OTTAWA - Canada is willing to discuss everything — including its controversial supply management system — when it sits down with other countries to negotiate a tantalizing trans-Pacific free trade zone, says Trade Minister Ed Fast.
Fast underlined that the Conservatives have promised egg, dairy and poultry farmers that they will protect their interests.
But he also suggested that all the countries involved — including nations such as the United States and New Zealand — would have their own sticking points to hash out.
Fast made the comments as he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepare to participate in the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this weekend. The summit brings together 34 hemispheric leaders.
"We're prepared to discuss everything at the negotiating table, and every partner brings certain sensitive areas to the table which they defend aggressively, and at the end of the day they make a decision on whether to sign on to an agreement, whether they see the trade interests of their country being moved forward in a substantive way," Fast said in an interview from Lima, Peru.
"Canada will be no different. The assurance I've given to Canadians ... is that we will only sign an agreement that is in the best interest of Canadians."
Harper's director of communications, Andrew McDougall, told reporters Thursday that the government wasn't interested in negotiating away items before it even arrived at the table for discussion.
So attractive is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a nine-country tariff-free bridge between this hemisphere and Asia, Fast spent time in Peru on Thursday drumming up support for Canada's involvement in the talks. Peru is already part of the exclusive TPP negotiating club.
The United States has been the main obstacle in Canada's way, taking issue with a supply management system that protects certain Canadian farmers from international competition.
NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen says it would be mistake for the government to ever put supply management on the table when sitting down with the powerful U.S., even if the intention was not to give it up.
"You don't have to bargain with everything on the table," said Allen. "If they're that sensitive and they're sacrosanct, you take them off the table and say they're not on."
As Canada pushes for a seat at the TPP table, the government is also in exploratory talks with South America's powerful Mercosur customs union that includes Brazil and Argentina. Because of the union, the participating countries cannot enter into separate trade deals with outside nations.
Harper will be reiterating his government's so-called Americas Strategy while in Colombia, and later during a bilateral trip to Chile. His cabinet recently reviewed a plan to reinvigorate the policy, which has been criticized even internally as lacking resources and direction.
Fast said there will be a realignment of resources within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to focus on the areas of the world where Canada has the most strategic interest. This will also fit into a new Global Commerce Strategy the government will release in 2013.
"We are reviewing the Americas strategy, we are refreshing it, to make sure it stays focused on what we're hoping to do in the Americas," Fast said.
"We believe there are significant opportunities that have yet to be explored or maximized in South America and in Central America."
South America has become a region that is impossible — and potentially foolish — for Canadian businesses and the federal government to ignore.
Many of the economies there sailed out of the global economic downturn with few scratches. Peru is forecasting 5.5 per cent growth in 2012. Argentina is predicting six per cent.
Although Brazil is experiencing slower growth than in recent years, it still managed to surpass the United Kingdom last year as the world's sixth biggest economy, and is eyeing fifth.
So it's little wonder executives from major Canadian companies including Bombardier, Barrick Gold and the Bank of Nova Scotia will also be in Cartagena for a CEO summit. Harper and Fast will stop in.
John Manley, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said raw necessity has sent Canadian businesses into Latin America where even eight years ago the corporate landscape was still so focused on the United States.
"It was less likely that business leaders were going to spend their time and money developing distant markets where people spoke a different language, where there were sometimes political or security risks, when they could sell in Cleveland," said Manley.
"The reality is you have to drive for growth, and Cleveland's not buying anymore."
Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney sounded the alarm on the state of Canadian exports earlier this week, warning that the country had the second-worst performance in the G-20. He said the impact of that can be seen with the loss of an estimated half-million manufacturing jobs.
Carney said the key is to embrace emerging markets, which represent about two-thirds of global economic growth.
Canadian universities are also making a big push to get into the region. Thirty Canadian university presidents, including those from the University of British Columbia, the University of Western Ontario and McGill, will travel to Brazil at the end of the month to promote more co-operation between the two countries.
That could include more exchanges, more joint research and more private-public partnerships on university-based projects.
Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), said international students already bring an estimated $6.5 billion to the economy each year.
More partnerships with Brazilian institutions could eventually also help the Canadian-Brazilian political relationship, he said.
"Brazilian private sector leaders are looking to invest in other parts of the world," said Davidson.
"Let's make sure that they think of Canada, that they know something about Canada, that somebody in their family has studied in Canada — that puts us on the map and puts us on the list of countries that's to be considered for further investment."
Harper will also travel to Chile, one of Canada's oldest and strongest allies in the region, following the Summit of the Americas. Canada has had free trade with Chile for 15 years.