OTTAWA – The Canadian Parliament rushed through ratification of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact on Friday before taking a three-week break to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, a top government official said.
Canada was the last of the three signatories to formally adopt the USMCA pact, prompting congratulations from the United States and Mexico.
The House of Commons, which had weeks of deliberations left, agreed on the instant approval on Friday after opposition legislators dropped their objections. The Senate backed the pact later in the day, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters.
“(This) was entirely within the power of Canadian legislators to do, something we were able to do to help the Canadian economy at this challenging time, and I would like to thank legislators from all parties,” she said.
The only remaining step is formal approval by the governor-general — the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s head of state — which is a formality.
The USMCA was designed to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump strongly opposed on the grounds it had cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs.
“Now that the USMCA has been approved by all three countries, an historic new chapter for North American trade has begun,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement.
In a letter to Congress on Wednesday, Lighthizer sent notice of an entry-into-force date of June 1 for USMCA, according to a spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax and trade issues.
Groups representing U.S. and foreign automakers — including General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen — as well as auto dealers and suppliers — said they were “gravely concerned” by the June 1 date, including the new automotive rules of origin.
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is significantly disrupting our supply chains, and the industry is throwing all available resources into managing production through this crisis,” the groups said in the letter, adding that none of the three nations have drafted uniform automotive rules-of-origin regulations.
Automakers, they said, also need time “to solicit the necessary information throughout the supply-chain to certify that our cars and trucks qualify under USMCA.”
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the approval was good news for Mexico at a time of economic and financial instability.
To combat the coronavirus outbreak, Canadian authorities on Friday announced emergency measures, including a surprise half-point interest rate cut.
Ottawa advised citizens against nonessential foreign travel, moved to funnel international flights into a few select airports and banned cruise ships carrying more than 500 people from ports until the end of June.
The Bank of Canada slashed its overnight rate for the second time in nine days, and the government said it would offer 10 billion Canadian dollars ($7.2 billion) in credit support to businesses. Bank of Canada Gov. Stephen Poloz and Finance Minister Bill Morneau held an unprecedented joint news conference to announce the moves.
“We seem to be approaching a different phase right now” in the spread of the coronavirus, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for the virus.
In an outdoor news conference held in front of his Ottawa residence, where he will spend the next two weeks working, Trudeau promised financial aid for Canadians.
“We do not want any Canadian to have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to pay their rent, whether or not they’re going to be able to buy groceries, or care for their kids or elderly family members,” Trudeau said.
“The government of Canada will be introducing a significant fiscal stimulus package in the days ahead.”
Canada has nearly 200 cases of the virus, with one death. British Columbia reported 11 new cases on Friday, up from 53 on Thursday, including a “cluster” of three in a North Vancouver hospital. Seven of Canada’s 10 provinces have recorded infections of the respiratory illness.
Canada’s chief medical officer urged citizens to avoid all nonessential travel abroad and said travelers returning home should consider self-isolation, even if they are not coming from one of the hot spots.
“This is a serious public health threat, as well as a crisis,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.
All national museums are closing on Saturday until further notice, and federal department heads in the public administration have been told to be as flexible as possible in allowing people to work from home.
British Columbia and Ontario banned all public gatherings of more than 250 people. Quebec canceled school for two weeks starting Monday and Manitoba for three weeks starting March 23.
The new budget, which was supposed to be presented on March 30, will be delayed and no new date has yet been set. However, Morneau said he would present a stimulus package next week.
“These are extraordinary times and that means we are ready to take extraordinary measures,” said Morneau. “We are going to do whatever it takes to protect Canadians and keep our economy strong.”
Trudeau’s government is mulling a multibillion-dollar package for industries most hit by the outbreak, including airlines, a source directly familiar with the matter told Reuters. It would allow provinces to take action to support families, workers and employers, said the source said, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
Trudeau announced on Thursday that he would be in isolation for as much as two weeks after his wife, Sophie, became infected with the virus.
Trudeau said he was feeling well, and Sophie was “doing fine.”
“She’s basically got mild, flu-like symptoms. She’s getting lots of rest, drinking lots of fluids,” he said.
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