OTTAWA -- Canada intends to push ahead on controversial negotiations with South Korea and Colombia, Trade Minister David Emerson said Monday as the federal government introduced legislation to implement last summer's deal with four European countries.
The legislation would implement an agreement negotiated last June with the countries that make up the European Free Trade Association -- Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland -- which account for $11 billion in two-way trade with Canada.
"This sends a signal to the international community that Canada is back in the game, (and) we are going to be execute a trade strategy that will involve more agreements of this type,'' Emerson said.
Emerson said the government is closest to signing a trade deal with Colombia, but is anxious to speed up negotiations with South Korea as well while the Asian country is still interested in a pact with Canada.
With the U.S.-South Korea trade bill before Congress, Canada's talks with the Asian country have stalled.
The next negotiating session with South Korea will be in June, but the minister has said interest on the Korean side has waned because its agreement with the United States gives it access to the North American market.
"We want a good deal ...but we need to face up to the fact that the United States is likely to enter into a trade agreement with Korea that will then put Canada in a very disadvantaged position,'' Emerson said.
"Standing still is not the status quo, it means sliding backwards and have Canadian producers discriminated against.''
The South Korean talks have been opposed by the Canadian auto sector, which has argued that South Korea discriminates against Canadian auto exports. But Emerson implied that is as likely the fault of the domestic auto sector as it is South Korea.
Something like 0.3 per cent of Canadian auto production is exported outside of North America and that includes Europe, he said.
"The fundamental reality is the Canadian industry, and indeed the North American industry, has never been particularly oriented toward exporting outside North America,'' Emerson said.
Colombia, however, is anxious to formalize a deal with Canada because its trade agreement with the United States has been held up by Democratic opposition in Congress.
Emerson conceded he faces "noisy'' opposition in Canada over the South American country's human rights record.
But the minister said that while Colombia's past may be checkered, particularly around narco-trafficking and both left-wing and right-wing death squads, the country is on the path to reform.
"All of the hard evidence I've seen suggests that Colombia is genuinely and sincerely on a path to democratic reform and to human rights reform,'' he said.