A NATION OF TRADERS © David Watts 29/04/2010

From prehistoric times to today’s global economy, Canadians have been A Nation of Traders. To talk of ourselves this way can conjure up two images:

First is one of European sailing ships on our east and west coasts, surrounded by canoes loaded with moccasins, furs and beadwork to be exchanged for metal pots, knives and deadlier trinkets.

Fast forward 500 years to a second image: the globalists’ dream when free trade has triumphed, commerce is king and enterprise is unobstructed by borders.

Between these two scenes we can construct a Canadian history where Britain’s repeal of tariffs pushed her North American colonies into Reciprocity with the US, then Confederation with each other and a transcontinental railway that became a bridge between Europe and Asia.

The twentieth century would begin with Canada’s spurning the Liberals’ proposal of Free Trade with the US in 1911, then adopting it under the Conservatives in 1985 and expanding to NAFTA.

The twenty-first century begins with 9-11 and the recession of ’09 but these are mere splutters as the economic engine revs up and Canada becomes a major shopping centre in the global market.

Allowing that such an optimistic outcome remains in the future, this flow chart would not be a false portrayal of our history. Yet it is not the whole story, either of Canada or of world trade.

Let’s go back to the picture of the meeting between Europeans and North American aboriginals. They traded place because there was already a history of trade among First Nations themselves.

Peoples on the coast traded things from the sea for things from forests farther inland. Those who continued further would finally trade for the products of the plains, from the culture of the bison.

Each of these cultures was more self-sufficient than our own specialized societies. They did not need grapefruit from Texas, salad from California or imported materials to build their homes.

They did not need to trade. Trade at this level was a basic human, even cosmic, impulse to share: for the universe to see itself like the spread of trinkets that delight the eye in a mall or bazaar.

There was no compulsion to buy, as would come later when foods became laced with sugar and addictive habits cut into our livelihood. Trade was freely engaged in: a genuine free trade.

Canada became good at this because it grew up along a natural trade route: the Saint Lawrence River where Jacques Cartier found villagers trading with each other up and downstream.

The River connected with the Great Lakes, opening to the middle of the continent and the fur trade beyond. The Canadian Pacific Railway became an extension of the Saint Lawrence River system to the Pacific. And that put Canada on a world trade route from Europe to the Far East.

This made Canada a free trader before free trade had become a concept in the western mind

What about the other so-called “free trade”

That is a euphemism for “guaranteeing the highest return for the lowest price.” “Free” and “trade” need not have anything to do with it.

If the end result is to lock partners into an arrangement from which they cannot escape, when citizens cannot challenge the fine print and elected governments can be sued for exercising democratic rights on behalf of their citizens, then there is nothing “free” about this trade.

When workers anywhere in the world have no choice but to work for the lowest wages, or produces to sell their goods at the lowest cost, this is not “trade” but compulsion.

When this happens, we have moved back to mercantilism and monopolies by another name. Multinational corporations will defend their imperial interests as much as the old empires did.

Three times colonized since the arrival of Europeans, Canada is well experienced with this.

For 150 years Canada’s trade, imports and exports, was with France. While French people invested significantly in Canada’s growth, governmental support was sporadic and indifferent.

Often troops were withdrawn from New France to fight wars in Europe. Some winters pay boats failed to arrive to pay the remaining garrison, forcing officials on site to create their own currency.

France’s neglect of her own colony was a factor in its fall to the British in 1759. No effort was made to regain it at the bargaining table and many Québec officials returned to France afterward.

Canada now became part of the British Empire, the system that helped drive the Americans out. At first Britain built up her new colony as a bulwark against declining loyalties of the 13 to the south.

But when the United States became an independent power, Britain proved quite willing to sacrifice trade and other interests of her remaining North American colonies to keep the peace with the US.

Confederation came about largely from Britain’s desire to be free of the costs of Canada’s trade and defence, beginning when Britain abandoned the imperial system for free trade in 1846.

From 1935 on Canada moved into the orbit of the American empire for trade and defense, a shift sealed when Britain’s later entered the European Union and Canada, Free Trade with the US.

Despite talk of a special relationship, the US, like the powers that preceded it, has been willing to sacrifice bilateral agreements for domestic interests. On softwood lumber, BSE and Buy American after the recession, this reminds us that great powers are governed by interests, not friendships.

In the case of each of these special or satellite relationships, many Canadians believed that we had favoured or free trade and that loyalty or self interest meant we must not bite the hand that feeds us.

Each of these three powers contributed significantly to Canada’s development. Many Canadians identified with them so strongly that it was difficult to distinguish their interests from our own.

Yet what we had in each case was not free trade but codependence, and the relative strength of each in the relationship was determined by the sizes of the economies.

Now with decline of the American superpower, the rise of new overseas economies and the strength with which Canada emerged from the recession, there is at last a possibility for genuine free trade.

Canada has a strategic position on the globe, immense skills and resources and experience in dealing abroad. These, and our history as a Nation of Traders, all put us in the right place at the right time.