When Canada signed on to a massive Asia-Pacific trade deal last year, the Liberal government faced some mockery for insisting on putting the term “progressive” in the title.
A few months later, bureaucrats were quietly instructed to drop the word in favour of describing it as an “inclusive approach to trade” instead, newly released documents show.
In addition to being stripped from Trade Minister Jim Carr’s mandate letter in August, “progressive” was being scrubbed from internal documents, bilateral statements and meeting notes, too.
“Progressive” was just too “politically-loaded” an adjective, explained one email to Global Affairs Canada officials, which the National Post obtained with an access-to-information request.
The subtle shift in tone followed worries, particularly as a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement was being ironed out last year, that Liberals were prioritizing “progressive” at the expense of hard economic interest.
While trade deals had not traditionally been a forum for issues around gender, Indigenous peoples, labour, environment and small business, Liberals argued that they could negotiate in such a way that groups under-represented by trade would benefit more from the agreements Canada signed. There were modest successes. Under their tenure, for example, the first ever gender chapter, albeit a thin one, was introduced into a trade agreement between Canada and Chile.
Meanwhile, the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” was a mouthful, Canadian and Japanese observers were saying early last year, when the deal between the two G7 countries plus nine others was finalized. The name had been changed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s request during the final stages of negotiations. It would otherwise just have been the TPP and remains colloquially known as such.
Defining trade with a word typically associated with globalization and left-leaning politics may also have become problematic with the election of right-leaning leaders elsewhere in the democratic world, and with the economic realities of dealing with authoritarian states. China, as it happens, does not take kindly to being dictated “progressive” values.
Rather than altering its policies, the Trudeau government has opted for a rhetorical change. In September, emails show, Carr’s deputy handed down the message that “progressive trade agenda” should be replaced with “Canada’s inclusive approach to trade.” Breaking that news to several colleagues, one official said in October, “I do not know if these instructions go beyond trade, but suspect they might…”
‘Progressive’ was just too ‘politically-loaded’ an adjective
There was some confusion within the department as officials drafting meeting notes and press releases made the switch over the next couple of months. “Were we getting away from that term?” asked one official who was drafting corporate priorities in October, adding, “what is the difference between inclusive and progressive?”
“I was under the impression,” wrote another official the following day about a news release, “that the government was (transitioning) away from this term.” At the end of November, still the question: “Should I go ahead and replace all mentions of ‘progressive’ with ‘inclusive’?”
In mid-November, a fourth bureaucrat wrote, “I was wondering if there is a conscious effort to no longer use the term ‘progressive’ in describing our high level trade messaging.”
Later that month, the official who was apparently tasked with setting many of his colleagues straight sent out an email explaining why the change was happening. “‘Inclusive’ is seen as more descriptive of the type of issues we are trying to address, i.e. ensuring that people traditionally (underrepresented) in trade can benefit from it and ensuring that our (free trade agreements) include important provisions on environment, labour, etc.,” he said.
“‘Progressive’ was seen as being a bit of a politically-loaded term, and less descriptive of the type of trade policies we are pursuing. This change in tone came from the political level.”
It’s now difficult to find mention of “progressive trade” on the website or in Global Affairs communications. As of mid-October, a list of departmental priorities featured “pursuing a progressive trade agenda.” Now, trade is to be “inclusive.”
Emails show Canada getting Argentina and Brazil on board with a communication plan late in the fall around a trade negotiation with Mercosur that would avoid “progressive” and use other words instead — “ambitious, comprehensive and inclusive.” It seemed the South American trade bloc needed a reminder on that. “Can you please remind Mercosur that we’ve already agreed to the use of inclusive in our past communications?” one official wrote to another.
Ministers need reminders too. Even with such an emphasis internally on honouring the new language, Carr was still extolling the virtues of “progressive trade” as recently as May. A Global Affairs official joked back in November, apparently with some futility, that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was also “attached dearly” to the word.