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Michael Adams is the founder and president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research. Andrew Parkin is the institute’s executive director. The following essay is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book History Has Made Us Friends: Reassessing the Special Relationship between Canada and the United States, edited by Donald E. Abelson and Stephen Brooks.

Since Brian Mulroney’s death last month, pundits and the public alike have reflected on his political acumen and accomplishments. The negotiation of the free-trade deal with the United States tops everyone’s list of his achievements as prime minister. But the free-trade story is not just about a policy that put a dramatic end to the protectionism that had underpinned Canada’s economic strategy for more 100 years. It is the story of one of the most remarkable turnarounds of public opinion in the country’s history – one with two important lessons for political leaders today.

When the idea of free trade between Canada and the U.S. first landed on the political agenda, the Canadian public was open-minded. In early 1984, the first Environics survey on the topic found that 78 per cent of Canadians agreed that there should be free trade between the two countries. But this proportion then fell steadily, dipping just below the 50-per-cent mark in 1987, as negotiations concluded and domestic opposition mobilized. By the time of the 1988 election campaign, support had fallen further – to almost half of its original level – and for the first time, more Canadians opposed the concept of free trade than supported it.

This more divided view was also evident once Canadians began to be asked, not just about the general idea of free trade, but also about the specific free-trade agreement concluded by the two countries. When first asked about the deal in December, 1987, as many Canadians were in favour (41 per cent) as were opposed (39 per cent). But over the course of 1988, as the agreement came under intense scrutiny, the proportion in favour declined (to 34 per cent in October, when the federal election campaign was in full swing), while the proportion opposed rose to 48 per cent.

As the free-trade debate intensified, the public became less convinced of its economic benefits. The proportion saying that free trade with the U.S. would result in a stronger Canadian economy declined from 53 per cent in 1985 to 36 per cent in November, 1988; similarly, the proportion that expected free trade to bring lower prices to consumers fell from 60 per cent to 49 per cent. And by 1988, other concerns had emerged, with sizable minorities anticipating free trade would result in a reduction of Canada’s ability to regulate foreign ownership (44 per cent), an erosion of Canada’s cultural identity (40 per cent) and a loss of Canada’s political independence (37 per cent).

To be clear, there was no consensus at the time of the 1988 election that free trade threatened Canada’s identity or independence; opinions were divided. But as convictions about the economic benefits of free trade eroded, they no longer overshadowed concerns about the loss of sovereignty.

The Mulroney government won the 1988 election despite these trends – and with the help of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which fulfilled its promise of producing majority governments able to implement bold policies. Yet the election hardly settled the matter – at least in terms of public opinion. Two events in the ensuing years fuelled the debate. The first was the start of talks to include Mexico in the arrangement, leading to the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA). The second was the onset of a dramatic recession. In this context, opposition to the free-trade agreement rose steadily, peaking at 69 per cent in early 1992.

The Mulroney government implemented free trade, but (the 1988 election victory notwithstanding) it left office having lost the support of the majority of the public on the issue. Herein lies the first lesson for those aspiring to political leadership, which is perhaps a strange one for pollsters to point out: don’t pay too much attention to who’s on top of the polls. Free trade was a policy championed by experts – the dour economists and the faceless bureaucrats – that became less popular the longer the government that fought for it remained in office. Mr. Mulroney’s ability to see it through was ultimately due, not to his charm, but to his thick skin.

The story does not end here, for opinions on free trade soon shifted, in dramatic fashion. The first survey conducted after the 1993 election found that 59 per cent agreed that there should be free trade between Canada and the U.S. – up 15 points from the previous survey four months earlier. Opinions on the free-trade agreement specifically remained more divided, but the 46 per cent that now favoured it was nonetheless 11 points higher than the previous survey. And this trend continued: The proportion in favour jumped a further 14 points over the next year, reaching 60 per cent in December, 1994.

Opinions on the NAFTA agreement began to shift somewhat later than those on Canada-U.S. free trade, but eventually the same trend took hold. Between 1994 and 1996, the proportion of Canadians agreeing that there should be free trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico jumped 20 points, from 46 per cent to 66 per cent. By 2000, the proportion favouring free trade – now presented as trilateral and not just between Canada and the U.S. – stood at 70 per cent. That same year, for the first time, Canadians were more likely to say that NAFTA had helped the Canadian economy than to say it had hurt it.

The results of our survey in September, 2022, which re-asked the question about NAFTA for the first time in 20 years, show how the pro-free-trade consensus has solidified: 83 per cent of Canadians now favour free-trade agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and only 11 per cent are opposed. This is the strongest support ever registered in Canada for a free-trade agreement since our surveys first began asking about the issue 40 years ago. And most remarkably, Liberal Party and NDP supporters are not only just as favourable – they are now even more favourable than Conservatives.

Additional survey questions asked in 2022 show how opinions on free trade have shifted. On the one hand, Canadians have become more convinced of the economic benefits. Whereas, as the agreement was being negotiated in 1987, only 36 per cent expected the free-trade agreement to result in a stronger Canadian economy, today a majority (62 per cent) feel that it has done so. On the other hand, concerns about the loss of the country’s cultural identity and political independence have subsided.

In 1988, Liberal leader John Turner warned that economic integration would erode our cultural distinctiveness. In practice, our surveys show that Canadian and American values since that time have diverged. Over time, more and more Canadians have reached the conclusion that we can have more trade with the Americans without becoming more like them.

The second lesson that political leaders can draw from this incredible turnaround? Vindication takes time. Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives endured defeat, then watched while Liberal governments reaped the benefits of free trade, championed its expansion globally, and won praise for defending it in response to the election of a maverick U.S. president. Mr. Mulroney played for the longer-term, which may be one of the hardest things to do in modern politics. But by choosing that path, he ensured that today – 40 years after NAFTA – his praises are being sung.

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