TILMA talk

During the 2007 UBCM convention in September, I attended a panel discussion on the controversial Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between BC and Alberta.

What was most contentious is that it seemed the agreement might disallow municipalities from having a bias toward local suppliers or service providers – a ’shop local’ policy. The best the Minister of Economic Development could come up with in response was, why would you want to do that?

He said that cities giving preference to local suppliers was “protectionist” and not good for the economy since, if one did it, everyone would do it and then no business in BC would be successful. Though not an exact quote, that is essentially what the minister and his staff said.

He failed to understand why municipalities would want to support businesses in their own community or region, and instead of respecting local government’s right to make its own decisions, he argued against shop local policies. What was most disappointing is that the minister was too busy arguing on ideology to realize that it was irrelevant to the discussion.

After a lengthy Q&A session, most local government representatives came to understand that the TILMA would not restrict their zoning bylaws or other such regulations. It is only intended to ensure Alberta companies are treated the same as BC companies. So any rule that prevents an Alberta company from doing business in a city must be equally discriminating to BC companies; i.e. if an Alberta company loses a bid for a contract, it must be for a reason other than the simple fact that they are from Alberta.

There seemed to be consensus among all present that reducing trade barriers between provinces is a good idea, so long as it doesn’t result in a reduction in safety or environmental standards, or restrict local governments from having shop local policies. In the end, it was also agreed that the wording of the agreement is too ambiguous and doesn’t precisely reflect its intention.

Donald Lidstone, legal advisor for the UBCM
A clause in the Community Charter obligates a city to consider the good of the province of a whole, the greater good. Including municipalities in the TILMA might be unnecessary.

Many cities existed before Canada or BC. Cities have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as an order of government. “Municipalities are the most important order of government. They are the closest to the people, nearest to the needs and expectations of the people.” The province should be more respectful of local government’s autonomy.

As currently worded, the TILMA could be interpreted as not allowing municipalities to have local preference for tenders and procurement. Since it imposes obligations on municipalities but is an agreement between provinces, in the event of a challenge under TILMA, cities cannot defend themselves; the province defends on their behalf.

The risk is that, if the province doesn’t believe in a city’s policy, they might not really try very hard to defend it and lose the appeal, whereas it might be very important to the city but they have no opportunity to defend their own policy. Another fear is that cities might be harassed or bullied by companies with pockets deep enough to have lawyers file groundless or petty appeals, which leads back to the concern about how well the language in the agreement reflects its intention.

Colin Hansen, Minister of Economic Development
It is easier to do cross border business in Europe – across international boundaries – than it is within Canada between provinces.

For more information on the TILMA, there is a good report from the GVRD that summarized the issues. Also, materials are available on the Ministry and UBCM websites.

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