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Opinion Backlash against freer trade lurking in plenty of corners in Canada

When Canada signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership a couple of weeks before the 2015 election, it seemed a potential boon to Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Through the campaign, the Tories had lacked forward-looking things to talk about. Now, they could lay claim to bringing Canada into a 12-country trade pact that stood to be the biggest in history – and that Mr. Harper seemed genuinely excited to talk about, because of economic opportunities it presented.

Then something funny happened: The Tories made little effort to talk about the TPP at all. The reason, according to insiders at the time, was that people within their campaign – some of whom had seen related opinion research – thought there could be more downside than upside.

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Few voters were excited about the agreement, but if Mr. Harper spent too much time drawing attention to it, he risked stoking anti-globalization backlash, including among some of his supporters.

It's an episode free-trade advocates could usefully keep in mind now, as they loudly complain about Mr. Harper's successor being too cute about how he pursues trade deals of his own.

You could start to hear those complaints as Justin Trudeau's Liberals entered NAFTA renegotiations with asks – labour and environmental protections, Indigenous rights and gender equality – deemed quixotic when dealing with Donald Trump.

They ramped up in November, when Canada proved the lone holdout among 11 remaining countries (after the U.S. pulled out) in agreeing to a revised version of the TPP.

They reached a fever pitch this month, as Mr. Trudeau left China without a widely predicted agreement to launch free-trade talks with that country.

This chorus, led by the Business Council of Canada, has at times conflated concerns that played a role in delaying the TPP signing, around things such as access to auto markets, with the "progressive trade agenda" that was brought to NAFTA and seemed in some measure to put off Beijing.

But the underlying complaint about what Ottawa is doing applies to both the values-oriented and the prosaic demands: At a time when the Liberals should be squarely focused on opening more markets to Canadian goods, they're instead making grubby domestic political calculations – the need to signal to left-of-centre supporters that they're not just raging capitalists, to stay in the good graces of unions and other stakeholders.

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To which the obvious answer is, of course the Liberals are making grubby domestic political calculations. And if you don't think there's some value to that, you either haven't been paying attention to what's been happening in the Western world or you've wrongly assumed it can't happen here.

Surely it's not the former, because Brexit and Mr. Trump's election are familiar even to those who pay only passing attention.

Nationalist and isolationist uprisings can't solely be chalked up to economic grievances, but the belief that countries sold out their own interests as they embraced liberal trade was plainly a major factor.

It's easier to be lulled into the idea we're immune. Canada's political discourse is relatively polite. Inequality is not as severe as south of the border.

There has been a near-consensus, among opinion leaders and the two parties that have governed us federally, that globalization is good. Free trade went from the hottest issue in the 1980s to a seemingly boring one by the start of this century.

But there is no inherent reason it will stay that way. Many of the same perceptions that have fuelled the backlash elsewhere – traditional industries upended, jobs less reliable and quality of life harder to attain, as benefits of economic growth are concentrated among a relatively few elites – are lurking in plenty of this country's corners.

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Liberal trade isn't the only culprit; probably not the main one, and to some eyes not one at all. But as elsewhere, it could make an easy target for populists.

The Liberals' attempts to avoid that reaction, by showily demonstrating a reluctance to compromise Canada's interests, is far from selfless; among other considerations, they want to avoid bleeding votes to their left. But if the rise of a trade-skeptical party or movement is your idea of a nightmare – which surely applies to the impatient business folks – your interests and the Liberals' may be intertwined.

It's debatable whether Mr. Trudeau's approach to trade makes an anti-globalization wave much less likely than if he were pursuing deals the way the Business Council would prefer. While the Liberals cite changes to the agreement with the European Union that they inherited as an example of their strategy in action, critics on the left allege that a sovereignty-threatening dispute-resolution system was only marginally improved, and that other provisions were mere window dressing. If they move forward with a mildly tweaked TPP, they can expect a similar response.

But proceeding a bit slowly with negotiations in the hope of limiting that criticism's traction – not just on the left, necessarily, but with anyone who feels the economy is leaving them behind – seems more a favour than a slight to those who want ensuing agreements to last generations.

The Liberals, like the Tories before them, know the supposed consensus isn't as solid as it might seem.

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