In the renewed debate about whether or not Canada should pursue closer integration with the United States, both sides have used recent polling 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 kind of realpolitik that reflects an understanding of U.S. power. From this perspective, Canadians, having lived with free trade for almost fifteen 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 blared a headline declaring that a Pollara poll done for the Liberal party found 66 per cent of Canadians wanted “closer economic ties to the United States to increase their standard of living.” Yet, an Environics poll conducted this past summer shows that 67 per cent of Canadians believe the U.S. benefits more from our two-way trade. Only 44 per cent felt that way in 1981 — almost ten years before the first free-trade deal was signed. A survey done last summer by Ekos Research Associates found that only 37 per cent of Canadians thought the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been positive.

A poll conducted in June for the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC) shows 41 per cent of Canadians believe the U.S. does better at providing good job opportunities for its best-educated workers than Canada, versus 33 per cent who preferred our own job record. Yet the same poll demonstrates that Canadians by a huge majority, 73 per cent, believe that Canada nevertheless provides a “better quality of life for its people” than the U.S. It is here that the question of values begins to dominate the opinions expressed by Canadians.

Unique identity

All of the recent polling suggests Canadians want to keep their unique identity. An Ekos survey in May found that 58 per cent of Canadians think we have become more like Americans over the past ten years. Fifty-two per cent would “like to see Canada become less like the U.S.,” while just 12 per cent want to become more like Americans.

It seems the more “American” the Americans become, the more Canadians reel back from closer ties with the U.S. In the immediate post-September 11 period there was a dramatic jump in support. According to the October 2001 CRIC survey, only 13 per cent wanted more distant ties. But as the U.S. became increasingly unilateral towards Canada and the world, many Canadians radically altered their opinion. By the summer, CRIC polling showed fully 35 per cent wanted more distant ties.

At least part of the explanation for those wanting to distance Canada from our southern neighbour has to do with our deteriorating trade relationship. Residents of British Columbia and Saskatchewan were most likely (at 42 per cent) to want more distant ties. Both provinces have recently experienced the negative impact of U.S. trade policy — the softwood lumber dispute in British Columbia and the huge increase in trade-distorting U.S. farm subsidies in Saskatchewan.

The substantive Ekos Research polling of both Canadians and Americans in July demonstrates just how different our respective cultures are. When asked ‘What does it mean to be a Canadian/American?’, 64 per cent of Canadians thought leaving a healthy environment to future generations was important. Only 53 per cent of Americans felt this way. While 73 per cent of Americans tied their identity to the opportunity to “live the good life”, just 58 per cent of Canadians did so.

Forty-eight percent of Canadians identify with having social and health programs for everyone while only 31 per cent of Americans do. And 31 per cent of Canadians say “paying taxes” is a key feature of being Canadian. Just 14 per cent 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. Finance Minister John Manley and David Dodge, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, have both come out recently in tacit support of the work by a coalition of business think-tanks who 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.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...