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Economist Ron Wonnacott believed in benefits of free trade

Economist Ron Wonnacott, right, with his brother Paul Wonnacott.

Courtesy of the Family.

Ron Wonnacott and Donald Trump wouldn't have seen eye-to-eye on the issue of free trade. The star Canadian economist, who has died at the age of 87, was a strong proponent of free trade between Canada and the United States long before the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 1988 and NAFTA, the expanded agreement that included Mexico.

Dr. Wonnacott, who was mentally sharp until the end, marvelled at Mr. Trump's attacks on free trade, a topic he studied all his life and which was the subject of his doctoral thesis at Harvard.

"Trade is like technological change. Both provide benefits by increasing efficiency and lowering price," Dr. Wonnacott said around the time of the U.S. presidential election in 2016. "While both [technology and trade] eventually offer greater opportunity and eventually new jobs, both in the short term displace some workers. This provides a platform for populist politicians."

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For four decades, Dr. Wonnacott was a professor of economics at the University of Western Ontario. He quietly produced a vast volume of work on the subject of free trade.

"Ron was a superb economist and a leading figure in making free trade part of Canadian public policy," says Grant Reuber, who was head of the economics department at the University of Western Ontario, and later vice-chairman of the Bank of Montreal. "A study written by him and his brother influenced the argument in favour of free trade."

Ronald Johnston Wonnacott was born on Sept. 11, 1930, in London, Ont. His father, Gordon, taught Latin at South London Collegiate, but his passion was farming. He operated a 365-acre beef farm at Mount Brydges, 25 kilometres southwest of London in the heart of what was then tobacco country, though he chose not to grow the lucrative crop.

"My grandfather used to say he wanted to feed people, not kill people," said Rob Wonnacott, one of Ron's sons. When Ron was young, he worked on the family farm in the summers, earning money weeding between the rows of corn.

Ron went to South London Collegiate, where he was a star student, although often bored in class. He invented a mental baseball game where he would make moves by opening pages in a book, giving the illusion he was studying when in fact he was playing a game.

After high school, he travelled the world for a year and a bit, then studied economics at the University of Western Ontario, where he was gregarious as well as studious and was president of the student council, his only foray into politics, although his later work influenced many politicians in Canada.

In his final years at Western, he started courting Eloise Howlett; the two had first met in kindergarten, but the romance didn't blossom until university. They married in 1954.

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She worked in Boston at John Hancock, the big insurance firm, while her husband studied economics at Harvard starting in the fall of 1955. His doctoral thesis at Harvard in 1959 was an enthusiastic endorsement of free trade between Canada and the United States, with the rather dry title, An Input-Output Analysis of the Relationship of the Canadian and United States Economies.

"My dad was a great advocate of the efficiencies of free-trade, that by reducing tariffs you get maximum productivity benefits from the economy," his son Rob said.

Dr. Wonnacott's brother Paul is also an economist and his brother Tom is a mathematician. Ronald Wonnacott worked with each of his brothers on a series of papers and textbooks. "I can't tell you off the top of my head just how many books my father and uncles wrote," Rob Wonnacott said.

Some of the books have been translated into as many as nine languages.

The University of Western Ontario, which awarded Ronald Wonnacott an honorary doctorate in 2001, said his most notable contribution to that point was his 1967 book, Free Trade between the United States and Canada, the Potential Economic Effects, which he co-authored with Paul Wonnacott. The university noted at the time that the book had triggered a debate that culminated in the 1988 FTA with the United States.

Ron Wonnacott's achievements in the field of economics were recognized in 2016, when he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. The citation noted: "He is credited with offering key insight into the potential effect of free trade, including identifying how Canada could successfully compete within larger markets."

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Dr. Wonnacott was also critical of earlier populist campaigns against free trade in Canada. The federal election of 1911 was fought on the issue of free trade with the United States, and the Conservatives won, killing the possibility of free trade with the United States. The losers were the Liberals, who supported free trade in 1911, but opposed it in 1988.

Ron and Paul Wonnacott wrote in 1967 that while Canada had prospered since Confederation, it would have done much better if it had adopted the free-trade policies advocated by then-prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, rather the protectionist National Policy brought in earlier by Sir John A. Macdonald.

Dr. Wonnacott enjoyed the freedom of being a professor. He could set his own hours when it came to research and would often rise at 2 a.m. and work until just after lunch. He led a varied life and was a keen golfer. He was an out-of-town member of two prestigious golf courses: Sunningdale, in Berkshire, England, and Muirfield in Scotland, one of the oldest golf clubs in the world and one of the courses used for the British Open.

He was also a keen bridge player.

Dr. Wonnacott, who died in London, Ont., on Jan. 29, leaves his brothers, Tom and Paul; sisters, Joy and Alma; wife, Eloise; their children, Doug, Rob and Cathy; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Ron Wonnacott's brother as Tim Wonnacott. His name is Tom Wonnacott. A previous version also incorrectly said Ron Wonnacott was a member of Sunningdale Golf Club in London, Ont. In fact, he was a member of Sunningdale in Berkshire, England.
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