PHOTOS: Simon Reisman’s business card. Below: Mr. Reisman, chief Canadian negotiator of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in a screenshot of a blurry CBC archival broadcast; a recent shot of Brian Mulroney (Photo: Mike Feraco); Toronto Star political columnist Thomas Walkom; and lobbyist Robin Sears.

Circa 1986, I recognized Simon Reisman one afternoon on a street in Toronto, just across Bloor Street from the Royal Ontario Museum.

Mr. Reisman was the former senior civil servant who acted as chief negotiator for the Canadian side in the talks that would result in the so-called Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Those negotiations were initiated by Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, the well-known Irish baritone who has been so hard at work lately trying to polish up his tarnished reputation.

Pretty boldly for a lad of 34, I stopped Mr. Reisman, introduced myself and expressed my skepticism about the still-uncompleted treaty, which was highly controversial at the time.

Whatever the American negotiating team made of him, I was no match for Mr. Reisman’s blarney skills. I still remember his answer quite clearly, although I can’t guarantee my transcription’s accuracy is quite up to Postmedia standards of stenography, what with more than 30 years having passed and everything.

At any rate, he told me, “Free trade is gonna be great! Canadians are gonna make so much money they’re not gonna know what to do with it all!”

But, I asked, what if some lunatic ends up running the United States and tears up the deal after we’ve integrated our economy into theirs? (There was nothing particularly original about this thought at the time. Lots of people raised it as a concern. And I’ve probably edited my paraphrase of my own words with the benefit of hindsight. Readers will just have to forgive me.)

I can’t recall Mr. Reisman’s exact words as clearly, but the general theme of his riposte was as follows: “Oh pish-posh. It’ll never happen…”

Well, and this is the point in this long exercise in name dropping, here we are 30 years after the deal was done – the anniversary of the signing by Mr. Mulroney and U.S. President Ronald Reagan was Jan. 2 this year – and, lo and behold, a lunatic resides in the White House, just as prophesied. Our Canadian economy, which was never in danger of not trading with the United States, is so closely integrated into our neighbour’s it is impossible to contemplate setting back the clock. NAFTA, the successor to CUSFTA, is in grave danger, and fear stalks the land.

Maybe, just maybe, we should have listened to John Turner, Liberal leader in the 1988 federal election, and Ed Broadbent, the leader of the NDP, both of whom warned against the deal. Mr. Turner, indeed, accused Mr. Mulroney of “selling out Canada.”

In a typical Canadian outcome, a majority of Canadians voted for the parties that opposed the deal, but Mr. Mulroney’s Conservatives won a big majority, and the deal was done. It was the last time, significantly, a Progressive Conservative government would ever be elected in Canada.

Unceasing propaganda ever since has painted “free trade” with the United States as a huge success. “The overall benefits to Canada are manifest, although the initial costs for some sectors and some regions was heavy,” wrote lobbyist and former NDP national director Robin Sears in October 2012, at the same time as he was working as a lobbyist rehabilitating Mr. Mulroney’s reputation.

If one raised the issue of the human toll of those “initial costs,” the answer was, as often as not, that things would have been even worse without the FTA, a dubious proposition but a difficult one to refute, as it involved describing events that never took place.

This propaganda has been relentless, which makes Thomas Walkom’s column in the Toronto Star Monday all the more remarkable for telling the unblinkered truth about Mr. Mulroney’s free trade deal.

“There’s one upside to Donald Trump’s use of bully-boy tactics against Canada,” Mr. Walkom wrote. “They may force us to rethink our failed trade strategy with the U.S.”

He argues that our efforts to integrate our economy seamlessly into that of the United States got us into the doomed Afghan war, subjected Canadian citizens to grave human rights violations, and laid waste to our manufacturing sector.

Mr. Walkom continued: “The assumption behind this drastic restructuring of Canada’s political economy was that America would keep its word – that it would grant special status to Canada.”

Alas, Mr. Trump, who never keeps his word, has changed all that. We are in a far worse position that we would have been without CUSFTA and NAFTA. This is a courageous argument for Mr. Walkom to make in the face of 30 years of relentless propaganda, which through tireless repetition has taken on the air of unassailable truth. .

As for Mr. Reisman, he was around to watch good Canadian industrialized jobs disappear into the United States with, to borrow a phrase from U.S. Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot, “a giant sucking sound going south.”

But I expect he would have viewed that with his characteristic optimism and argued it was all just a period of adjustment and things were bound to get better and better later. God knows, the man had chutzpah.

Neoliberals aren’t so cheerfully optimistic about the outcome when they administer bad economic medicine nowadays. Their tone has changed: “It always tastes bad. Now shut up and swallow.” It’s no longer our business to ask whether or not it’s good for us.

Mr. Reisman, at least, had the good fortune not to be around to witness the presidency of Donald Trump. He died a decade ago last Friday. The anniversary appears to have passed unremarked by Canadian media, notwithstanding the current trade contretemps with Mr. Trump the United States of Chaos.

Mr. Reisman talked on so long, and so enthusiastically, that day in Toronto that eventually I made my excuses and went on my way.

He gave me his business card, which I have to this day. I’ll give the man this much, he clearly believed in his task.

God only knows what we’re going to do about his legacy now.

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  1. Thing is, now what? None of the three major parties went into the 2015 election with a platform that included abrogating NAFTA (although the NDP’s Leap wing would probably come closest). The Liberals, free trade’s most vociferous opponents in 1988, have become champions, while the NDP has simply kept silent on the underlying principle of whether it continues to oppose free trade, and nibbles about the margins of what it opposes and supports.

    The US has never been a truly committed free trade nation; protectionism, nationalism and exceptionalism have long been intertwined into its political culture, and it consistently pushes back on any international rules that might infringe on its sovereignty, as though that wasn’t exactly what international agreements are supposed to do. It also consistently loads the dice against its trading partners, taking a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to most trade files, softwood lumber being the most significant. The Trump approach is simply ruder and more unpredictable than past Administrations’.

    Personally, I’d like to see an Auto Pact-writ-large approach to trade in Canada: basically, tell foreign business that “if you want to sell to Canadians without tariffs, then you have to employ Canadians and buy from Canadians”. But there doesn’t seem to be much appetite in any of the three main parties for such a bold policy statement.

  2. I suppose our relationship with the US has always been one of the greatest dilemma’s for Canada. The US is a big country and the only one we share a land border with. Governments in the past have tried to diversify our trade with Europe and elsewhere, but with not a lot to show. Other markets are further away and smaller, so we remain economically closely tied to the US.

    In the initial era of free trade, it was Canada’s concerns about the protectionists in Congress, at the time who were threatening tariffs and restrictions that led us to make a deal with a more trade friendly President. Now the roles are reversed and it is the US Congress that is more trade friendly to Canada and a President who is not. Interestingly, some things remain the same, Mulroney is still trying to charm the US President, but Trump is seems to be a much more difficult subject on the issue of free trade to deal with than Reagan or Bush.

    I waver on whether Trump is a lunatic. I agree he is not helpful for the US or its interests, but I think Trump just cares more about his own interests and opinions than the international interests of his country. I am somewhat optimistic that free trade or not, Trump will do more damage to the US than Canada or other countries. Ironically, having Trump around may lead Canada to look for more reliable and stable trading partners elsewhere. We now have a trade deals with the EU and with a number of Asia/Pacific countries, so perhaps our eggs are not as much in one basket as it might appear. I think our recent approach in making trade deals with western and more developed Asian countries is a better approach. I would be cautious about making deals with low wage countries such as China or India that some in the right wing media have been pushing for.

  3. You say “it is impossible to contemplate setting back the clock.” I call BS. With some sensible nationalistic policies, like focusing on transportation corridors to tide water, we can do very well.

    There will be some transition costs for the Quislings, but we don’t have to follow the Norwegian example of how to deal with them.

  4. I subscribe to the Toronto Star, but avoid reading Mr. Walkom’s columns. He is always gloomy and almost always right, and I’d rather stay ignorantly cheerful.

  5. It’s always interesting to note how far the Liberal Party has gone from 1988. Turner seemed at the time to show genuine concern for the well being of Canadian workers. How quickly that went away first with NAFTA, and then finally Trudeau took it to a whole new level with the TPP. Perhaps those envelopes Mulroney was so famous for also ended up in other pockets, who knows.

    On a side note it may be time to go beyond the I hate Trump line being fed to you by the MSM and look at what he is actually doing. It’s very clear that China is the real target starting with trade, but at what times in history was a large amount of steel required?

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