The editors of ActiveHistory.ca are currently enjoying our annual end of summer hiatus, but we’ll be back with new content in September. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our most popular and favourite posts from the past year. Thanks as always to our writers and readers.
The following post by Asa McKercher was originally featured on October 6, 2017.
There are many questions surrounding the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). To wit: will the treaty be renegotiated to meet the goals set out by the Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. governments? What provisions will be included in NAFTA 2.0? If the agreement is renegotiated, will it satiate public opinion in these countries? Will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s personal, quiet diplomacy ultimately appease President Donald Trump? Or will the whole thing collapse? Answers to these questions will have to wait, but as an historian with a passing interest in Canadian-American relations and Canada’s political history, a more interesting question is: where are NAFTA’s opponents? And where are the anti-American nationalists?
In the United States, certainly, there are plenty of people who oppose the agreement: the very nativists, protectionists, and anti-Globalists to whom Trump’s promise to renegotiate or “terminate” NAFTA is aimed. NAFTA is a target, too, of Americans on the left, who worry about a variety of issues including labour standards, environmental issues, and the loss of jobs. Yet in Canada, all three mainstream political parties currently support NAFTA and there seems to be little in the way of grassroots movements meant to change their standpoints.
Although there are differences among the parties on what new provisions should be included in any revamped deal, neither the ruling Liberals, nor the Conservatives of the Official Opposition, nor the New Democratic Party have advocated scrapping the agreement outright. Indeed, the NDP’s support for NAFTA – admittedly premised on a reformed deal being able “to protect Canadian sovereignty, especially in investment and energy security” – is surprising given that it seems to be a step backwards from the party’s outlook of the 1970s and 1980s, when it was more blatantly opposed to free trade with the United States. Moreover, given that much of the party’s platform clashes with NAFTA provisions, one wonders why the NDP has not chosen this moment to simply come out and oppose it.
As for the Conservatives, they have largely backed the Liberal government’s position, to the point that former Tory ministers are serving on a panel advising the government on the negotiations (as is the NDP’s Brian Topp). Further, Conservative party officials have stated their willingness to keep criticism of the government on the file to a murmur at least while negotiations are ongoing. It helps, no doubt, that a large majority of Canadians back NAFTA. The cross-partisanship on display in Ottawa is all the more astounding given that free trade with the United States has been such a divisive topic in Canada’s past, one linked to anti-American political rhetoric that has often played well with Canadian voters. It seems counterintuitive that Trump, a president so reviled by Canadians, is not at front and centre of any concerted campaign to woo voters on a nationalist plank.
Free trade itself was a leading and perhaps even decisive issue in three Canadian federal elections: 1891, 1911, and 1988. Concerns over economic ties with the Americans also influenced voters in 1972, with NDP successes in that vote prompting the minority Trudeau to adopt economic nationalist policies; in John Diefenbaker’s election wins in 1957 and 1958; and in the Progressive Conservatives’ collapse in 1993. The fact that Diefenbaker’s Tories could win on a vaguely anti-US platform and that Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell’s Tories would be seen as too close to the Americans serves as a reminder that the major parties have altered their positions on the issue.