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The Toronto Star

Is Water on the Table at Montebello?

Linda McQuaig

One thing we can be pretty sure won't be announced when Stephen Harper, George Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon emerge from their summit in Montebello, Que., later today is a plan to divert Canadian water to the United States.

The leaders aren't that dumb. They know that would get the Canadian public stirred up against the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the deal they're discussing about integrating the economies of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

One of the most controversial charges made by Canadian critics of the SPP - including Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion - is that the deal may eventually include plans to divert Canadian water to the U.S., parts of which are facing serious long-term water shortages.

Canadian and U.S. officials deny water is on the table. But there's evidence that business groups in all three countries, which are the driving force pushing for deeper continental integration, have focused on the water issue in meetings connected to the SPP process.

The meetings are being held by business groups as part of the North American Future 2025 Project, which was set up by the three governments last year to help guide the SPP process. At one of those meetings, held in Calgary in April, the agenda included talks about possible water diversions.

The meetings came to light due to a document leaked to the grassroots group, the Council of Canadians. The document was prepared for the North American Future 2025 Project by the influential Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The document highlights the coming scarcity of U.S. and Mexican water, and notes that Canada is well endowed with 20 per cent of the world's water.

The document goes on to advocate "a more proactive approach to exploring different creative solutions beyond the current trans-boundary water arrangements."

"One such option could be regional agreements between Canada, the United States and Mexico on issues such as water consumption, water transfers, artificial diversions of fresh water ..." notes the document, available on the Council of Canadians website.

The author of the document, Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, said in an interview yesterday that the Harper government has distanced itself from the project, apparently feeling that the subject of water was too volatile politically. But the project is co-sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada, which produces economic reports for business and government.

So whether the Canadian government is actually involved, business leaders in all three countries appear to be talking about the possibility of diverting Canadian water. This may be significant, given the central role of business in the SPP process.

The normal process of policy-making - involving consultation with a wide number of groups - has been set aside with the SPP. Instead, policy is being developed by business representatives, who make their recommendations directly to political leaders.

By the time the public finds out what's going on, it may be too late.

This is essentially what happened in the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement. The public wasn't aware that Ottawa, in consultation with the oil industry, was planning to give up a significant degree of Canadian sovereignty over energy by signing section 605, which prevents Canada from cutting back energy exports to the U.S.

But that's what ended up in the final agreement, and now we're bound by it.

My fear is that the same sort of thing could happen to our even more precious water resources. We'll lose control over them - not with a bang, but a quiet drip.

Linda McQuaig can be reached through her email.

© 2007 Toronto Star

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