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Opinion Who knows what Trump wants out of NAFTA, but wine was Ronald Reagan’s key issue in free trade negotiations

U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs legislation implementing the U.S.-Canadian free-trade agreement during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on Sept. 28, 1988. Applauding from behind, from left, are Canadian Ambassador Alan Gotlieb, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter and former Treasury Secretary James Baker.

Scott Stewart

Pat Carney is a former senator and cabinet minister.

In trade negotiations, all political leaders have personal “must-haves.” For President Donald Trump, a former reality-TV star, it’s difficult to figure out what he wants out of the ongoing NAFTA talks between Canada and the United States. Sometimes he’s concerned about autos; at other times Wisconsin cheese. Often he appears ready to cancel the agreement altogether.

For President Ronald Reagan, when the world’s two greatest trading partners negotiated the original Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement in 1987, his “must-have” was wine.

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Specifically, the former Hollywood movie star and California governor wanted access to Canadian markets for California wine.

At the time, I was Minister of International Trade in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government with mandated responsibility for the free-trade negotiations, a huge leap of faith into the unchartered waters of a comprehensive free-trade agreement between two independent countries.

California wine? When my counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter presented the President’s demand, I was perplexed. Wine wasn’t a Canadian priority.

Our top-level negotiating teams were aimed at reducing tariffs, or border taxes, on all goods and some services between Canada and the United States over a 10-year period, a breathtaking goal that would profoundly alter the future of our country.

International Trade Minister Pat Carney, left, and Canada's chief negotiatior Simon Reisman congratulate each other following the release of the final draft of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement in Ottawa, Dec. 11, 1987.

Ron Poling/THE CANADIAN PRESS

We were wrestling with complex issues such as rules of origin, or what percentage of any good must be actually produced in the two countries, or how to manage our supply of dairy and poultry products to ensure the survival of Canadian family farms so that Canadian consumers had access to Canadian milk, eggs and cheese. Canada had tougher food safety restrictions than the United States did.

Mr. Mulroney’s “must-have” was an independent way of settling trade disputes between the two countries. Without a fair dispute settlement mechanism, any trade agreement wasn’t worth much, the former labour lawyer told his cabinet.

Other key issues were protecting Canadian cultural industries and intellectual property, such as copyright and patents.

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These were the same issues negotiated in 1994 when Mexico joined Canada and the United States in the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) and are still hot button items in the current negotiations demanded by Mr. Trump to modernize our trading relationships in the era of the internet, automation and artificial intelligence.

No one has mentioned wine, at least not in the media. But back in the day, the Canadian wine industry was small. The most popular product was a sweet, fuzzy wine called Baby Duck. Or Fuddle Duck. Even Luv-A-Duck. Most Canadians drank imported wines from Europe.

Buying wine was a furtive affair. In Ottawa’s Lower Town government liquor store, a customer checked a list of stock, wrote one’s choice on a paper form and handed it to a clerk. He disappeared into the back and emerged with the selected item in a brown bag and exchanged it for cash.

And wines were regulated and sold by the provinces. The issue was raised at a first ministers meeting between the Prime Minister and the 10 provincial premiers in the Langevin Block. As Trade Minister, I was the only outsider. Since initially there were no notetakers or translators at these meetings and as a former journalist (like current Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland), I scribbled notes on the polished oval conference table.

Simon Reisman looks over a copy of the Free Trade Agreement text he helped put together, Dec 11, 1987.

CHARLES CHUCK MITCHELL/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When our pugnacious chief negotiator Simon Reisman attended to brief the premiers on progress of the talks, he said the American demands regarding wine would wipe out 70 per cent of the industry in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Simon looked at me; he knew my family were pioneer homesteaders and cattle ranchers in the Okanagan and I would be blamed for any damage to the Valley’s economy.

I looked worried. Ontario Premier David Peterson looked reflective. B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm looked cheerful. Prime Minister Mulroney didn’t react. He was a teetotaler, and Canadian wines were not generally served at Ottawa’s diplomatic events.

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So access to American domestic wines was included, and President Reagan went back to watching old movies in the White House as we negotiated in the Treasury Building across the street, eating takeout chicken and drinking lukewarm coffee, rebuffing the Americans’ final charge to include cultural industries in the deal as the clock ticked down to midnight on Oct. 3, when the President’s “fast track” authority ran out.

Back in Ottawa, the cabinet voted an adjustment package for the Canadian wine producers to replant their vineyards with higher grade grapes. On the plane back home to B.C., Premier Vander Zalm discussed how his government planned to introduce incentives to produce world-competitive vintage wines. The industry pulled out their vines and replanted.

Today, the Canadian wine industry is thriving in many provinces, expected to reach a market value of approximately $11-billion in 2019. Canadian wines, some produced by First Nations wineries, are winning global competitions, although you can still buy Baby Duck.

The Okanagan Valley is covered in verdant fields of grapes. My family’s livestock has been reduced to two llamas. We celebrate family reunions in a local winery on the site of a former cattle range.

So as I raise a glass of B.C. pinot gris to Minister Freeland and her team, I remind them of the sign in one vineyard: BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES.

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