(The National Post, 17 October 2015)
The recent criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has rekindled the spirits of those Canadians who yearn for a more passionate political climate. It's too late for the Pacific agreement to dominate the 2015 election but the mere mention of trade talks in conjunction with politics brought nostalgic and rueful smiles to those who lived through the hectic days of 1988.
That was when the prospect of a U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) generated national hysteria. People called it a turning point in Canadian history. Factions were formed, sides taken, friendships dissolved, families divided. Except for Quebec nationalism, no other political issue of recent decades has generated such vehemence.
Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government had negotiated a comprehensive agreement with the United States. Both Liberals and New Democrats opposed it. If the Progressive Conservatives won the election, the agreement would be permanent. If the government fell, it would be cancelled.
As the enemies of the FTA gathered steam, their rhetoric intensified. If we accepted the agreement we would become absorbed by the U.S. The FTA's enemies said it would destroy our health-care system. Perhaps, they conjectured, an international court would find our medicare subsidy gives Canada an unfair advantage in labour negotiations.
John Turner, the Liberal leader, carried the argument at the federal level. In the leaders' debate, he told Mulroney "I happen to believe you have sold us out." That was such a forthright accusation that it looked briefly as if it would win the election for Turner. Sovereignty was at stake. Turner and his followers hammered away at the possibility that the agreement endangered not only the economy but also every other facet of Canadian life.
Artists and near-artists and cultural bureaucrats threw themselves into the fight as enemies of the FTA. The more they discussed it, the darker our national future appeared. Under free trade, they argued, Canadian identity and Canadian institutions would be absorbed into the U.S. One of the books excoriating the FTA was titled If You Love This Country, implying that only those who failed to love Canada would trust the government's plans.
Into this struggle some of our most articulate citizens poured all the bigoted anti-Americanism they could find in their souls - which turned out to be quite a bit. An army of culturally conscious Canadians sprang forth in agreement with Margaret Atwood that free trade with the U.S. would lead to an encroachment on Canadian sovereignty.
That case, Mordecai Richler said, was overstated. "There's a certain amount of self-pity in the literary community," he said. Writers were depicting themselves as victims. Richler delivered one of the memorable lines of the era, "I will drink only so much bad wine for my country." He was against protecting what he called "the dubious wines of Niagara" and favoured replacing them with the "far more palatable stuff" of California.
Mulroney won the election with a reduced majority - but a majority nevertheless. The FTA became law and expanded later to include Mexico. Turner retired.
But as the years passed it became clearer that Canada and the U.S. were moving farther apart. In world politics, Canada grew less likely to see itself as an automatic ally of the Americans - the opposite of the effect many Canadians feared in 1988. When America went to war in Iraq, we stayed home. When we endorsed a pipeline, Washington turned it down. Canadian society changed more quickly than American society. We endorsed same-sex marriage at a time when Americans viewed the idea with foreboding. We haven't approved sale of marijuana for fun but we might, if the Liberals win. Canadians agree with Americans even less than we did in pre-FTA times.
We may be slightly more Americanized than we were but the performance of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League, especially this year, did more to Americanize Canada than any trade agreement.
As the arguments flowed across the country we all learned something about Canada. What 1988 left with me was a fresh sense of how fragile Canada appears in the eyes of many Canadians. The anti-FTA people believed that our identity could be dissolved by the carelessness of the federal government.
Can our national sense of self have been that weak? Those who favoured the FTA didn't laugh at this silliness. We tried to reason our way through it. (I favoured the FTA and signed a pro-FTA petition.) Experience since then demonstrates that Canada is strong enough to resist globalization and remain its own sweet self.