In the renewed debate about whether or not Canada should pursue closer integration with the U.S., both sides have used recent poll data to back their case. But the polls only tell us so much, and the questions and answers being compared are often not even the same.
The pro-free-traders use numbers showing that Canadians are increasingly "supportive of free trade," an inclination rooted in a realpolitik that reflects an understanding of U.S. power. From this perspective, Canadians, having lived with free trade for almost 15 years, feel a certain inevitability about the relationship. It is hard to imagine anything else.
Those who oppose further integration into the U.S. economy can demonstrate that Canadians worry about becoming Americanized. This reflects Canadians’ long-held values and their equally long wariness of American power and possessive individualism.
The National Post recently ran a headline declaring that a Pollara poll done for the Liberal Party found 66% of Canadians wanted "closer economic ties to the United States to increase their standard of living." But while the poll indeed suggests strong support for free trade, it also reinforces another poll that shows Canadians feel the U.S. has gained far more from the deal.
An Environics poll conducted this past summer shows that 67% of Canadians believe the U.S. benefits more from our two-way trade. Only 44% felt that way in 1981 - almost 10 years before the first free-trade deal was signed. Canadians believe (by implication at least) that the situation was fairer without the trade agreements. A survey done last summer by Ekos Research Associates found that only 37% of Canadians thought the impact of NAFTA had been positive.
The substantive Ekos Research polling demonstrates just how different our respective cultures are. When asked "What does it mean to be a Canadian/American ?", 64% of Canadians thought leaving a healthy environment to future generations was important. Only 53% of Americans felt this way. While 73% of Americans tied their identity to the opportunity to "live the good life", just 58% of Canadians did so.
48% of Canadians identify with having social and health programs for everyone while only 31% of Americans do. And 31% of Canadians say "paying taxes" is a key feature of being Canadian. Just 14% of Americans feel this way.
So what are we to make of all these numbers? This question is extremely important, given the powerful new push to expand NAFTA and pursue "deep integration" with the U.S. Both Finance Minister John Manley and Bank of Canada head David Dodge have expressed tacit support of a coalition of business think-tanks which are promoting closer economic and political ties.
The sometimes-contradictory poll numbers on closer economic ties and what they mean for Canada reflect the fact that we have not had a serious public debate about the impact of free trade since the election of 1988. Canadians seem resigned to closer economic ties with the U.S., while feeling instinctively that we could lose our sovereignty and our highly-valued identity as Canadians if we do. The lack of debate has meant that Canadians have not had the opportunity to consider alternative policies.
Ottawa has no mandate to expand these trade agreements. It is time for an independent public inquiry into the impact of free-trade before we sign any more far-reaching agreements.