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US and Canada prepare to talk free trade

By David R. FrancisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1986


Canada and the United States already form the world's largest market. Some $120 billion (US) of goods crossed the border between these friendly neighbors last year. Next Wednesday negotiators from the two nations will meet here around a modern, walnut conference table to launch a historic undertaking -- the creation of a free-trade area. If successful, the negotiations will result in further integration of the Canadian and American economies, presumably adding to their mutual prosperity.

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A modern painting hangs on the wall of the 17th-floor conference room here. The artist, Jack Bush, has entitled it ``Slow Lean.'' For perhaps 18 months negotiators from the two sides will be doing something of a ``slow lean'' on each other as they seek to gain the maximum in trade concessions from the other side.

The talks will not be easy, authorities agree.

On the American side, the issues will be primarily economic.

That was illustrated when, earlier this month, the Senate Finance Committee nearly derailed the talks. It took some arm-twisting by President Reagan to gain a 10-10 tie in the committee that enabled the negotiations to go ahead on what is called a ``fast track'' basis. Under this procedure, Congress will be able only to approve or disapprove any result of the free-trade talks. It will not be able to amend any such agreement.

Those senators voting against ``fast track'' were objecting to growing imports of Canadian lumber and other trade disputes with Canada. Or they were protesting more generally what they regard as a soft Reagan administration attitude to trade issues.

On the Canadian side, many opponents of free trade are also concerned about the effect of increased competition on industry and jobs. But others also worry about Canadian sovereignty or cultural independence.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stuck his political neck out in proposing a trade deal with the United States last September. An earlier prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, lost an election in 1911 after suggesting a free-trade area with the US.

But Mr. Mulroney figures a trade agreement could shield Canada from further US protectionism, as well as enlarge the market for Canadian producers shut out or discouraged by existing American trade barriers.

But Martin Goldfarb, a Toronto pollster, speculates that the free-trade question could revive Canadian nationalism. It could become Mulroney's ``Achilles' heel,'' resulting eventually in the defeat of his Progressive Conservative government.

``Canadians are the oldest and most continuous anti-Americans,'' he notes. The confederation of four provinces in 1867 into the nation of Canada was to a large degree a commitment to not becoming American.

Before the 1911 election, various prominent American leaders indicated publicly they considered free trade a first step to political unity. No prominent American leader has made that mistake about Canadian political sovereignty today. Canadians are still concerned, however, about protecting their cultural identity during the forthcoming talks.