Twenty-five years ago this coming Sunday, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood up in the House of Commons and said: “I have spoken today to the President of the United States to express Canada’s interest in pursuing a new trade agreement between our two countries.”
This declaration is brief and straightforward, but it ends up having a profound and lasting impact on the life of every Canadian. By the end of 1988, negotiators from the two countries conclude the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement; Canadians hold an historic federal election to validate the pact; and Parliament adopts a bill giving the agreement the force of law.
The treaty marks a defining moment in the economic progress of our country. Michael Kergin, Canada’s former ambassador to the United States, perfectly captures the profound impact the agreement has had: “Canada and the United States don’t trade with each other,” he says. “We make things together.”
Yet 25 years ago, opponents were downright apocalyptic in their denunciations—of both the trade package and the Prime Minister. The most ardent naysayer was the Leader of the Opposition at the time. He accused Prime Minister Mulroney of signing over the sovereignty and independence of our nation and making us nothing more than a colony of the United States.
Instead of Doomsday, the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement has spurred our country to seal further pacts with other partners and create sturdy trading relationships that have fuelled our country’s economic growth, increased our prosperity, and raised the standard of living and quality of life for Canadians to unprecedented heights.
Now honourable colleagues, I won’t go so far as to say that free trade is without drawbacks. Yet its benefits are now so apparent and widespread that issues that once polarized the country are now part of the political and economic consensus. As a result, nearly every Canadian today is a free trader. In fact, some of the most passionate advocates of free trade are the same politicians who would have torn up the agreement in the first place.
The radical change of heart of these Johnny-come-latelys comes thanks to the countless Canadian businesses, entrepreneurs and workers who have taken advantage of unfettered trade to thrive globally. And to the man who had the foresight and political courage to start us on this path 25 years ago with one brief, straightforward declaration.