Bill Dymond, a veteran of Canadian trade and other negotiations, a mainstay of Carleton University’s Centre for Trade Policy and Law over the past 10 years and a frequent contributor to Policy Options, passed away last November 24, after a brief but brave struggle with cancer. He was 67.

Bill was in many ways the Horace Rumpole of Canadian trade policy. What you saw and heard was what you got. A bit rumpled and sometimes gruff, easygoing about clothes, entertainment and cars, but demanding in wine and food, he had a penetrating intellect and a prodigious knowledge of history, literature and, of course, trade and economic policy. In his reading, professional and intellectual pursuits, he displayed wide interests and rigorous standards. Few people I know would decide to take one of Joseph Schumpeter’s dense tomes with them on a holiday cruise, but Bill did, as well as books on military history and a potboiler or two.

He adored a succession of dogs and regularly walked Willie, the most recent incumbent, along the river in Ottawa’s New Edinburgh neighbourhood. Ironically, for a man who chose diplomacy as a career, he did not much like small talk, or the idle chatter that marks diplomatic receptions. For him, diplomacy was a matter of policy and negotiations, not relationships and cocktail parties. I remember well a time we were both in Stockholm for a conference hosted by the Swedish foreign minister. At a reception, I could not find him, until a waiter pointed me to a solitary figure seated in another room, book in one hand, cigarette in the other, a glass of wine on the table. When I told him we were supposed to be mingling and chatting, he said, “You go ahead, you like it and are good at it. I hate it.” Truth be told, I shared his views and we vowed that in future, we would find better ways to waste our time. I retired that year and he five years later.

He came to Ottawa in 1967, armed with a brand new MA in economics, and joined the Department of External Affairs, where he was, uncharacteristically, assigned to the economic division. There he found his métier and developed an outstanding grasp of the intricacies of trade policy. For the next 33 years, he was involved in a wide range of trade negotiations, from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to bilateral air agreements and a multilateral investment accord. Part of his career was spent at Industry, Trade and Commerce, but most of it was at External Affairs and its successors. Abroad, he served in Geneva, Brussels, Washington and Brasilia. Even after his retirement, Indian Affairs asked him to take on the negotiation of native land claims. He worked with two groups in the interior of British Columbia, the Yale Nation and the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, and was able to sign off on both negotiations.

Bill was in many ways the Horace Rumpole of Canadian trade policy. What you saw and heard was what you got. A bit rumpled and sometimes gruff, easygoing about clothes, entertainment and cars, but demanding in wine and food, he had a penetrating intellect and a prodigious knowledge of history, literature and, of course, trade and economic policy.

The pinnacle of Bill Dymond’s professional career was achieved as a key member of the team that negotiated the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement. It proved to be a terrific but all-consuming assignment and defined who he was for the rest of his life. Bill captured well the special bond among those of us who worked on the negotiations from beginning to end by reminding us of the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered —
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. 

After retiring in 2000, Bill moved to Carleton to become director of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law; later, he was its senior executive fellow, a perch that allowed him to train a new generation of trade negotiators, to work with other governments on such matters as accession to the World Trade Organization and, most importantly, to write. Bill loved to write and he was good at it, as a matter both of craft and of intellectual rigour.

Some pieces took more work and spirited debate than others. We did a lot together, from Decision at Midnight, our memoir of the free trade negotiations, to commentaries for the C.D. Howe Institute and articles for Policy Options, but some he did alone, such as his reviews of military history, or in collaboration with others, particularly Derek Burney, our former ambassador to the United States and chief of staff to Prime Minister Mulroney during the Free Trade Agreement talks.

Whether advising ministers or students, Bill always took the same approach: What is the problem? What are you trying to get done? What tools do you have at your disposal? What is the impact likely to be? What are the costs and benefits? What are the rules? Years of experience had taught him that answering these questions honestly usually resulted in good public policy. At the same time, he never deviated from the basic rule of public policy: officials advise, ministers decide, officials implement. Retirement, however, provided him with the ability to point not only to the shortcomings of poor advice, but also to the perils of misguided decisions or improper implementation.

His most important intellectual contribution came in analyzing the changing nature of international trade and production and the implications of these changes for evaluating trade and trade policy options.

For more than 15 years we tried to puzzle through the implications of something that seemed more obvious to us than to others: that increases in modern trade and investment flows are a matter of much more than just straight-line growth. Firms are reworking the way they organize production, first along national lines and then, increasingly, along international ones. Complex value chains that allow firms to disaggregate production into many discrete steps and disperse them widely around the globe are leading to much more trade and investment, many more players and interests, and new opportunities and problems.

As the contours of trade and production changed, the pressure on governments to adapt their trade and related policies mounted. The political economy of trade in the founding years of the 1947 GATT gave way to that of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and its successors. As we pointed out in article after article, trade and investment are dynamic activities, and government’s policy needs to be equally dynamic to remain connected to the real world of commerce. Fortunately, government’s ability to shape trade and investment flows has been reduced to some marginal tinkering. Through the trade regime, governments have steadily agreed to reduce their ability to interfere in the economy, allowing markets to function more effectively. Government’s role is now largely negative, through illconceived trade remedy measures, over-zealous border administration and myopic regulatory measures.

Finding ways to discipline and/or eliminate such measures was proving as great a challenge as the first efforts to address border barriers.

In his teaching and writing, Bill’s point of departure was usually one of skepticism about the claims advanced by government apologists, a skepticism drilled into him by years of confronting colleagues too easily mesmerized by the importance of whatever file they had been assigned.

His years in Brussels, for example, inured him to the claims of Ottawa’s Atlanticists and to their 40-year quest for a special relationship with Europe. In his view, there was little to be said in favour of the Canada-EU negotiations. Europe already enjoyed good access to the Canadian market and was unlikely to make changes that would be of value to Canadian exporters. Canada is just not important enough in the European scheme of things. The image of a herd of provincial officials cluttering the negotiating table added to the contempt with which he viewed this political exercise.

Bill was similarly skeptical of government efforts to broaden or deepen other trade relationships, all of which lacked the benefit of proximity and market, linguistic and other similarities enjoyed by the United States. Canada’s historic decision to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States had married policy with geographic, linguistic and other factors and facilitated the growth of Canada’s most natural trading relationship. Efforts to strengthen relations with others need to be complementary to that reality, rather than competitive.

During his years at Carleton, Bill was devoted to finding ways of bridging the divide between scholars and practitioners. With his more than 30 years of practical experience, he was as critical of officials who practise do-it-yourself economics as he was of academics who assume away the reality of politics. Bill found do-it-yourself economics — the felicitous phrase contributed by former OECD chief economist David Henderson — a particularly apt description of the kind of shoddy analysis that often masquerades as economic wisdom in ministerial briefs, speeches by industrial leaders or newspaper editorials. In our many joint training sessions, he never tired of warning our audiences of young officials of the seductive danger of fooling themselves about such matters, from fancy charts illustrating the mythical value of bilateral trade flows to false claims about the number of jobs created by exports.

As hard as he could be on his former colleagues, he was equally insistent that his new university colleagues not get carried away with their intricate theories and models, few of which provided any insight into the real world of policy-making.

On November 30, 2010, at a moving memorial service at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in New Edinburgh, nearly 300 friends and family joined in celebrating Bill’s life. He had lived a good life and a productive one. He was loved by many and will be missed by more.

Carleton University has established a scholarship in Bill’s memory for students entering the trade stream at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, responding to his dedication to improving the intellectual capital of the next generation of officials.

Photo: Shutterstock

Michael Hart
Michael Hart is professor and Simon Reisman Chair in Trade Policy at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Over the past two summers he has taught a course on scientific uncertainty and public policy focused on climate change.

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