Ottawa A-list bids farewell to a father of free trade

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Near the end of his valedictory remarks on the occasion of his retirement as president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Tom d'Aquino said the council's influence had little to do with its member companies having $800 billion a year of sales.

Actually, that's half the Canadian economy. And money talks, no less in the corridors of power than in the towers of the financial district.

But d'Aquino had a point. During the three decades he has led Canada's exclusive club of the country's 150 top CEOs, the business lobby group has been known as much for the force of its ideas as for its financial clout.

But it wouldn't have had one without the other. And it wouldn't be a factor in Canadian policy debates without d'Aquino, who has built it from the ground up. The CCCE, initials that make it sound like the old Soviet Union, is the rebranded Business Council on National Issues. There isn't a major issue of public policy, from free trade to climate change, on which the council hasn't taken a position in the nearly 30 years d'Aquino has been running it.

His marathon five-hour tribute evening on Monday at the National Gallery of Canada was organized a lot more along the lines of a state dinner than a retirement party. It was, in fact, a unique gathering of the Canadian establishment.

No one would be surprised if Democracy Watch demanded the guest list and howled at the outrage of the corporate elite rubbing shoulders with the political class - the people who own the country socializing with the ones who run it.

To begin with, three prime ministers, including the present one, came and spoke at the event. Stephen Harper doesn't do dinner out. And he didn't stay for this one, a black-tie gala in the Great Hall of the Gallery just down from Parliament Hill. That he showed up at all, and spoke graciously for 10 minutes, was a statement in itself.

The two former prime ministers, Paul Martin and Joe Clark, provided proof that politicians develop a much better sense of humour after they've left office. A fourth, Brian Mulroney, called personally with his regrets.

Three seemed to be the winning number in the room. There were three clerks of the Privy Council, the incumbent Wayne Wouters, and two of his predecessors as secretary to the cabinet and head of the public service, Kevin Lynch and Mel Cappe.

There were three former U.S. ambassadors to Canada, Gordon Giffin, Paul Cellucci and David Wilkins.

There were more than three cabinet ministers, however, all from top portfolios - Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Industry Minister Tony Clement, Trade Minister Stockwell Day and Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

There were two chief justices, Beverley McLachlin from the Supreme Court and Allan Lutfy from the Federal Court of Canada, sitting backs to each other at adjacent tables. There were two speakers, Peter Milliken from the House and Noel Kinsella from the Senate.

There were two governors of the Bank of Canada, the current one, Mark Carney, and a previous one, Gordon Thiessen.

There were two premiers of Quebec, Jean Charest and Pierre Marc Johnson.

Charest, one of 16 speakers during the evening (that's not a typo) was one of the two funniest (the other was Flaherty, with Clark and Martin receiving honourable mentions).

There were two Beaudoins, Laurent and Pierre, père et fils. And there were two presenters, RBC chairman Gord Nixon and Power Corp co-chairperson Paul Desmarais Jr.

To hear some of the tributes lavished on d'Aquino as an early advocate of open markets and free trade, you'd think he was the father of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and this was with Donald Macdonald, Derek Burney and Michael Hart all in the room.

It was Macdonald's landmark royal commission on the economy that famously recommended a "leap of faith" on free trade in 1985. It was Burney, as the PM's chief of staff in Washington on the night the deal was made in 1987, who replied, "Yes, Prime Minister" when asked if it "was better than what we've got." And it was Hart, now Simon Reisman Professor at Carleton University, who was a key member of the negotiating team that got the FTA, which Harper called "the most important economic achievement since the Second World War."

"Every victory has 1,000 fathers," mused one of them, encountered at the cloakroom on his way out.

Tom d'Aquino was legitimately one of those 1,000 fathers. And when the going got tough in the famous free-trade election of 1988, he got going, mobilizing his members in support of the deal.

Looking back on the tumult and turmoil of those days, we are left to wonder what all the dissent was about.

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