OTTAWA – The federal government kicked off the fall sitting with a direct and deliberate trade message amid ongoing NAFTA uncertainty: "there has never been a better time for Canadians to diversify."

That was the message Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr delivered in the House of Commons, kicking off debate on Bill C-79, which implements the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

It's a priority bill for the government, and making it the top issue MPs are discussing on the first day of the fall sitting was deliberate, Carr said.

"This is the first government bill to be debated in the fall sitting. That is a statement in itself," he said.

"This is not just a new trade agreement for Canada, this is a signal to the world that trade matters, that rules matter, and that we will not be drawn into the world of protectionism," Carr continued, adding that the federal government is open to negotiating terms and seeking new opportunities that benefit the Canadian middle class.

The bill would implement the deal between 11 countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. It was negotiated by the previous Conservative government but the current Liberal government brought in the bill to ratify the version of the deal that U.S. President Donald Trump pulled his country out of.

"It reflects the importance we attach to swift ratification of the new CPTPP so that our farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs and workers from across the country can get down to the business of tapping new markets and bringing brand Canada to more corners of the world," Carr said.

During his opening remarks Carr also said that Canada "cannot afford the status quo" and "cannot afford to wait for the world to come to us."

The theme of diversifying Canadian markets received new prominence over the summer when, as part of a mid-July cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-named two ministries to have more focus on international trade: Carr’s portfolio got rebranded from "international trade" to "international trade diversification," and Mary Ng was named minister of small business and export promotion.

Trump trumpets tariffs

Ahead of the debate Monday, Trump issued a series of tweets once again trumpeting the benefits of tariffs, and reminding trade watchers of the ongoing trade dispute with Canada’s neighbour to the south.

"Tariffs have put the U.S. in a very strong bargaining position, with Billions of Dollars, and Jobs, flowing into our Country - and yet cost increases have thus far been almost unnoticeable," Trump tweeted.

"If countries will not make fair deals with us, they will be 'Tariffed!'" he continued. In other tweets Trump said that American businesses are doing well, and that the steel industry in the U.S. "has been given new life."

Canada is one of the countries hit by Trump’s use of tariffs as a negotiating tactic. In June the U.S. administration levied tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, and Canada hit back a month later with dollar-for-dollar countermeasures on U.S. steel, aluminum, and other goods.

In the first two months of the retaliatory measures being in place, Canada collected nearly $300 million on American imports.

Underlying NAFTA uncertainty

Meanwhile, NAFTA negotiations have continued with recent high-level talks between Canadian and U.S. negotiators, leaving many optimistic that an agreement could be near; despite a few key sticking points remaining that Canadian officials are reluctant to concede on. The recent pressure comes from a fast-approaching end of September deadline for Canada to come aboard the agreed upon deal the U.S. and Mexico made this summer before the text is delivered to congress.

The debate was the first opportunity in months for MPs to speak to the current state of trade in Canada, and the NAFTA question mark played in to peoples' remarks and positions on the CPTPP given the current trade climate.

NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey who has many autoworkers in her riding said that the industry is already facing potentially punitive tariffs as they're "in the crosshairs of NAFTA."

She questioned why, with the NAFTA deal hanging in the balance, would the Liberals bring this bill up now.

"It seems like incredibly poor political timing to be pushing through the CPTPP that some view as poking the bear, the bear being Donald Trump," Ramsey said during the House debate.

Ramsey brought forward an amendment suggesting the text of the legislation be scrapped and not passed. This amendment will have to be voted on before the entire bill comes up for a vote at second reading.

Conservative trade critic MP Dean Allison lead off his party's remarks with NAFTA concerns as well.

"Now that we have NAFTA in jeopardy, and a series of other issues with other major trade files, we need Canada to successful diversify and continue to diversify its export markets now," Allison said.

He said the ongoing tariffs tie in to the urgency to diversify Canadian trade.

"The longer we go without a deal on NAFTA and the closer we get to auto tariffs being imposed, the more anxious Canadians are going to get, and the less certain they are when it comes to making business decisions," Allison said.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen echoed this sentiment in the House of Commons foyer just prior to the debate getting underway. Speaking with reporters she offered up renewed criticism over Trudeau’s handling of the trade file, saying he has managed to "tick a lot of people off" referring to other trading partners, and criticized his approach to the renegotiations.

"We certainly wouldn’t have gone in and started to lecture on things like gender rights and the environment," Bergen told reporters in the House of Commons foyer Monday morning, citing the federal government’s desire to see “progressive” chapters added to an updated NAFTA. It’s unclear where those proposed additions stand at this point in the talks.

Bill C-79 to pass quickly

The Liberals and Official Opposition Conservatives are both keen to see Bill C-79 pass at all stages as soon as possible, but the NDP, citing concerns over issues like supply management and the auto sector in the CPTPP deal, will be resisting that idea and calling for more time to debate.

"We all know TPP was negotiated in secret by Harper Conservatives and it’s clear that the TPP is an unfair trade deal," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in the House of Commons foyer Monday morning.

Singh said the trade file will be top of mind for the caucus this sitting, and added that the NDP will raise the concerns of workers who are “afraid” of what new trade deals will mean for them.

In an emailed statement Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also registered her concerns with Bill C-79 passing, saying that the CPTPP will give multinational corporations the ability to evade environmental regulations.