Bob White on free trade, February 1988

Bob White opposed Canada-U.S. free trade
Bob White opposed Canada-U.S. free trade. image.

Free trade is a timely topic in 2017 as Canada renegotiates NAFTA with the United States and Mexico. Back in 1998, Bob White was prominent ilabour leader in a citizens’ movement opposing the Free Trade Agreement with the United States.  White made this speech to the convention of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union in Vancouver early in 1988.

 “We must defeat the free trade deal . . .”  

The future of Canada I believe strongly and have been saying for over two years, that free trade with the United States goes beyond specific interest and gets to the fundamental question of what kind of a society we want to have and build. In other words, what kind of a Canada will we have in the future?

Is it going to be a Canada as shaped by the giant business interests of the large multinationals-dominated Business Council on National Issues; where competitiveness and profit is the only yardstick; where workers are a disposable commodity in a survival of the fittest dog-eat-dog society? . . .

Or is it going to be a kind of society that I believe most Canadians want: a continually developing and growing Canada with a mixed economy including government intervention when necessary; a Canada which recognizes the importance of trade, not just with the United States but with other countries of the world; a society that limits corporate power, that improves our identity as an independent nation, strengthens our sovereignty, and that maintains and strengthens our commitments to our social programs.

Breaking the social contract

These issues, much more than a reduction of tariffs, is what the debate surrounding free trade with the United States is all about. Certainly the business community understands that very well. They know it goes well beyond a particular industry or narrowly defined interests . . .

If you think back fifteen or twenty years ago, it was a time of relative optimism about having both continuing economic growth and a steadily improving measure of social justice. Sure, there were tensions, conflicts and problems, but a kind of unwritten social contract emerged: we accepted that the economy was basically a capitalist one dominated by private corporations; business accepted that government regulation and intervention was legitimate to establish a measure of equity.

But as international competition intensified and as the U.S. in particular faced the implications of new competitive pressures, business began to opt out of this informal consensus. Even though so much of the potential of workers and the economy were not being used, even though technology was accelerating, the new message was that workers could no longer expect rising standards of living, and that continued progress towards social justice had to be derailed.

What we had before defined as progress, better wages, better and more responsive working conditions, improved social services, and a general increase in security was now being redefined as the “problem.” Thatcherism and Reaganomics had arrived.

Attempts to spread this new gospel in Canada were, however, hitting some serious bumps. Here, workers fought against concessions and politically, Canadians were not ready to buy the new corporate agenda . . .

Popular groups oppose

As significant as the corporate sector’s single-minded support of free trade is, equally significant is the scepticism of virtually every organization that represents popular groups in this country: trade unions, women’s groups, the churches, social advocacy groups. In spite of what the federal government is selling, in spite of what most of the premiers have bought, in spite of the unanimity and activism of the corporate community, a social movement opposed to free trade has emerged and developed . . .

This agreement is about more than the removal of some tariffs. It is about the control and use of our natural wealth, the control over the investment that shapes our industrial structure, and the ability to use popular pressure to influence the direction of the economy and how its benefits are distributed. The free trade debate is, therefore, not just about how we see Canada today, but about differing visions of what we hope to do about Canada’s future.

Reasons to oppose

Opposition to this agreement rests on two basic concerns. The first is nationalistic. Do we want to be more integrated into the United States? Can we further formalize our integration into the United States and really not expect a dramatic erosion of our social, cultural, and political sovereignty?

Whatever attractions the U.S. had in the past as a model representing steady economic progress, its dying cities, violent crime, hopeless poverty have seriously eroded this image. This also undermines the credibility of the free-market philosophy that is at its base.

The second and related concern is free trade as a cover for the neo-conservative agenda. Free trade has been called a leap of faith. But for the corporate sector, it is a leap with a very comfortable landing. It is hardly a leap of faith into uncertainty since it gets them what they are really after and it promises results that, once achieved, will have a strong degree of irreversibility.

It is this attempt to end, or at least decisively undermine, any future progressive alternatives that makes free trade so dangerous and so important to the rest of us.

No ‘leap of faith’

For us, unlike the corporations, there is indeed a blind “leap of faith.” We are expected to believe that if we strengthen the power of the corporations over our lives and just leave things to the market, eventually and indirectly good things will rain down on us.

Why should we trust those selling this message? Just as the U.S. model has lost credibility, so is the credibility of business as speaking on behalf of the national interest now being questioned . . .

Do a review of a checklist of Canada’s important social programs or progressive legislation affecting workers rights, and ask where was the support from the giant business community or the Canadian Federation of Independent Business?

That will answer the question of what kind of a Canada we would have had in the past, had they been in charge of the agenda.

Why should we trust those telling us that free trade is really good for us if they are part of a team so determined to prevent us from having an election to make up our own minds?

Mulroney’s about face

We have a prime minister who opposed free trade in the strongest terms when he was running for head of the Conservative Party, who didn’t mention free trade during his election campaign even though he subsequently labeled it as the most important policy development for decades, and who now lamely argues that he will put something in place, make it as difficult and costly as he can to reverse it, and then finally let us judge him when he ultimately does end up at the polls.

The prime minister speaks of confidence in the free-trade agreement and Canada’s future but doesn’t have the confidence in the people to decide the issue. The prime minister tries to assure us that our sovereignty is not in danger, but he himself is denying us a chance to exercise one of our most important sovereignty rights: democratically determining the crucial issues of our times.

Defeat free trade

We must defeat the free trade deal and defeat the attempt to both cement our economic integration into the United States and limit our future alternatives. We must begin to spend our energies on how, not if, we can develop an independent Canada that is compassionate, caring, dynamic, prosperous, and proud of the role we play in the world.

Source: Canadian Speeches, Volume 2, # 1, March 1988


The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed in 1988 but was superseded by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Were Bob White and later NAFTA critics mostly right or mostly wrong in their criticism and opposition?     


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