Brian Lee CrowleySince Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s departure, the Liberal Party of Canada has largely shunned a commitment to free trade. But now, as the party returns to government, there is reason to be optimistic they will once again claim the mantle of champions of free trade.

By Brian Lee Crowley, the Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 6, 2015

The apparent maturation of the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau on trade matters has been like watching a divorced couple remarry: such romantic do-overs warm the heart but only succeed if the reunited pair does not fall back into the bad behaviour that caused the original split.

Chrystia Freeland, Trudeau’s freshly-appointed trade minister, has been an advocate for free trade. In 2014 she said “…if we want our middle class to be prosperous—which is the core of our agenda—having trade deals with the world is absolutely essential.” Her appointment presumably signals that the new PM shares this view.

In doing so the Liberal Party is returning to its free trade roots. In the dominion’s early years, the Liberals were the ardent free traders, the Tories the protectionists. The Liberals’ greatest prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in what was to be the crowning glory of his years in office, went into the 1911 election with a free trade deal with the Americans as one of the centrepieces of his campaign.

He was unexpectedly crushed at the polls by Sir Robert Borden’s Tories and this apparent repudiation of one of Liberalism’s fondest policy hopes traumatised the party. Free trade, especially with America, became anathema, despite the folly of having no institutional protection for a relationship that eventually absorbed as much as 80 percent of our exports.

The Liberal Party is returning to its free trade roots

Even our most successful prime minister, Mackenzie King, at the height of his power and influence in the post-World War II years, chickened out at the last minute and refused to present to Canadians a secretly negotiated trade deal with the US. King’s consultative séance with Sir Wilfrid must not have been auspicious.

When in the early 1980s the Liberal-appointed Macdonald Royal Commission made Freeland-like noises about the desirability of free trade to protect Canada’s prosperity, economic nationalists in the party were furious and the best the Liberals could come up with was a timid plan for selective “sectoral” free trade.

Brian Mulroney soon swept to power and quickly embraced free trade; by the time he sought re-election in 1988, the campaign was a virtual referendum on the issue. Shades of 1911! But this time the prime minister emerged victorious and the deal was done. No thanks to the Grits, however, who campaigned vigorously against it. Their then-leader, John Turner, had his best moment of the campaign when he accused Mulroney of signing away Canada’s interests “with a stroke of the pen.”

Much of Canada’s free trade achievement of the last 40 years has been in spite of the Liberals, not because of them

By the time the 1993 election rolled around, the original agreement with the US had now been enlarged and extended to Mexico in the trilateral NAFTA. The Liberals under Jean Chretien put some water in their anti-free trade wine by promising to renegotiate the agreement if they came to power.

After their convincing victory they metaphorically went to Washington and waited for someone to show up and renegotiate with them. Predictably nobody could fit them in and the Liberals quietly let the deal stand but for a decade struck no new trade deals of major significance.

Today free trade with America is uncontroversial. Indeed Canada’s greatest disappointment is not that we have too much free trade, but too little: it doesn’t cover things like pipelines, softwood lumber and Buy America.

Mindful of these vulnerabilities and the need to find new markets, the outgoing government negotiated trade agreements with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; these now land on the Liberals’ desk for approval. Seeing them through will require the Liberals not to bow down to the special interests whom they have assiduously courted in the past.

Sir Wilfrid urged Canadians to seek out markets wherever they were to be found and yet much of Canada’s free trade achievement of the last 40 years has been in spite of the Liberals, not because of them. Here is a heaven-sent chance for them to return to their roots and again claim the mantle of champions of free trade. Sir Wilfrid is watching.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

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