As the provincial premiers left their lunch meeting with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa last week, Donald Getty of Alberta and Joseph Ghiz of Prince Edward Island found themselves walking together down the front steps of the government guesthouse where they had convened. Getty, an ardent advocate of free trade with the United States, put his arm around Ghiz, an ardent opponent, and the two then stood arm-in-arm to answer reporters’ questions. Despite a split on the trade issue, the meeting—the last one that the premiers will have with Mulroney before he and President Ronald Reagan sign the deal on Jan. 2— was cordial. And even though Ghiz, Ontario’s David Peterson and Manitoba’s Howard Pawley remained opposed, their opposition was softened by the knowledge that they were powerless to prevent Mulroney from proceeding. As Ghiz acknowledged, the agreement was “a fait accompli.” He added: “My opinion is that this is a bad deal for Canada. But the deal will be initialled on Jan. 2.”
Mulroney made that point firmly to the premiers as they dined on smoked arctic char and filet mignon in the elegant dining room of the stone mansion across the street from the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive. And as they sipped wines from Ontario and British Columbia, Mulroney emphasized in private what he had already stated publicly—that the federal government has the constitutional right to sign agreements with other countries, adding that it does not need provincial approval to do so. Indeed, earlier in the week Mulroney challenged any dissenting province that wished to go to court over the deal to “go right ahead.”
The Prime Minister’s position was strengthened the day before he met the premiers by a public declaration of support for the free trade pact from New Brunswick’s Liberal Premier Frank McKenna. Since his
sweeping election victory on Oct. 13 McKenna had been studying his position on the accord. Last week he decided that “on balance,” it was good for his province. But McKenna attached what he called a “caveat” to his support: he demanded that Canada win exemption from the protectionist omnibus trade bill now making its way through Congress. An interim report released last week by the Commons foreign affairs committee also recommended that Canada pull out of the trade deal if Congress passes the omnibus bill without exempting Canada.
If passed in its current form, the American trade bill could severely restrict some Canadian exports to the United States. However, a confident Mulroney told reporters last week that Reagan had said he would veto such protectionist legislation. In addition, Mulroney suggested that the socalled “standstill agreement” included in the free trade pact will protect Canada from the effects of the omnibus bill. Under letters exchanged by the two countries, both sides agreed to try to avoid enacting measures before the accord is implemented that would violate its spirit. But trade experts say that the letters are not binding on Congress.
The U.S. bill is one of a number of obstacles that could still derail the free trade agreement. It is still possible that legislation needed to enact the provisions of the accord could be rejected by Congress, stalled by Canada’s Liberal-dominated Senate or held up in the courts by a dissenting province. Indeed, Senator Royce Frith, deputy Liberal leader in the Senate, said last week that any disagreements over provincial jurisdiction would have to be resolved before the Senate approves any free trade legislation.
After last week’s meeting the three premiers opposed to the deal—Peterson, Pawley and Ghiz—ruled out any immediate court challenge. Peterson said that a challenge “could develop over the years over a piece of implementing legislation,” but he added that provincial officials had advised him that the proposed trade agreement itself could not be successfully challenged in court. Although Pawley said that he was “looking at all the options,” Ghiz declared that he did not want to resort to the courts at all. The next day Pawley announced that he would no longer publicly support the Meech Lake constitutional accord—and instead, might submit it to a free vote in Manitoba’s provincial legislature, allowing members to vote according to their consciences. Pawley said that any feeling of national reconciliation achieved by the accord had been destroyed by Ottawa’s determination to forge ahead with the free trade deal.
Meanwhile, a poll released last week indicated that Mulroney had not yet convinced Canadians of his cause. The survey, conducted by Angus Reid Associates Inc. of Winnipeg in late November and early December, showed that 40 per cent of respondents opposed the free trade deal, 39 per cent were in favor and 20 per cent were unsure. Free trade advocate Donald Macdonald, a former Liberal finance minister, acknowledged that the deal “was not an easy sell.” Adding to the difficulty, according to Macdonald, was negative coverage by some Toronto news organizations and the vocal opposition of the trade union movement. Indeed, the Ontario Federation of Labor spent $75,000 on a half-hour television program, broadcast on the province’s Global TV network last week, opposing the accord. But Macdonald said that he is more troubled about the role that Congress will play. He added: “The greatest concern I have is the United States.”
While many hurdles remain, Mulroney appeared confident. His optimism was echoed by the six premiers who already publicly support him. Even John Buchanan of Nova Scotia, who is awaiting a legislative committee’s report on the agreement before declaring whether he is in favor, acknowledged that he was satisfied with Mulroney’s plan to set up an advisory council to investigate where and when assistance would be needed to help industries and workers adjust to an open North American market. Premier William Vander Zalm of British Columbia predicted that even Ontario’s Peterson would soon join the free-traders. Vander Zalm said that for the sake of a unified country, “there’s got to be a little give.” For the moment, though, Canada’s premiers remained firmly—if politelydivided over the most important issue facing the country.
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