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Maude V. Barlow hates free trade because she says it is slowly destroying Canadians' standard of living.

And what makes her blood really boil is that the Canadian government requested a free-trade agreement with the United States; it wasn't forced on them by Uncle Sam.

The Ottawa resident and leading free-trade opponent characterized the two-year-old U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement as an act of national suicide committed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative Party.

"Canada is turning itself over to the corporate agenda," said Ms. Barlow, who serves as chairman of the Council of Canadians, a nationalistic lobby group with 20,000 members.

"This should matter to Americans because your northern neighbor isn't going to ever be the same again," she said in a phone interview from Montreal. "Our way of life, our values and our sense of community aren't going to exist if the free-trade agreement isn't changed," she added.

Ms. Barlow and her group are at the forefront of a campaign to repeal the historic trade pact, which gradually eliminates duties on goods passing between the two trading partners over a 10-year period.

The Council of Canadians isn't alone in its demands for a new trade deal.

Labor unions, small-business groups, two of Canada's three major political parties and many other organizations are demanding action from Ottawa. "For 125 years, we've tried to build a better way of life up here and now it could all be lost," Ms. Barlow said.

Thousands of Canadians from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia appear to agree with her.

For example, a November Gallup poll found that only 31 percent of those questioned continue to favor free trade with the United States, while 52 percent opposed it. Those results contrast sharply with a December 1988 Gallup survey where free-trade supporters outnumbered detractors, 44 percent to 38 percent.

Canada watchers say the only remaining free-trade stronghold, besides Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party, is Quebec, where separatists argue that continuing the agreement will spur economic growth throughout the French-speaking province. On the other hand, 62 percent of English-speaking Ontario residents told pollsters they oppose free trade.

While the free-trade agreement continues to be taken for granted by many Western New Yorkers, it remains a controversial issue in Ontario towns such as Fort Erie, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.

"A lot of things are blamed on free trade that aren't really associated with it," said Greg McDonald, a spokesman for the Canadian Manufacturers Association. "They would blame bad weather on free trade," he said, referring to the groups who oppose closer economic links between Canada and the United States.

But the Canadian Labor Congress says it isn't just blowing smoke, and that the facts clearly support scrapping the free-trade agreement.

Over the last two years, the trade-union organization has tracked 100 cases of companies shifting their operations to the United States or Mexico to take advantage of lower labor costs. That translates into 226,000 job cuts or almost the same number of new positions the free-trade agreement was supposed to create over 10 years, according to a government-funded study by the Economic Council of Canada.

Ontario, the traditional backbone of the nation's economy, has seen 295 companies either shut down factories or indefinitely idle large numbers of workers since free trade started on Jan. 1, 1989. More than 40,300 people either have lost their jobs or have no idea when they will be called back to the assembly line, according to statistics provided by the labor ministry in Toronto.

However, less than 1 percent of these layoffs and job cuts have occurred in southern Ontario. Here's a partial list of the number of employees affected by 1990 plant closings and restructuring efforts at companies located just across the Niagara River:

General Motors of Canada Ltd. in St. Catharines, which manufactures gears, suspension systems and other auto components -- 769 affected workers.

Harvard Industries of Thorold -- 354.

Stelpipe of Welland -- 187.

Square D Canada Electric Equipment Inc. of Port Colborne -- 161.

Cyanamid Canada Inc. of Niagara Falls -- 140.

Gerber (Canada) Inc. of Niagara Falls -- 144.

Tri-Sure Products Ltd. of St. Catharines -- 100.

Echlin Canada Inc. of Niagara Falls -- 58.

Niagara Structural Steel -- 21.

"We don't know how many of these businesses were affected by the free-trade agreement," a spokesman for Ontario's labor ministry said.

If fact, both free-trade supporters and opponents concede that it's not fair to blame all Canada's economic problems on trade liberalization with the United States. After all, some say, Canada entered a deep recession six months ago.

"I don't think you could say free trade is the cause of every plant closing, but it is one of the key reasons," said Ms. Barlow of the Council of Canadians. She argues that free trade has given corporate Canada the excuse to close plants and move to developing countries like Mexico, where cheap labor is plentiful and the government doesn't have tough workplace rules and environmental-protection statutes.

Many of the 800 manufacturers who are members of the Niagara Region Development Corp. don't seem particularly upset about free trade, according to Michael Duffy, the agency's general manager.

"The major manufacturers have told us they are more concerned about the new health-care taxes and environmental-protection legislation, high interest rates and an unfavorable exchange rate," he said from his Thorold office. "They hardly ever mention the free-trade agreement."

The two-year-old trade pact actually has made southern Ontario an ideal place for European, Asian and American-owned companies to gain access to the North American marketplace, Duffy said, noting that 80 new manufacturers have set up factories there in the last year.

"I look at free trade not as a short-term generator of jobs. I see it in the long term . . . the benefits it will create down the road," Duffy said.

The free-trade agreement is vital to the long-term health of the Canadian economy, says Ross S. Preston, senior research director for the Economic Council of Canada. He explained that, with the breakdown of negotiations for the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, nations are quickly forming into trading blocs. In 1992, for example, Europe will become a single, unified market, while by the year 2000 an economic union has been predicted among Pacific Rim countries.

Preston says Canada won't be able to maintain its standard of living unless it joins the United States and Mexico in a North-American trading bloc. It may be a shotgun marriage, but our neighbors to the north have little choice, he said.

"It's a question of short-term pain for the sake of long-term gain," said Bruce Fountain of Ernst & Young Consulting in Toronto. "There is no doubt some factories will close and some people will be discomforted . . . but Canadian companies have to become more competitive in the world if they are to survive."

Fountain said the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement is part of an international movement where regional trading blocs replace national boundaries. In short, the world is becoming much smaller, and countries must discard self-reliance in favor of regional interests.

If the Canadian dollar were not valued at 86 cents to the U.S. dollar, many Canadian exporters would have seen tangible benefits during the last two years. But the high exchange rate has wiped out their competitive advantage, said John L. Manzella, a Williamsville-based consultant.

Moreover, a series of 15 trade disputes on everything from the size of imported lobsters and frozen pork to red raspberries and paving equipment have generally been settled in Uncle Sam's favor by an impartial panel of judges, he said. The anti-free trade forces have used these judgments as examples of how the United States is taking advantage of its northern neighbor, he added.

"Relations have definitely been damaged between the two countries," Manzella said.

Duffy, of the Niagara Region Development Corp., concludes that the free-trade agreement probably will remain a controversial issue in Canada for some time. "There's still a large misunderstanding about the free-trade agreement and how it works," he said.

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