Why are Canadians turning their backs on free trade?

The Canadian public, and even many business leaders, are losing faith in free global trade deals—just when we need them more than ever

Kathleen Wynne in a crowd with the Golden Temple in the background

Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne (centre, in blue) visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar in January 2016, during a trade mission to India. (Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times/Getty)

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan ended their joint trade mission to India earlier this year in style. They held a reception for several hundred people on a terrace at the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel that offered an excellent view of the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s most famous landmark. The Canadians were clearly determined to make an impression.

Too bad the only thing they got right was the setting. The party itself was forgettable. I had hoped to see something splashy and distinctively Canadian—like Anne of Green Gables serving Ontario wine. But if not for the flags arrayed behind the podium, I wouldn’t have known who to blame for the mediocre buffet. Wynne and MacLauchlan spoke, but their remarks were lost in the din.

For me, it was another example of how Canada’s leaders take global commerce for granted. The country’s share of merchandise exports to emerging Asian countries is shrinking. Our inability to keep pace in the world’s fastest-growing markets is one of the reasons our trade deficit widened to a record $3.4 billion in March. Whatever we’re doing, it isn’t working. And people are starting to notice.

It should give pause to everyone at the newly renamed Global Affairs Canada that Jim Balsillie, one of the greatest global traders in Canadian history, is on a crusade to foil their most recent achievement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). (Full disclosure: I am a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the Waterloo, Ont., think-tank of which Balsillie is chairman of the board of directors.) The TPP would lower trade barriers between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, including Canada. Balsillie, the former co-chief of BlackBerry creator Research In Motion, believes the TPP is rigged in favour of its biggest members, the U.S. and Japan. His objection is that the agreement would enhance patent lawyers’ ability to harass upstarts whose ideas threaten dominant technology companies—which currently tend to be either American or Japanese.

Balsillie could be wrong—or not as right as he thinks he is. A beef farmer in Alberta would benefit immediately from greater access to Asian markets, and some of the new generation of technology companies prefer simply to stay ahead of the patent lawyers rather than engage them in combat. There also could be an opportunity cost to letting countries such as Australia, Mexico and the U.S. get a head start in fast-growing emerging markets such as Vietnam. But Balsillie’s campaign raises a larger question: Why is a man who became a billionaire thanks to earlier free-trade agreements so passionately opposed to the most significant international commitment to open markets in years?

I will submit that Canada isn’t so different from the United States, where the likely presidential nominees of  both parties say they oppose the TPP. The post-crisis era has created a public skeptical of its governments’ ability to ensure that wealth spreads broadly. The TPP was negotiated almost entirely behind closed doors. The secrecy may have made life simpler for negotiators, but that decision could now end up killing the effort. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are reflecting the will of voters disinclined to support a trade deal they had no role in forming.

The immediate priority of pro-trade politicians must be restoring the public’s faith in the benefits of free trade. If that means shelving the TPP, so be it; a study commissioned by the C.D. Howe Institute says the gains for Canada from the agreement would be negligible in any case. There are other ways to gain market access. Kevin Lynch, the former clerk of the Privy Council who is now vice-chairman of Bank of Montreal, and Tiff Macklem, the dean of the Rotman School of Management and previously the No. 2 at the Bank of Canada, in March called for a revival of the Team Canada trade missions of the 1990s. The “Canada” brand will open more doors than any province can on its own. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau next goes to India, he should take the premiers and executives with him. And he should definitely host a proper party.