Kn the Shadow of Free Trade: Nationalism, Feminism and Identity Politics in Contemporary English Canada

Article excerpt

English-Canadian nationalism, defined as the organised pursuit of greater cultural and economic independence from the United States, has long faced significant internal and external challenges. The coming into effect of bilateral and trilateral free trade agreements, on their own significant losses for the interest, coincided chronologically with the erosion of a progressive social movement presence in English Canada, a movement that had helped to animate anti-free trade activism. This article examines the dynamics of contemporary nationalism with particular reference to organised feminism and other movements in English Canada.

Maude Barlow, a leading nationalist activist in English Canada since the mid-1980s, marked the tenth anniversary of the coming into effect of Canada-US free trade in a newspaper commentary on the consequences of the bilateral deal. Writing in 1999 as chair of the Council of Canadians, Barlow argued, "The cost to Canadian sovereignty has been high," whether measured with reference to weakened domestic social programmes, to diminished east-west economic ties or to successive sector-by-sector policy retreats by the federal government to avoid American retaliatory action. Her verdict on "the most important policy tool of the decade" was - no surprise - overwhelmingly negative (Barlow, "Free Trade").

Barlow's summary of losses due to free trade emphasised threats to Canada's water supply and cultural autonomy, the growth of child poverty, expanding income inequality and the rise of what she termed "precarious work." Despite her background as a feminist campaigner, including one term as women's advisor in the Prime Minister's Office during the last Trudeau government, Barlow failed to mention gender as an analytic category. She referred instead to "unemployed workers" losing their benefits, and to the erosion of earnings among many "working families" during the first decade of free trade. At no point did her commentary address how changes to Canadian unemployment insurance schemes, for example, held particular consequences for new mothers seeking maternity leave, or how shifts in federal spending programmes had proven especially devastating for single mothers on social assistance (see Greenspon; Little; McIlroy; Fraser).

Barlow's review of free trade and its consequences stood in stark contrast to the reflections of Mulroney-era trade minister Pat Carney. Refused entry to a June 1999 conference commemorating the Canada-US agreement, Carney mounted a spirited attack on the "macho" attitudes and exclusionary behaviour of Simon Reisman and others who were involved in negotiating the bilateral deal, and of the conference organisers, who insisted she was not important enough to be invited. Carney recounted how Reisman had earlier framed his understanding of their working relationship: "You may be the minister, but I am not your deputy. I do not report to you." As if to reinforce his perspective, Reisman later refused to brief the trade minister - Carney - on discussions with the Americans, telling her instead to "piss up a rope" (Carney; see also Winsor).

While Carney's story was not a substantive critique of free trade, it did suggest that women in English Canada were hardly welcome as central participants in economic debate. Beginning in the mid-1980s, battles over Canada-US free trade featured sustained pressure by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) to insert questions about women's employment onto the public agenda (Bashevkin, True Patriot Love chap. 6). If evidence were necessary of the more marginalised condition 15 years later of women in general and NAC in particular, one needed only to consult Maude Barlow's ungendered review of workers, families and the unemployed or, on the other side of the spectrum, Pat Carney's exclusion from a major commemorative conference.

This article examines challenges facing English-Canadian nationalism in the shadow of free trade, paying particular attention to relations between nationalism and its social movement allies, including organised feminism, in the decade following 1989. …