Canada is driving a surprisingly hard bargain on trade.

By Claire Zillman
September 26, 2017

In August, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—self-described feminist, appointer of a gender-balanced Cabinet—sought to fight its gender equality battle on a new front: the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada would seek to make the trilateral pact more progressive by beefing up the accord’s existing labor safeguards and environmental provisions and adding chapters on gender and indigenous rights.

There’s consensus among the three countries that the 23-year-old pact must be modernized during the ongoing renegotiation process—after all, it was written before the advent of Internet-based commerce—but it’s unclear if incorporating gender into the accord is what the U.S. and Mexico had in mind.

If Canada’s southern neighbors want sense of what a ‘feminist’ NAFTA would look like, Canada’s recent (still unratified) free trade pact with Chile may provide some clues and, perhaps, ease reservations.

“The amendment amounts to a promise by both countries to talk to each other on gender issues,” says Gary Hufbauer, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It’s “very weak tea.”

Francesca Rhodes, a women’s rights policy and advocacy specialist at OxFam Canada, sees NAFTA as an opportunity for more specifics—a commitment to uphold non-discrimination policies, improve paid leave, and protect women workers.

But the process of adding such initiatives to trade agreements often starts with vague, aspirational statements that are bolstered in later iterations with concrete benchmarks and enforcement mechanisms, Hufbauer says.

Trudeau has pushed back against criticism from within Canada that the gender chapter idea is “virtue-signaling,” as one conservative commentator put it. Gender, Trudeau has argued, “is a fundamental economic issue.”

But in many ways, Hufbauer says, trade agreements have moved beyond pure commerce to become a way for nations to communicate what they hold dear. They’re not just about exporting goods, they’re about exporting values, too.

A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.

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