Twenty years ago today, the clock clicked down on free trade

Canada finally got the deal but it was very close in the end

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The Gazette, Wedneday, October 3, 2007

Twenty years ago today, Canada and the United States signed the free-trade agreement, as the hands of the clock ticked toward midnight and the expiration of Ronald Reagan's "fast-track authority" to negotiate a deal to be voted "up or down" by Congress, but without amendments.

As Brian Mulroney recounts in his memoirs, it was a "near-run thing." Other actors - notably Derek Burney, Allan Gotlieb and Michael Hart - have written of the dramatic events of Oct. 3, 1987 in their own books. As Mulroney's speechwriter, I was just a bystander but I had a privileged view from "inside the ropes," as they say in golf.

Two days earlier, before flying to Toronto for a day of speeches, Mulroney met with his trade-negotiating team at the VIP lounge on the military side of Uplands Airport in Ottawa. They were flying out to Washington, and he gave them the final instructions of their government: Canada's bottom line was a dispute-settlement mechanism, and unless the Americans were prepared to talk, we were prepared to walk.

That evening, that's exactly what happened. Mulroney was at the York Club, making a major foreign-policy address to a dinner of the Bilderberg Group, hosted by Conrad Black. After the speech, Mulroney called the prime minister's switchboard to be put through to his chief of staff, Derek Burney, in Washington. There was no movement, and he ordered his team home.

Mulroney made the call from a pay phone at the end of a hall - this was before cellphones were in common use. And because I happened to be standing nearby, he asked me to ride out to the airport with him.

"What's the problem with the Americans?" I asked on the drive out.

"No leadership," he said dejectedly, looking out the window.

Yet while we were in the air on the way back to Ottawa, the Americans engaged again, so that when he met his negotiators later in the evening at 24 Sussex, he ordered them back to Washington the next morning. Over the next two days, both sides tried to square the circle of creating trade tribunals that would settle disputes while respecting the sovereignty of each side.

By Saturday night, with the midnight deadline only hours away, the two sides had reached an impasse. The Langevin Block was ablaze in lights when Mulroney arrived from Harrington Lake. Instead of going to his second-floor office, where officials were gathered in the connecting boardroom, he went to the deserted fourth-floor conference room where he had hosted the marathon Meech Lake meeting a few months earlier. There are several phone booths outside, and he was connected to Burney, who told him the Americans couldn't meet Canada's bottom line. The negotiating team recommended there was no agreement.

"This isn't gonna go," said Mulroney, who was dressed in slacks, an open collar shirt and a favourite cardigan.

But he had one more card to play. He wanted to speak to the president, who was at Camp David. The Canadians had been told Reagan was watching a movie and couldn't be disturbed. "Yeah, right, Bedtime for Bonzo," one senior official said bitterly down on the second floor. More likely the Americans weren't anxious for such a call to take place, as the deputy finance minister, Stanley Hartt, would later observe, "given the state of the president's brief."

But Jim Baker, the U.S. treasury secretary who was hosting the talks at his office, had Reagan's full confidence and authority. And he wasn't very anxious for the president and PM to talk, either, inasmuch as he'd been told Mulroney was going to ask how Reagan could make arms deals with the Russians but not trade deals with the Canadians.

Within half an hour, the impasse was broken as Baker suddenly agreed to what the Americans had always refused - independent tribunals to settle trade disputes.

But even after the White House had sent a message to Congress, the clock went past the bewitching hour of midnight as Mulroney, on an open conference call with his team in Washington, ran down a list of questions he had written down on the PM's gold-embossed notepaper.

By this time, a few ministers were gathered in Burney's office next door to Mulroney's, as he canvassed the full team in Washington, asking for a yes or no.

"I guess this is it," said Don Campbell, a senior official who would later become deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and then a top executive with CAE in Montreal.

Finally, Mulroney came to his bottom line, and asked Burney: "Is this better than what we've got?"

Burney's momentous reply was the title of a famous television show: "Yes, Prime Minister."

The rest is history, including the history of the 1988 election, which was transformed into a referendum on free trade.

Looking back on it now, with all the passions it stirred, the free-trade campaign is reminiscent of the flag debate a generation earlier. "What was that all about, Dad?"

A question of identity and country. Now settled.

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