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Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was a trade agreement reached by Canada and the United States in October of 1987. It became extremely controversial in Canada, however. Once in effect the agreement removed several trade restrictions and the next decade saw a great increase in cross border trade. In 1990 it was superceded by the North American Free Trade Agreement that included Mexico as well.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Negotiation
3 Controversy
4 Effects


Free trade with the United States had long been a controversial topic in Canada. From 1855 to 1866 theReciprocity Treaty created limited free trade between the two nations. It was cancelled by the United States, however. Under John A. MacDonald the protectionist National Policy became a cornerstone of the new Canadian nation.

The Liberal party had traditionally supported free trade and in the 1911 Canadian election it became the central issue. The Liberals lost the election and free trade was shelved for many decades.

Over the interim several bilateral agreements greatly reduced tariffs between the two nations. The most important of these being the 1960s Auto-pact agreement.


By the 1980s Canada and the United States were each others largest trading partners and the Canada-U.S. trading relationship was the largest in the world.

Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party was elected to office in 1984. Free trade was not an important issue, but Mulroney and the party both announced their opposition to such a move. Relations between President Ronald Reagan and Mulroney were very close. In May 1986 Canadian and American negotiators began to work out a trade deal.

The agreement greatly liberalized trade between the two countries removing most remaining tariffs. The FTA was not fundamentally about tariffs, however. Average tariffs on goods crossing the border were well below 1% by the 1980s. Instead Canada desired unhindered access to the American economy. Americans wished to compete in Canada's energy and cultural industries.

In the negotiations Canada retained the right to protect its cultural industries and such sectors as education, health care, and some resources such as water were left out of the agreement. The Canadians did not succeed in winning free competition for American government procurement contracts, however.


Once the treaty was announced it became a source of extreme controversy in Canada. A wide ranging group of Canadians, mostly on the left, came out in opposition to the deal. Lead by the Council of Canadians they argued that the deal would undermine Canada's sovereignty and begin a slippery slope towards Canada losing its independence.

The 1988 Canadian election was almost wholly dominated by the issue of free trade. The Liberal Party and the NDP both strongly opposed the deal. Mulroney's Conservatives were supported by a group of right wing and business groups. Most notably was the Business Council on National Issues. The BCNI funneled vast sums of money into pro-free trade advertising, far more than had ever been spent on a single issue in a Canadian election.

The election saw partied opposed to free trade win the majority of the vote, but because of vote splitting between the NDP and Liberals the Conservatives were reelected. On January 1, 1989 the agreement came into effect.


The exact ramifications of the agreement are hard to measure. After the agreement came into effect trade between Canada and the United States began to rapidly increase. While throughout the twentieith century exports fairly consistently made up about 25% of Canada's GDP. Since 1990 exports have been about 40% of GDP. Some of this growth must be attributed to the sharp decrease in the value of the Canadian dollar during this period and a general global pattern of increasing international trade.

The agreement has failed to liberalize trade in some areas, most notably soft wood lumber where the Americans repeatedly violated the agreement to impose protectionist policies.

The fears of the agreement undermining Canada's sovereignty have still not come to pass. Canada's cultural industries are healthy and some argue that Canadians and Americans are actually diverging on many important issues.

While the agreement remains controversial to this day it is no longer at the forefront of Canadian politics. Within the PC party David Orchard has led a minority strongly opposed to the free trade agreement. The NDP also remains opposed. When the Liberals under Jean Chretien were elected to office in 1993 they continued the deal and even signed on to NAFTA.