Although free trade has preoccupied Canadians for almost four years, communities from Vancouver to St. John’s, Nfld., remain markedly split on the question. While business, political and labor leaders debate the issue heatedly, along Main Street, average Canadians seem confused by conflicting evidence about the long-term effects of free trade. Vernon Gilbertson,
51, who owns a furniture store in Brandon, Man., and is president of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, said that he is not opposed to free trade, but he added:
“There are a lot of areas where we have a right to feel anxious. So little is known about the free trade agreement, and we will only know the full implications 10 years from now.”
A Maclean’s canvass of communities across Canada last week showed that support for free trade is most evident in the regions where North-South links have traditionally been the strongest. Said Saint John, N.B.,
Mayor Elsie Wayne, 56:
“Before Confederation, we dealt in a North-South way.
After Confederation, it was ¡2 East-West—and look what happened to us. We really i flourished when it was =
North-South, so we look at | free trade positively.” 5 According to Moncton, ÿ N.B., paper-products manu° facturer Glenn Carpenter,
50, free trade should help correct that imbalance by making the nearby northeastern United States more accessible for Maritime exporters.
Opinion was mixed about the impact on employment and wages. In Saint John, Ivan Court, 38, a senior-high-school teacher, declared: “Right now, when students get out of high school, they have to go to university or onto the unemployment lines. And we lose a
lot of our people to Upper Canada or the United States because we don’t have jobs for them. Free trade may change that.” But others said that free trade is a threat to wage levels and job security. Said David Serle, a 58-year-old Canada Post clerk in Brandon: “Industries will be under pressure to move a few hundred miles [to the United States] and
set up without the union protections, or the health protections, or the unemployment protections that we have here—and so they will. All the things that we have come to expect as normal will become bits of gravy that we can’t quite get a hold of anymore.”
The prospect of lowering barriers that were erected to protect Canada worries Thomas Kierans, 75, an engineer in St.
John’s, Nfld. Kierans said that free trade will bring the economic merger of the two countries, and, if that occurs, the unique advantages of being a Canadian citizen will be lost. Said Kierans: “Canadians are more co-operative in their dealings with each other. We are more social-minded without being socialistic.”
Other Canadians expressed concern for the integrity of Canada’s health and welfare programs. In Saskatoon, United Food and Commercial Workers representative George Semeniuk, 50, predicts that Canada will find itself dominated by American businesses and, eventually, American values. Less emphasis will be placed on the Canadian tradition of strong social programs, such as health care. Said Semeniuk: “To me, it is all a question of what the corporate sector is willing to put back into the economy. We do it through taxation, and, overall, I think the country is better off because of it.”
And despite the promise of greater national wealth, some Canadians say that they
would reject free trade rather than risk a threat to Canada’s social and cultural institutions. In his house on the campus of Bishop’s University, in Lennoxville, Que., economics professor Robert Barnett, 49, proudly displays a sketch of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and a staunch opponent of free trade. Said Barnett: “As an economist, I'm all in favor of [free trade], but
THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN PROSPERITY AND EMOTION DIVIDES A NATION
as a Canadian, I’m against it. We have different value systems between Canada and the U.S. We look after people. This is the key thing, and no one mentions this.”
For others, free trade has become highly emotional, a symbol that Canadians have lost control over their precious natural resources. In Port Moody, B.C., secondary-school teacher Anita van Ginkel, 48, says that she is opposed to the deal because it could have dangerous implications for the depletion of resources such as oil and fresh water. Said van Ginkel: “I am frightened. I’m so frightened, I don’t know what to do about it.”
But strong proponents of free trade say that the criticism is groundless. Sherbrooke, Que., Mayor Jean Paul Pelletier, 51, says that he is a passionate supporter of free trade because it will bring more jobs and
more business to Quebec—without damaging Canada. Said Pelletier: “The European Common Market doesn’t affect the people as such. They still have borders and autonomy.” And across the country, Rev. James Hanrahan, 62, a Roman Catholic priest and president of St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, said that free trade will not cause greater cultural integration. Said Hanrahan: “I don’t see tariff structures as a significant part of Canadian culture.” Other defenders of free trade say that it should also reduce government intervention in business and create better access to other international markets. Red Deer, Alta., Mayor Robert McGhee said: “To have less government involvement in the lives of people means more prosperity. The U.S. deal is the first step. Then it’s on to
the countries of the Pacific Rim.”
Faced with the prospect of an imminent federal election—with free trade almost certainly to be one of the most hotly debated campaign issues—more and more Canadians are struggling to resolve their personal attitudes toward the government’s historic proposal. Margaret Hassler, 56, part owner of a flower and gift shop in Port Moody, initially supported the deal because of the potential benefits to her business: she imports many items from the United States. But now she is rethinking her position. Said a clearly concerned and divided Hassler: “There were just so many things I hadn’t thought of. So now I’m getting much more interested. I’m going to have to check out a lot of these things myself.” Hassler is not alone. In the coming months, Canadians concerned about the political and economic future of their country will be asking themselves the same questions.
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