Simon Reisman: a free trader who served his country well

Top negotiator was part of every major trade pact since 1947

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The first thing anyone noticed about Simon Reisman's office was the black rotary phone. At the dawn of the digital age, he insisted on this relic of an earlier era, almost as a condition of accepting his ambassador-rank appointment as Canada's negotiator in the free-trade talks with the United States in 1986.

No beige touchtone phone for Simon. Not even a hold button. Just an old black phone they had installed especially for him.

It was the only thing about Simon Reisman that was out of date. For the rest, he was forward-looking, a visionary, bold and energetic until his death, at 88 on Sunday, of complications from heart surgery.

He leaves his beloved wife, Connie, of some 60 years, and three children. He also leaves a legacy in trade liberalization that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Consider: He was present as Canada's negotiator at the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in 1947. He negotiated the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact, signed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. And he was the principal negotiator of the Canada- U.S. Free-Trade Agreement in 1987, under which our exports to the U.S. have tripled.

Three generations of Canadians have benefitted from his vision. Millions of Canadians, in our export reliant-economy, owe their jobs to this remarkable man. Yet most Canadians have never heard of him.

But in Canadian-government circles and among trade-policy experts worldwide, he was a legend.

He was also, as Brian Mulroney said in a speech last fall, "tough as nails." It was one of the two reasons why, as prime minister in 1986, he asked Reisman to lead the free-trade talks with the United States. The other was his institutional memory. He knew everything there was to know about about bilateral and multilateral trade.

"When I sat down to think about who could do this, there was only person on my list," Mulroney said yesterday from his winter home in Florida. "He did a brilliant job. And he was a delight to work with."

He was also known for eating people alive. The first time I went to see him, at the trade negotiations office in June of 1986, I was terrified at the prospect of meeting him. I was writing a TV address to the nation for the prime minister, announcing the trade talks with the U.S. Reisman knew everything about it. I knew nothing.

"Come on in," he said with a big smile and a friendly wave. "What can I do for you, young man?" He couldn't have been nicer. And he couldn't have been more helpful.

I had unwittingly discovered his secret. There were two Reismans, the public figure who intimidated everyone, and the private gentleman of the old school. "Are you motoring back to Ottawa?" he once asked me after a conference in Montreal.

The public figure, on instructions of his government, walked out on the free-trade talks just two weeks before the negotiating deadline of Oct. 3, 1986. "If it weren't for you, we could have had a deal a year earlier," U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, later told him.

"Yeah," Reisman retorted, "if we settled on your terms."

Canada's deal-breaker in those talks wasn't tariff barriers, it wasn't whether wine would be in and beer would be out of the deal, it was the dispute-settlement panels that formed the heart of the FTA and later, the NAFTA. It was only when Reisman walked away from the table, and blasted the Americans in the media, that Canada got the attention of the Reagan administration.

The last time I saw Reisman, he and Connie were attending a tribute dinner for Mulroney last October on the 20th anniversary of the Free Trade Agreement. The organizers of the event, the Montreal office of the Fraser Institute, had thoughtfully invited the Reismans to the head table and graciously seated them in a place of honour.

When Mulroney paid tribute to Reisman's role in negotiating the FTA, the room erupted in such an ovation that Reisman got to his feet, and in his clear, resonant voice, said, "thank you, Prime Minister."

He addressed all his prime ministers that way, even after they left office. He served them, and our country, with exceptional distinction. Canada is deeply indebted to him for a full life that has enriched us all.

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard