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Quebec Premier Pauline Marois poses with Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois poses with Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

PQ a wild card in Quebec’s attitude to free trade Add to ...

Guns were to be sold freely at Canadian Tire. The health care system was to be privatized. Tuition fees were to skyrocket. Canadian culture would be annihilated by MTV. Jobs were to be lost by millions.

You had to be there, 25 years ago. In the political science classes, at the student newspaper and on the wider McGill University campus where I was studying at the time, there was no end to the list of calamities the free-trade accord between Canada and the United States would bring.

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Yet those fears didn’t resonate with the numerous French-speaking students who attended McGill at the time. It wasn’t that they were apolitical. Like other Canadians, they were deeply engaged in the polarized debate that pitted Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives against John Turner’s Liberals and Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats. It’s just that, like most Quebeckers, they had no real beef with opening up trade with the U.S. – even if the country was led by Ronald Reagan, the devil incarnate of the political left.

On the eve of the anniversary of the trade deal that was reached on Oct. 4, 1987, the role that Quebeckers played in pushing through the deal has been overlooked. Yet the province was instrumental in bringing to life the trade accord now known simply as the FTA. After giving it a cool reception, Liberal premier Robert Bourassa endorsed the deal wholeheartedly. There was no opposition from the Parti Québécois – on the contrary. In a party traditionally allied with the province’s biggest unions, Bernard Landry, then PQ vice-president, went on a crusade to expound the advantages of the FTA to a province of exporters.

With 63 of Quebec’s 75 seats, the Conservatives won the 1988 federal election, which was akin to a referendum on free trade.

Quebeckers, of course, had none of the cultural insecurities that many other Canadians expressed when they defined themselves by opposition to the Americans – insecurities that the FTA’s success, paradoxically, helped to dispel. They were – and remain in their minds – Asterix’s village of indomitable Gauls, protected by the French language from U.S. cultural domination.

So successful was the FTA in boosting exports and two-way investments that Jean Chrétien reneged on his electoral promise to burn the accord when the Liberals got elected in 1993. And so hooked did Canadians become on exporting to the U.S. that they protested indignantly when Americans closed their borders after 9/11, or when they put in place protectionist buying policies after the financial crisis.

Some of the FTA’s economic feats have now worn off. Many manufacturers that were complacent when the Canadian dollar laid limply at 60 cents (U.S.) didn’t recover when the loonie blasted off – appreciating by 75 per cent between 2002 and 2007. Nor did they fare well against exporters from low-cost Asian countries. But that had less to do with the FTA than with Canadian exporters’ appetite for investment, design and research – or lack thereof.

Quebec was not only instrumental for the FTA, but for the liberalization talks now under way with Europe. Confronted with the World Trade Organization’s failure in Doha, and faced with the prospect of a slowdown in the U.S., premier Jean Charest reignited the old dream of a free-trade accord that would span the two continents during the Davos summit of 2007. To his credit, Mr. Charest slowly convinced his fellow premiers and Ottawa to come on board. The talks are now in their final stretch, with the seventh round of meetings scheduled in Brussels on Oct. 15.

The question now is whether Quebec’s openness toward free trade will survive the election of a PQ government. When sitting on the opposition benches, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau had expressed concerns over the trade deal with Europe, whose details, outlined in a 300-page accord (excluding attached documents), have been kept secret.

Premier Pauline Marois just extended former premier Pierre-Marc Johnson’s mandate as chief Quebec negotiator. “The Finance Minister wants the discussions to continue,” said Mr. Marceau’s press officer, Mélanie Malenfant.

But as Mr. Johnson himself points out, “all the big decisions are taken in the end, both on your offensive interests and your defensive interests.”

Is Quebec willing to trash supply management in the dairy and poultry sectors to gain wider market access and to reduce barriers to trade? If it is unwilling to compromise, could that derail Canada’s position at the talks?

Only then will we know if the PQ has pursued Quebec’s tradition as a free-trade advocate.

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