By Ian Keay, Professor, Queen’s University
After tearing up a long-standing trade agreement between the United States and Canada, a deeply divided, Republican controlled Congress dramatically raises US tariff rates on products predominantly imported from Canada. The federal government in Canada is faced with an acute policy dilemma – there are strong domestic interests pushing for rapid and dramatic retaliation, while other groups, including farmers and landowners, are not nearly so enthusiastic about the prospect of a trade war with our largest and fastest growing trade partner. To complicate matters further, Canada’s European allies are keen to promote the continued globalization of international markets by keeping trade barriers low. The Canadian government ultimately decides to respond to these conflicting forces by re-writing virtually every line in the domestic tariff schedule, explicitly adopting protectionism as a primary policy goal, and increasing average tariffs by more than 50%.
This series of events probably sounds very familiar to Canadians today, but this particular episode in Canada-US trade relations took place over 150 years ago, during the late 1860s and 1870s. John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government introduced the National Policy tariffs as a response to US protectionism just months after his party won the 1878 federal election. Economists and historians have long understood that this response marked a sharp U-turn in Canada-US relations. However, our understanding of this policy, and its consequences for Canadian growth and development, has been hindered by researchers’ reliance on incomplete evidence.Read More »