Widespread calls for caution and protection have dampened the Conservative Government’s enthusiasm for a dramatic trade deal that would sweep away all or most of the remaining trade barriers with the United States.
Backers of free trade with the United States and of a more open international trading system took a beating at the weekend’s economic summit conference. Even Industry Minister Sinclair Stevens declared that free trade is not even on the Government’s agenda.
Mr. Stevens, known for his strong views in favor of letting the free market have its way with the economy, also took an unexpected swipe at Canada’s other trading partners when he said the Government is willing to take even more measures to protect Canadian jobs against low-cost foreign imports.
He told a workshop on Friday that industries that provide many jobs and that are endangered by foreign competition should be given long-term protection that goes beyond the quotas already used. ”hen you hear of the plant closures and the hardship as far as employees are concerned . . . isn’t it reasonable to say, is there not some portion of the Canadian market that we feel we can, in effect, give or guarantee to the textile and apparel people, to the footwear people, to those that are in industries that may be under severe competition?” The textile, clothing and footwear industries have complained for years that quotas have not been good enough to stop imports from cutting away at their share of the Canadian market.
Mr. Stevens said he still does not like the idea of propping up companies with grants, but that the Conservatives are prepared to sit down with troubled industries, look at their prospects for the next five to 15 years and guarantee them a share of the market for long enough to let them finance new investments in plant and machinery.
Only a handful of comments opposed trade restrictions. Robert Blair, president of Nova Corp., said the petrochemical industry ”eeds free trade as much as you do not need it.” He was a lonely voice among a chorus of union representatives and companies demanding more protection, all arguing that Canada cannot afford to be a boy scout in a world of bike gangs. ”e’re the only ones playing by fair trade rules,” said David Patterson, a district director of the United Steelworkers of America and vice-president of the Canadian Labor Congress.
Paul Soubry, president of Versatile Farm Equipment Co. Ltd. of Winnipeg, said Canada has to get tougher in trade talks. If major markets such as the European Economic Community cannot be persuaded to open, he said, Canada may have to close its doors in reply.
Even Peter Gordon, chairman of Stelco Inc., a company that has already faced problems with U.S. trade restrictions, said Canada must be forceful in dealing with imports. ”e can talk about fair trade as much as we like, but, internationally, there is no such thing.” Mr. Stevens appeared to accept even the idea that Canada does not have to worry that trading partners might retaliate by imposing their own restrictions on Canadian exports.
That was a bit galling to Mr. Blair, who said the free-traders in the workshop had not realized the last half-hour would be taken up by replies from Cabinet ministers: ”here was an awful lot of rebuttal still to come.” They did get a few more words in during the plenary session on Saturday, when the talk turned to trade with the United States. Harold Milavsky, president of Trizec Corp. Ltd., said the mood on both sides of the border is right for a new deal. ” think there is a window of opportunity here that we should be taking advantage of.” The predominant mood at the conference was, however, one of caution. Jean-Paul Gourdeau, president of the SNC Group and chairman of the Canadian Exporters Association, said he supports a framework agreement that would help to give Canadians better access to the U.S. market, but he added that Canada would have to develop ways of easing the transition for Canadian companies that might face more competition from U.S. companies. ”anada has much to lose,” Mr. Gordon of Stelco said, and it must be careful not to pass the point where economic co-operation ends and political subservience begins.