The leaders of Canada and the Pacific Alliance will be sizing each other up today to see if Canada might be a good fit with the nascent Latin American trade bloc.
Stephen Harper wants to see if it's worthwhile engaging in yet another round of talks to free up trade and investment.
And the leaders of the Pacific Alliance — which groups Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico — want to know if Canada is serious enough about economic integration to at least partly let go of its trade and investment restrictions and its visa requirements.
The opposition NDP is leery about joining a group when Canada is already engaged in several different trade talks that are dragging on and on, and before a parliamentary committee studying the Pacific Alliance has even reached any conclusions.
But senior Canadian government officials say Canada is still just an observer at the Pacific Alliance and has made no commitment to join as a member.
"It makes sense that we're here as observers. Observer doesn't necessarily mean member-in-waiting," said one official on condition her name not be used — standard practice during policy briefings.
By sending Harper as well as International Trade Minister Ed Fast to the talks in Cali, Canada is sending a signal to its competitors that it is serious about trade with dynamic partners in Latin America, analysts say.
"I think it's a signal to some very close partners," agreed the senior official.
Talks target financial, labour barriers as well as trade
The Pacific Alliance is ambitious. It aims to break down barriers not just in goods, but also services, people and capital. The four founding members are focusing on removing those barriers internally first, and then hoping to bring in other members to form one of the largest trade blocs in the world.
For now, though, the Canadian government does not know exactly what that trade bloc will look like.
"They're still dotting some i's and crossing some t's," said the official.
The summit got off to a damp start on Wednesday night. Several vehicles got stuck in the mud after days of rain in the valley city. Harper and many others missed a dinner meant for visiting leaders and 600 dignitaries hosted by Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.
Some non-government organizations say Canada already sacrificed labour rights and environmental protections by signing on to a free trade agreement with Colombia, and they don't want to see Canada exacerbate that mistake.
They also point out that as part of its attempt to win Canadian political support for its free trade agreement with Colombia, Ottawa promised to produce an annual report on human rights in Colombia to assess whether free trade hurts or improves conditions. But no report has been tabled yet this year, despite a mid-May deadline.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights produces a separate report on Colombia every year. Its most recent edition states that there is reason to hope that human rights are improving as the peace process dealing with 40 years of internal violence takes hold.
But it also says the Colombian government needs to take responsibility for third-party violence, extra-judicial executions, disappearances, and land rights that are abused by companies in the mining sector.
Canada's mining companies are front and centre in Latin America, but the senior official said Canadian firms are leaders in corporate social responsibility and in promoting improvements in living conditions and respect for human rights.
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