Making Free Trade Visible

While most people are familiar with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) implemented in 1994, many don’t realize that it was preceded by the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in 1988. It was, in fact, the galvanizing issues of a contentious election in 1988 that saw its proponent conservative Brian Mulroney become prime minister.

The debates leading up to the elections were pivotal, because it was clear that free trade was neither ‘free’ nor ‘trade’; the Mulroney trade deal, as it came to be known, proposed a radical restructuring in support of the neoliberal agenda of Reagan, Thatcher and other conservative forces. It was a rare moment when business people explicitly defended capitalism in the mainstream media; even the liberals opposed the deal on nationalist grounds.

The free trade election also catalyzed a restructuring of progressive social movements, giving birth to new coalitions such as the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice. During that period, I was organizing monthly Naming the Moment workshops that brought together activists working on diverse issues: poverty, labour, women’s issues, anti-racism church, environment, peace.

Everyone could see that their interests were threatened by the proposed free trade deal. It was hard, however, to argue what would be the specific impacts, when the proposal was still speculative. And the public discourse was vague, focusing on new and vague concepts like “globalization,” always assumed to be progressive and good for economy. So a group of artists decided to photograph and interview people from diverse sectors about how they imagined free trade would impact their constituency and work.

We mounted the exhibit, “Making Free Trade Visible,” as part of the 1988 Mayworks Festival.

My three contributions revealed the concerns of people in three sectors: community-based day care, immigrant workers in the garment industry, and liberation theologians in the progressive church. If you read the texts accompanying these photos, you can note how many of their fears at that time were justified.

The photo panels were exhibited at the Partisan Gallery on Queen Street West, Toronto in May, 1988.