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Conservatives would renegotiate free-trade deal with Ukraine, says MP James Bezan

Conservative MP James Bezan rises during Question Period, Friday, October 20, 2023 in Ottawa. Bezan is promising that if the party forms government after the next election, it would renegotiate a trade deal with Ukraine, after voting against its current one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — A Tory member of Parliament says a future Conservative government would renegotiate Canada's trade deal with Ukraine so it contains no reference to carbon pricing. 

A government bill ushering in a modernized version of the deal passed the House of Commons last week, and the Opposition Conservatives were the only party to vote against it. 

That's not because they don't support Ukraine, according to MPs, but because the deal says both countries will promote carbon pricing. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly attacked Pierre Poilievre's Conservatives for their position, accusing them of mimicking Republicans in the U.S. who want to slash Ukraine aid.

Poilievre has denied the party's support for Ukraine is waning, and instead accused Trudeau of using the issue to distract from the mounting economic concerns on his plate. 

In the face of sustained criticism, Conservative MPs — many of whom hail from Western Canada, a region home to many Ukrainian Canadians — have been pushing in recent weeks for more weapons to be sent to Ukraine.

Manitoba MP James Bezan touted that support during a recent interview to a network that serves the Ukrainian Canadian community. 

He explained that the reference to carbon pricing in the trade deal was a Liberal "poison pill" Tories couldn't support. 

"We will not enshrine carbon tax in any of our trade deals, including the one with Ukraine," Bezan, the party's national defence critic, told Kontakt Ukrainian TV. 

"We form government in the next election, we will renegotiate that free-trade agreement."

He said the new and "better" agreement would also "make sure" that there is more "insurance in there as well." 

A future Conservative government would also ensure that Canada and Ukraine's defence systems can better collaborate, Bezan said, so Ukraine has the capacity to build its own weapons. 

After last week's vote, Poilievre said Conservatives wouldn't honour what he called a "carbon tax amendment," but stopped short of outlining what he planned to do about the deal. 

He defended his party's vote against the updated bill by saying it was the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper that ushered in the free-trade agreement in the first place. 

Conservative MP Ed Fast, who was trade minister at that time, said Tuesday it was also his understanding the party would renegotiate the deal. 

Conservative spokesman Sebastian Skamski would only say that the party plans to "strengthen Canada's trade relationship with Ukraine and scrap Justin Trudeau's damaging and costly carbon-tax provisions."

Trade Minister Mary Ng said Tuesday that Ukraine is trying to better align its policies with the European Union, including when it comes to environmental provisions. 

The newly signed deal will help it do that, she added. 

"I would say to the Conservatives: Why are they standing in the way?" she said. "Ukraine negotiated this."

Ukrainian groups say they had hoped all parties would support the bill implementing the agreement that Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, signed during a visit to Canada last September. 

The president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress wrote to Poilievre last November offering to meet to discuss the trade deal and the party's support for Ukraine. 

"We will be writing to him once again to say that we are open to meet at any time to discuss Canada's support for Ukraine," the organization's president, Alexandra Chyczij, said in a statement Tuesday. 

She said the congress was pleased to see the legislation pass in the House of Commons and is asking senators to adopt it quickly. The bill must pass in the Senate before it can become law.

"We were, however, disappointed that (the bill) did not pass unanimously. At a time when Russia wages a genocidal war of aggression against Ukraine, unity in support of Ukraine is of unprecedented importance," Chyczij said.

Liberals say the deal will help Canadian businesses support its eventual recovery from the war, which began nearly two years ago. 

Canada has spent $2.4 billion on military weapons and other equipment for Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion began, and millions more on other supports. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2024. 

— With files from Mickey Djuric and Mia Rabson in Ottawa

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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