Free Trade : Americanada could be the Worst of Both Worlds

(Published in the Kingston Whig Standard. April 6, 1987 and reprinted on this web site April 1999, when Canada is again facing the same problem over free trade in magazines)  - by Robert Brow   (web site -

Truth is usually paradoxical. You never get the right answer by a mixed-up compromise. Better start with the two extremes at once. Only then does the moral question become clear.  What would happen if we had total free trade with the United States?
Alternatively what if two years from now we had a rigid barrier between us?

The first possibility is easier to imagine because we have all been south of the border, at least by way of television. If there was total freedom of goods, no customs or immigration, and we could all move south or north for jobs as we chose, life in our provinces would be like living in New England or North Dakota. There would still be freedom for Quebec and B.C. to decide how they wanted their educational system, how you get married and divorced and, like the American states, they could even settle locally the question of capital punishment. There is no reason why Ontario couldn't retain OHIP rather than move to private enterprise medicine. By definition there could be no jobs lost in Canada, only more or fewer jobs in particular states or provinces of Americanada.

Eventually our federal Parliament would become irrelevant, and we would cast 10 per cent of votes for the next president. Bostonians might decide they would enjoy our Queen for ceremonial occasions. They might even learn to make tea rather than throwing the bags into cold water.

What would we lose? If Americanada went to war, we would be drafted. In an all-out nuclear holocaust, it wouldn't make much difference, since Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver would all get wiped out in any case. Obviously we could not longer claim to be neutral. The hardest thing would be losing our freedom to stand on the sidelines of every issue and moralize.

Now let's try the opposite pole of paradox. By April Fool's Day, 1990, we imagine a solid wall up to the sky to prevent any movement of trade, services, or people between Canada and the United States. We might not be as badly off as we imagine. We produce much more bread, beef, and eggs than we can eat. Admittedly oranges and grapefruit would have to be flown from Spain and Israel. We have wood for new houses, and we have plenty of steel, oil, gas and electricity. We can make cars and planes. Our computer and entertainment industries would flourish. The Bank of Canada could stop its little game of juggling interest rates to defend our currency.  We would of course lose the freedom to winter in Florida. The NHL would be limited to Canadian hockey teams. There would be no Hollywood films, and we would need to survive with a limited choice of soap operas.

That kind of scenario of a protected Canada is hard to conceive, but we need to go through the exercise. At present Mel Hurtig can give us totally plausible arguments that free trade is bad, and Richard Lipsey is equally convincing to show it is necessary. The NDP has decided that our negotiators will get us creamed. The average Canadian cannot imagine what the messy compromises might do for his union or her opportunities. I suggest that when the two extremes of a totally common market and a rigid barrier are clearly in view, we are free to choose.

What then is the truth of our paradox? The moral choice is not whether we can improve our standard of living; none of us can predict the outcome for ourselves or our children. Nor is the choice whether we can keep out of a nuclear war or another Viet Nam.   What is to be settled is whether we want our provinces to develop their identity like Texas, Maine or California in a wider North American federal system. Or do Canadians as a nation really care about protecting what makes them different from Americans?

I also suggest that from going through our little exercise of picturing the two extremes we should beware of getting the worst of both worlds. If free trade means that jobs are lost in Canada, but we cannot move to new jobs in Georgia or Arizona, we lose our freedom. A common market without the freedom for people to move and invest as they choose is stupidity. That is a question of economics.

The issue of Canadian culture is problematical. Our culture has been defined by rejection. "We don't want to be counted among those stuffy British. Nor do we want to be viewed as greedy like those brash Americans." But is the question of how we are viewed all that important to us?   If it is, the sooner we stop playing that hypocritical game the better. Those who believe in protecting a separate Canadian culture had better work hard at defining what we really want to preserve. And on that matter it will be hard to get Newfoundland and Alberta, or any other two provinces to agree.

Whether we care about bread and gadgets or our elusive cultures, it would be nice to know before we wake up on April Fool's Day, 1990, how we want to be fooled.

P.S. (Written in April 1999). We have been fooled, and we are getting the worst of both worlds. Our Canadian standard of living has hardly improved in ten years, and Americans are prospering. . The Dow Jones stock average may not measure happiness, but since January this year it has soared at twice the rate of the Toronto Stock Exchange TSE 300. And that suggests that we are now losing ground very fast. We still need to choose between a total free movement of goods, services, and people with the United States, and the alternative of building a huge barrier. With our present system the dice are loaded against us, and preserving our culture is a sick joke

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