Protests and Politics: Canada's Free Trade Quests Span 155 Years

Article excerpt

"TEXT 1776.","Canadian Speeches: Volume 15, #01, March/April 2001.","EARLE GRAY.","Editor, Canadian Speeches.","Protests and politics: Canada's free trade quests span 155 years.","Free trade and protection.","The Summit of the Americas in Quebec City on April 20-22 that will seek to advance free trade throughout the Western Hemisphere culminates a Canadian quest that spans 155 years. It's history is replete with protests, riots, smugglers, political bribery, gunboat diplomacy, free trade deals aborted and abandoned and Liberals and Conservatives who have switched positions like a weather vane in shifting winds. Editorial feature."," A secret agent armed with bags of money to bribe politicians and newspaper publishers, lavish entertainment, and gunboat diplomacy were among the means used to secure the first Canadian-American trade agreement, in 1854.

But long before this, the stage was set by the crusade of liberal economists, social reformers, politicians, and manufacturers who set out to strike from Britain the shackles of protection by the salvation of free trade and the promised grace of prosperity and peace.

When Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel abolished the infamous corn laws to usher in Britain's prosperous free trade era in 1846, the four colonies of British North America -- Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island -- were hit hard. The preferential tariffs enjoyed by the Colonies before 1846 had meant that any British demand for wheat and flour that could not be supplied by the farms of the British aristocracy, was supplied by the farmers and millers of Canada. Even more important to the BNA provinces had been Britain's preferential timber tariffs, established not to protect Britain's land owners (most of the big British oaks had already been felled) but for national security. The Napoleonic wars convinced British leaders that their nation would be vulnerable if they relied on timber from the Baltic countries to keep the British navy afloat. The high tariffs on Baltic wood meant that timber not only for the British navy but also for general construction, came primarily from the provinces of British North America.

At the beginning of 1846, Peel announced that the timber tariffs would be slashed, while the corn laws were to be replaced over a period of three years. But because of the great Irish potato famine that killed more than one million people that year, the import duties on grains and flour were completely removed within 12 months.

In the provinces of pre-confederation Canada, the results were seen as an unmitigated disaster.

Nowhere in the provinces did the slash in timber and wheat sales to Britain hit harder than in the business community of Montreal, where for nearly two years bankruptcy was just about the most active business. English speaking people in French Montreal burned with other frustrations. They were burdened with the problems of looking after more than 100,000 refugees who arrived in 1847 from the Irish famine; destitute, disease-ridden, and starving. They blamed England for oppressing these people, then dumping their problem on Canada. They resented legislation to compensate for damages suffered during the abortive rebellion in 1837. And they were deeply concerned that the coming of responsible government would mean the loss of political control to the French-speaking majority of the province. Their frustrations boiled over into a riot that year, in which the Governor General, Lord Elgin, was attacked on the steps of the legislature, the legislature was burned and ransacked, and an angry mob roamed the streets all night, looting and rioting.

In October that year, the Annexation Manifesto was issued in Montreal, demanding both economic and political union with the United States. The petitioners claimed that joining the United States would increase farm prices, lower the cost of imports, achieve greater exports, provide them with a greater voice in the government at Washington than they had in the government at London, and perhaps most importantly would swamp the French in a vast Anglo- Saxon nation. …