Skip to main content

Tom d’Aquino has just published a memoir called Private Power, Public Purpose. It’s suitably titled because there are few Canadians who have ever wielded as much private power as this man, who for three decades, as head of the Business Council on National Issues (now the Business Council of Canada), was the bullhorn of our big business establishment.

He was so powerful that in 1992, Canadian Forum magazine labelled him “The De Facto PM.” As the CEO of CEOs seeking closer union with the United States, he was the bête noire of the left. He was burned in effigy on the streets of Ottawa.

Raised in British Columbia near the U.S. border, Mr. d’Aquino became “a great lover of the Republic.” American economic integration, he believed, was the key to enhanced prosperity for Canada.

He is still pushing for that. As he details in his book, he was a driving force behind the free trade agreement and subsequently its expansion to NAFTA. Integration worked. Why not more?

But as President Joe Biden gets set – finally, after two years – to come to Ottawa next week to meet with Justin Trudeau, Mr. d’Aquino sees little hope for a closer coupling and contends we’ll be the worse off for it.

“I did believe,” he said in an interview, “that we could agree on a continental external tariff that would bring us more fully inside, so that we would never again have the bilateral fights we are having to this day.”

An incredibly powerful regional economic block could have been created, securing, he thought, our defence partnership as well. But while there was some support, the administration of Barack Obama “showed no interest,” and the idea was dropped.

And now? For the foreseeable future at any rate, said Mr. d’Aquino, “the dream of a North American community is dead.”

There’ll be no talk of something like it at the Biden-Trudeau meeting. It will primarily be a joining of hands, a signal that the Canada-U.S. relationship has been set right following the convulsions of the Trump years.

But in the d’Aquino view, American protectionism is preventing free trade from working as it should. “We’re still operating at a level where Canada is not even treated as a true free trade partner. To me, we should have a free trade and investment relationship that really makes no differentiation between the two countries.

“Why do we have slow growth in Canada?” he continued. “One of the reasons is that investment dollars don’t come here and stay here. They go to the honey pot south of the border.”

While he could point to many examples to support that argument, in contrast, Volkswagen just announced that it will build a huge electric-vehicle battery plant in Ontario. It’s being touted as the single largest investment in the auto sector in Canadian history.

The d’Aquino book illuminates the extraordinary power the big business lobby, as he structured it in the early 1980s, exerted in shaping the national policy agenda on a wide range of issues.

After opposing one of Brian Mulroney’s budgets, he recalls Mulroney adviser Bill Fox telling him “he would like to rip my heart out.” But his business executives were strongly and importantly aligned with the Mulroney Tories on several issues. Their support was vital to the Conservatives winning the 1988 free-trade election campaign.

In the 1990s, Mr. d’Aquino and company exerted strong pressure to get the country’s heavily indebted fiscal house in order. Paul Martin, whom he rightly regards as one of our greatest finance ministers, and Jean Chrétien, who had “the best political nose of any prime minister,” got it done.

With Justin Trudeau, the old guard has been shut out and Mr. d’Aquino has had no such influence. But in the interview he credited Mr. Trudeau for an “outstanding achievement” in handling Donald Trump, a “colossal disaster” so volatile, “anything could have happened.”

Mr. D’Aquino admits to mistakes, such as his support for the invasion of Iraq. And as for his great love of America, he acknowledges bitter disappointment with its trajectory under the madness of the far right and his deep fears for its future.

Given that trajectory, it’s no small wonder why there is little interest among Canadians to forge closer bonds. The reality, however, maintains Tom d’Aquino, is that we have no choice. Our fate is too strongly linked with theirs. As Brian Mulroney used to say, “you have to dance with the one that brung ya.”