. 

One of the biggest obstables, however, is attitudes about the product here at home. 

Grenfell’s Functional Foods Sensory Laboratory is designed in such a way that test participants can be served food straight from the test kitchen through a small door. (Jennifer Grudic/CBC)

“I know my grandfather fished and ate eel. It was part of the culture and part of his lifestyle. Now, to talk to my friends and people my age, there are very few that have eaten eel,” said Stacey.

“There is a stigma attached to it, so when you approach a market in Newfoundland or in Canada in general, we kind of have to calibrate our approach.” 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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Throwback Thursday: CIBC Square | Urban Toronto

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This week’s Throwback Thursday takes us back over a year and a half for a view of the future location of a major Downtown Toronto office tower. Back in May of 2017, a large surface parking lot at Bay and Lake Shore—across from what was then the Air Canada Centre—had just been closed to make way for construction of phase 1 of CIBC Square from Ivanhoé Cambridge and Hines.

Throwback Thursday, CIBC Square, TorontoFormer surface parking lot closes to make way for CIBC Square, May 2017, image by Forum contributor Michael62

The same vantage point in January 2019 shows the rising 49-storey first phase of the WilkinsonEyre-designed office complex across from what is now the Scotiabank Arena. The tower’s central concrete core recently surpassed the 25-storey mark, while steel structural work is forming the tower’s shape down below. Once complete in 2020, the project will bring 1,300,000 ft² of office space to the site, while the opening of its new GO bus terminal will free up space for the second phase tower just across the rail corridor to the north.

Throwback Thursday, CIBC Square, TorontoCIBC Square’s south tower rising, January 2019, image by Forum contributor Gizmo

We will return next week with another look at the changing face of Toronto!

* * *

UrbanToronto now has a new way you can track projects through the planning process on a daily basis. Sign up for a free trial of our New Development Insider here.


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Canada Post union pitches low-income bank, greener tech. But critics ask, who pays the bill?

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As arbitration grinds on at Canada Post following back-to-work legislation passed in November, the union has made a series of proposals beyond standard contract negotiations on wages and benefits: they want the Crown corporation to open a new bank for low-income people and turn the post office into a hub for green technology

With one of the country’s largest vehicle fleets that could be converted from gas to electric power, 6,000 distribution outlets where electric car-charging stations for consumers could be built, and old buildings ready to be retrofitted with solar panels, the post office is well positioned to help Canada transition to a greener economy, said the union’s president.

There’s one major problem with the ambitious proposal, according to critics: Who’s going to pay for it?

Debates over how institutions should reduce their carbon footprint — and how the changes should be financed —  are playing out across the public and private sectors as leading scientists warn the world has just 12 years to drastically reduce emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

“Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity,” Mike Palecek, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) said in an interview. “We have to address it … Canada Post is the biggest piece of federal infrastructure, it has the largest vehicle fleet in the country, it would be a good place to start.”

He couldn’t say how much the proposals would cost.

Canada Post declined to comment on demands for a postal bank and the green retrofit. “With the arbitration process now underway, it would be inappropriate to comment on specific negotiations issues,” a spokesperson told CBC News by email. “We are committed to the process and are fully engaged with the union and the arbitrator.”    

A government-appointed arbitrator is expected to announce a deal for a new contract in March, after workers on rotating strikes were legislated back to work in late November amid long delays for packages amid the Christmas delivery rush.

Banking on change

The proposed postal bank is aimed at rural residents, including First Nations, who often don’t have easy access to a bank branch, said John Anderson, researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank whose advocacy areas include reducing income inequality. It would also benefit low-income Canadians, including pensioners and the working poor who often depend on payday lenders for loans, cheque cashing and other financial services.

Popular in France, the U.K., Italy and other countries, postal banking in Canada would almost certainly be profitable, he said, citing a 2016 survey that suggested three million Canadians and about one-third of businesses would use financial services from the post office.

Management at Canada Post — including president and CEO Jessica McDonald, at the podium, and CFO Wayne Cheeseman, left — has not been receptive to demands for a green retrofit or postal banking, the union says. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The post office already handles financial transactions, and the federal government runs other successful banking organizations, such as the Export Bank of Canada and Farm Credit Canada, Anderson added.

Canada’s federal pension plan even invested in China’s postal bank, he said, indicating that such plans are financially viable. 

“The federal government — through its ownership of Canada Post —  is the only body that could bring modern financial services to every community in Canada,” Anderson said. “That would be great competition for the big banks, which are profitable partially because of the high service fees they charge compared to other banks worldwide.”

Taxpayer interests

Canada Post hasn’t been receptive to demands for the green retrofit or the postal bank, according to CUPW’s president.

That’s a good thing, said Alex Whalen, vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank that supports reducing government spending.

“I don’t think taxpayer interests would be served by those proposals,” Whalen said. “The concern has to be that there are public dollars involved.”

As a Crown corporation, Canada Post is required to be financially self-sustaining. With more than 60,000 employees, the company made a pre-tax profit of $74 million in 2017, largely due to increased parcel delivery thanks to Amazon, according to its financial statements. Investing in projects outside of its core mandate of delivering mail could jeopordize its profitability, Whalen said.

“If there were good returns in this kind of business, the private sector would already be doing it,” Whalen said of the proposed postal bank. “If the union thinks this is a great idea, are they going to be an investor in the bank?”

Pension financing?

To finance the union’s proposals, there is one obvious source of funds outside of asking taxpayers or the company: workers’ pensions.

With about $25 billion under management, stocks in the big Canadian banks and oil companies — some of the very industries the union’s proposals are trying to tackle — make up some of the largest investments for postal workers’ pensions, according to 2017 financial statements

The workers, however, have no say over how their pensions are invested, Paleck said. “We have no decision-making power whatsoever.”

Canada Post workers seen here during the last hours on the picket line in Montreal on Nov. 27, 2018, before returning to work, ordered by the government to end their rotating strike. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press )

That situation isn’t unusual for Canadian workers, said Tessa Hebb, a researcher at Carleton University’s Centre for Community Innovation who specializes in responsible investing.

“Some representation from employees would be really beneficial, both for the positive components for adjusting to a low-carbon economy and also for the basic protections for workers,” from bad decisions by pension fund managers, she said.

However, she cautions against the idea of using pension funds from CUPW to finance new initiatives at Canada Post like the postal bank or green retrofit.

“You don’t want the pension funds to be constrained in investing in their own business,” Hebb said. “The legal term for that is self-dealing.”

Such moves have often hurt workers when the companies themselves face financial trouble and look to their employees’ pension funds as a source of capital, she said, citing the examples of Sears and Nortel Networks.

In the U.S., pensions under union control — or funds jointly managed by workers and management — have made a series of profitable investments in green technologies or urban renewal projects like affordable housing, she said. And there’s no reason why similar successes couldn’t be replicated in Canada. 

“Ten years ago, if you were a pension fund in California and you were an early investor in Tesla, you certainly made your money back and then some,” Hebb said. “The shift to a low-carbon economy is going to bring forward some really interesting investment opportunities.”

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