Brian Mulroney Divided and Reshaped Canada Through Free Trade With the U.S.

Brian Mulroney first led the Progressive Conservatives to power while I was early in my career as a journalist. But his political life was never something that I covered in any great detail. His decision to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States transformed Canada’s economic history and did, however, consume much of my work life for several years.

Brian Mulroney’s move toward closer economic ties with the United States was polarizing among Canadians.Credit…Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Mr. Mulroney died on Thursday at 84 at a hospital in Florida after falling at his home there. Alan Cowell has written a sweeping obituary of Mr. Mulroney that documents his many significant achievements but also the allegations of financial misdoing and influence peddling that followed his time in office. Those allegations tarnished his reputation, even among former supporters, and contributed to the eventual demise of the federal Progressive Conservative Party.

[Read: Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister Who Led Canada Into NAFTA, Dies at 84]

I reported on the free trade negotiations mainly from Washington. In contrast with Canada, where it often seemed as though every molecule of political and public debate was consumed by the talks, the negotiations barely registered there.

Nothing in my professional experience polarized Canadians as much as Mr. Mulroney’s move toward closer economic integration with the United States. Whatever the economic advantages of free trade, Canadian industry at the time largely consisted of often inefficient branch plants producing a limited range of products to escape import tariffs that were as high as 33 percent on manufactured goods. Workers in those factories, and the communities that depended on them, were rightly worried that shipments from their parent companies’ larger and more efficient U.S. plants would sweep away their jobs under free trade.

(The auto industry was the exception. In 1965, Canada and the United States entered into a deal that allowed American cars to enter Canada tariff-free in exchange for continued production in Canada, most of which was then shipped to the United States.)

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