“We will proceed to bring greater unity and harmony and prosperity to Canada."
There were important matters on the year's national agenda: abortion and the high price of housing, pollution and native land claims, immigration and tax-funded day care, a constitution to shift federal power to the provinces. And all of those issues spill over into 1989. But one of them aroused national passions to a level previously experienced only over such questions as conscription in the Second World War, U.S. nuclear missiles in Canada, bilingualism and the battle for Quebec. In 1988, from a slow start, free trade became the only item on the agenda that counted.
Even before the trade treaty with the United States takes effect, it has indelibly colored life in Canada. The campaign for the Nov. 21 election-referendum that gave the people’s imprimatur to the deal was, in double irony, both the most American of such enterprises in Canada’s history and a classically Canadian argument. Big money and its marketeering of images and impressions played pivotal roles in the outcome. At the same time, emotion broke through to confound the political technocrats on both sides and leave legacies of uncertainty in both camps.
For those who sold the idea for locking Canada’s future more firmly onto the fortunes of the United States, there were doubts to be faced about how the trade treaty would work out in practice under rules that remain to be negotiated. For the opponents who nurtured those doubts among the majority of the electorate who cast contrary votes, there were criticisms that they are out of phase with the future—perhaps including their own, in politics. Within hours of the election and its great debate, analysts were grappling uncertainly with the fact that Canadian politics and public attitudes had undergone a fundamental realignment. That was reflected in a new conservative constituency anchored on massive majorities in Quebec and Alberta and reinforced by a substantial minority in Ontario.
That three-part provincial coalition of sometimes conflicting interests under a common political purpose worked twice for Brian Mulroney’s Conservative party. By itself, it provided the Tories with a House of Commons majority in 1984 and with four-fifths of its seats in 1988, the first two successive Commons majorities won by any federal party in 35 years.
“I play hockey next year—then the Olympics. I can skate faster than a zooming bullet."
Still, the volatility of the election campaign itself and its aftermath of anxieties provide contrary evidence that in politics and public opinion there are few enduring certainties. And with both sides in the free trade debate predicting that, for good or ill, the deal will bring about major changes in Canada, the topic of the year in 1988 is likely to persist as a dominant theme in national life throughout the new year and well beyond.
“We have negotiated this agreement on terms that uphold the national interest and strengthen the unique fabric of Canadian society.”
“We intend to fight across the country. We intend to fight in Parliament. We intend to fight every inch of the way.”
“We will be opposing the legislation right down the route, all the way. I say to Mr. Mulroney, let him go to the people of Canada and let them decide.”
“It would be beneficial for everyone involved to let me play with the Los Angeles Kings.”
“I worry about what it might do to children years from now.”
“It is game over for the wheat crop.”
“Any proposed law would have to allow early abortion as a condition for prohibiting late abortion.”
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