Since the depths of the 1981-1982 recession, unemployment has consistently topped the list of public problems worrying Canadians. But in 1987 something happened. For the first time in six years, the focus shifted. Now, according to respondents in The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll, free trade is their predominant concern. Indeed, the rise in importance of free trade has been startling. In 1985, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney first explored the idea with U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Shamrock Summit in Quebec City, only two per cent of respondents to The Maclean’s/Decima Poll cited free trade as the most important issue facing Canada. The following year, as negotiators for the two sides sat down for business, the rating increased to five per cent. But by 1987, with the achievement of a tentative
pact and the heated national debate that it sparked, 26 per cent of the respondents cited free trade as the most important issue, making it the No. 1 concern in the poll.
But although Mulroney has managed to capture the attention of Canadians on the issue, the poll results indicate that he has not had the same success in gaining their approval. Support in general is on the wane, and deep divisions remain between regions, industries, political parties, age groups and the sexes. With such discord, the Decima pollsters note that free trade has the potential to cause a “major setback” in the process of national reconciliation that began following the turmoil of the Trudeau years. And there are other dangers for the Mulroney government as Canadians shrug off their apathy and focus on the possible cultural and economic impacts
of the deal. Concluded the pollsters: “For the government, as a result, the stakes have grown markedly higher.” Mulroney has hinted that he is ready to call an election on free trade. If he does, the poll results suggest that the longer he waits, the less support he will have. Indeed, the proportion of respondents who said that a free trade agreement is a very good idea dropped to nine per cent in 1987 from 18 per cent in 1985, while those who called it a very bad idea rose to 15 per cent in 1987 from six per cent in 1985. In the more moderate range, the number who said that it is a good step slipped to 40 per cent in 1987 from 57 per cent in 1985, while those who declared it a bad step increased to 29 per cent from 16 per cent. Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, who is vehemently opposed to the deal, predicts that the trend will continue. Declared
Hurtig: “When they understand what is actually in the agreement, more and more Canadians will strongly oppose it, because it is a very significant sellout of our country.”
The poll also indicates that, for now, Ontario is the odd province out, with 53 per cent of respondents saying that free trade with the United States is a bad step, compared with 40 per cent in favor. In every other region, support for the deal was 50 per cent or higher, with the highest support in Quebec. One Quebec respondent, Richard Synnott, 22, of Laval, said that Canadian businesses can compete with Americans by specializing. An engineering student who wants to start his own company, Synnott said that the deal is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to show off their business acumen. Declared Synnott: “We can make our mark as Quebecers.”
But others were not so sure. Indeed, when Maclean's asked Canadians what they thought about free trade, many complained that they lacked the necessary information to form a judgment. William Clements, a 46-year-old dry cleaner from Goderich, Ont., was one. “Maybe it could be a good deal and maybe it won’t be,” said Clements, proprietor of French Dry Cleaners for the past 18 years. “But no one has really come out and said to me, in my own language so I can understand it, exactly what is happening.” Clements says that he and his brother, a free trade advocate who owns a construction business in nearby Meaford, Ont., have “fierce arguments” about the proposed deal. But the father of two teenage children, who started with nothing and built up his own business, says that he needs more information. “I feel Mulroney is not telling it all,” he said. “Before I commit to free trade, I want to know more.”
Clearly, the impact of free trade on employment is crucial to its acceptance. And the poll indicates that concern about job losses has been steadily growing. Although only 21 per cent of respondents in 1985 said that job losses would result, that number grew to 40 per cent in 1987. During the same period the number who felt more jobs would result slid to 26 per cent from 44 per cent. The poll also indicates that concern about job losses is stronger among those groups that show less support for the deal—women, Ontario residents, older Canadians, New Democrats and Liberals. Lynda Sweeney, a 45-year-old textile worker from Lanark, Ont., said that the free trade deal has become a hot topic of conversation in the company cafeteria. “People are worried,” said Sweeney, who has worked in the textile sector for 25 years. “Too many
Canadians will lose their jobs.”
As of early December the government had provided no hard facts on possible job gains or losses resulting from a free trade deal. As part of its annual budget preparation exercise, the finance department is looking at the broad economic impact. But spokesmen for the Trade Negotiators’ Office said that they had not commissioned more precise studies and that they did not know if anyone elsewhere in the government was conducting one. Nevertheless, Mulroney and his ministers are adamant that hundreds of thousands more jobs will be created
under the deal than will be lost. On more than one occasion Mulroney has likened the free trade deal to the 1965 Auto Pact, saying that the auto agreement brought prosperity and thousands of jobs to Ontario. As Mulroney told a Calgary audience late in the fall, “Various studies indicate that free trade could do the same for the West and other regions of Canada.”
Despite the confusion over what the deal means to each Canadian individually, the majority of respondents to the poll said that the Canadian negoti-
ators had been bested at the table by their American counterparts. Almost three in five said that the Americans bargained better. Interestingly, a significant proportion of those who like the deal still said that the Americans bargained better. The pollsters say this suggests that, for many Canadians, what matters is that they benefit, and it does not matter much if the United States benefits more.
For his part, Allen Hansen, a structural technician from Richmond, B.C., says that Canada has to go for free trade “or sink into the sunset and let Japan and Germany take over.” But the 45-year-old respondent said that there is a lack of information about the deal and that Mulroney has not done a good job in educating the public. Said Hansen: “Americans are known for their horse trading, and it looks like they got the better deal, but who knows?”
Although Mulroney does not have such individuals as Hansen completely convinced of the merits of his package, the poll indicates that his party is firmly behind him. Of those respondents identifying themselves as Progressive Conservatives, 72 per cent called free trade a good step, while 20 per cent said that it was bad. The poll indicates problems ahead for Liberal Leader John Turner, who has denounced the terms. According to the poll, Liberals are evenly split on the issue, with 47 per cent in favor and 48 per cent against. Of those identifying themselves as New Democratic Party supporters, 34 per cent declared it a good step and 62 per cent were opposed. Declared the pollsters: “Prime Minister Mulroney, of the three leaders, will have the least difficulty maintaining party solidarity or enthusiasm for his position.”
But Canadians in general are growing increasingly skeptical, and Mulroney will need to use all his persuasive charms to reverse the slide in support. Free trade advocate Donald Macdonald, a former Liberal cabinet minister, said that it is a difficult position to sell to the public because it requires careful and often lengthy explanations. Declared Macdonald: “You can scare people in one sentence, but it takes a paragraph to describe how the deal is good for them.” Nevertheless, the government will have to stress its own catchy slogans if it hopes to persuade Canadians of its cause. As the year ended, opinion was split on the free trade deal. The pollsters note that as events unfold and Canadians become more familiar with the details, opinion will shift in one direction or the other. But which way remains unclear.
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