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If there was anything that you ever wanted to know about 1965’s Autopact but were afraid to ask, then this extremely well-researched, written and conceived book is for you. Based solidly on archival documents, supplemented with interviews, including one with Simon Reisman, the agreement’s Tasmanian devil cum negotiator, and an extensive secondary bibliography, Autopact takes the reader behind the scenes and into the discussions among those involved on both sides. Dimitry Anastakis focuses almost exclusively on those events that led into the Autopact, as well as its aftermath, but especially on the negotiations themselves. As a result, he writes, this book is not about the period’s political and economic history except insofar as it impinges upon the march to Autopact happiness, at least for the Canadians. While a few other recent contributions to the historiography have dealt with elements of the agreement, for example, my own Dancing Around the Elephant (2007) and Greg Donaghy, Tolerant Allies: Canada and the United States, 1963-68 (2002), Anastakis’ contribution is the first historical work to deal exhaustively with the subject. Given its thoroughness, there need not be another.
Clearly, the agreement was important for Ontario—the province was the big winner in the Autopact sweeps, even though Queen’s Park, completely and utterly disinterested in what was being negotiated in 1964, was not a part of the story. Trade agreements were federal matters and provincial politicians were unlikely then to get involved in the discussions no matter how they might affect provincial prosperity. It eventually led to the province’s most important industry, employing hundreds of thousands with good wages and benefits and contributing billions to provincial coffers over the years. It also solidified the economies of a number of Ontario cities, including Oakville, Oshawa, St. Catharines, St. Thomas and Windsor, and as well as Ste. Thérèse, Quebec. In more recent years some automobile plants, like those in St. Catharines and Ste. Thérèse have closed, but this does not minimize their contribution to local employment over several decades. To this must also be added the activities of the parts manufacturers.
An inevitable charge arises with any discussion of the Autopact, that it was a part of the “sell-out” of Canadian industry to US interests, or at least the continuing integration of the Canadian economy into that of the United States. However, as I have shown in my work, and as Anastakis does here, what was the alternative? Certainly American interests bought companies in Canada, (and Canadians bought in the US), but governments operate within certain limitations and one of those is to provide, as much as possible, a comfortable living for citizens. The Autopact and associated industries helped to accomplish that for many thousands of Canadians. Moreover, the automobile companies already were American-owned and any talk of a Canadian “people’s car” in the 1960s was fantasy, as the author demonstrates. What is also clear from the book is that Ottawa played hardball, as Reisman and his team, backed by committed and unwavering politicians, more than got the better of their US counterparts. In the end, even the ultra-nationalist minister of finance, Walter Gordon, he of the 1963 budget’s infamous takeover tax, welcomed the agreement for what it provided Canadians.
To be fair, Canada’s success was also partly because the Big Three themselves, and especially Ford and Chrysler, were keen on the Canadian plan for a variety of reasons, like lower wage rates and a cheap currency vis-à-vis the US dollar. As the author points out, the role of Henry Ford II was crucial in convincing President Johnson to sign on and then take an active role in defending it in Congress. Why? Perhaps because that was what “the market” was deciding. This could be styled one of the first indications of the globalization that was to sweep the world in years to come—American companies chose to be stateless by favouring Canada over their own country. “Loyalty” to the United States went out with yesterday’s dishwater. However, there was another, contrary, phenomenon at work as well; the Autopact was an example of government intervention in the marketplace and “State directed production goals were now the order of the day.”(145) The results speak for themselves in terms of employment, wages, benefits and general quality of life for those who participated. Might this be a lesson for the 21st century?
This excellent book is a must-read for anyone interested in the context surrounding the Autopact. It hearkens back to a simpler era where the role of government counted and where Canadians were more confident of their own abilities as well as having a more definite idea as to where they wanted to go and how to get there.