The Speech That Delayed Free Trade Between the US and Canada for a Lifetime

Speaker of the House Champ Clark, D-Mo.

The idea of reciprocal trade between the US and Canada was nothing new: the nations had it with the Reciprocity Treaty between 1855 and 1866, when the US Congress voted to cancel it. After the Canadian confederation in 1867, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald tried to resurrect the agreement to no avail, and Canadian politics in turn grew more protectionist.

Although President William Howard Taft was a Republican and Republicans were the protectionist party that had successfully with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff only slightly reduced tariffs, he thought that free trade between America’s neighbor to the north would be good for both nations, thus he and his administration tried to negotiate an agreement with Canada. This proposal was well-received at the time, and in the House the proposal passed by a commanding margin of 268-89 on April 21, 1911. The vote split Republicans and received all but ten Democratic votes. The Senate passed the bill 53-27 on July 22, 1911 again splitting Republicans and all but three Democratic senators voted for. Despite overwhelming Democratic support, it was the speech of the Democratic Speaker of the House, Champ Clark of Missouri, which brought this proposal’s doom. Speaking in support before the House, Clark rejoiced, “I look forward to the time when the American flag will fly over every square foot of British North America up to the North Pole. The people of Canada are of our blood and language” (Allan, 17). Clark proceeded to suggest that this measure was the first step to the eventual annexation of Canada, which met with applause in the House. This didn’t sit well with Canadians, who had no wish to be subject to Manifest Destiny and in the 1911 election voted to oust the government of Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, widely regarded as Canada’s greatest, for Conservative Robert Borden, who had used Clark’s speech to great effect during his campaign and pulled Canada out of the agreement. Canada in that day and age had a patriotism that was tied with sticking with Britain rather than independent identity. Clark would remain speaker until 1919, helping President Woodrow Wilson pass his New Freedom policies but opposing American entry into World War I. He would after losing reelection in 1920 die two days before he was to leave office in 1921.

Despite Democratic emphasis on lower tariffs during the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations and Eisenhower’s support of continuing presidential powers under the Reciprocal Trade Act, an agreement between the US and Canada remained dead. However, trade barriers did start to lower between the nations starting in 1935 with a number of bilateral agreements. It would be up to an American born in 1911 to at last fulfill reciprocal trade with Canada: Ronald Reagan.

In 1982, Canada ended the power of British parliament to amend the Constitution, making Canada a sovereign nation. Patriotism was no longer tied to affinity with Britain yet was tied to an independent Canadian identity. This time, both governments were run by conservative politicians: in Canada Brian Mulroney and in America Ronald Reagan. In May 1986, Canada initiated negotiations with the United States and this time it was Liberal politicians who brought up the specter of American domination. Liberal leader John Turner strongly opposed the agreement and New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent held that Canada would become in all but name the “51st state” of the US (Blake, 22).
In the US, the debate was far less controversial than in 1911, and on October 4, 1987, the US and Canada reached an agreement and on January 2, 1988 it was signed. In the House the proposal passed 366-40 on August 9, 1988 and in the Senate 83-9 on September 19, 1988, with the votes not breaking along liberal-conservative lines. This agreement would stick until it was replaced with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated by George Bush, Mulroney, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico.


Allan, C. (2009). Bomb Canada: And other unkind remarks in the American media. Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Blake, R.B. (2007). Transforming the nation: Canada and Brian Mulroney. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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