Simon Reisman, a giant of postwar Canadian public policy, passed away in Ottawa on March 9, after a brief illness. We had the privilege of working with Simon in crafting one of his greatest achievements, the 1988 Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA). During that time we learned not only about his famous temper and spirited language, but also about the workings of his prodigious mind, his skill and craft as a negotiator and his loyalty to his staff and collaborators. The public persona he presented during those negotiations was always colourful and sometimes controversial, but in and around the Trade Negotiations Office (TNO), he inspired us to reach high and pursue our goal boldly and determinedly.
We have fond memories of Simon and will miss him. We will particularly miss his incomparable skill as a racon- teur. Our generation of trade policy practitioners learned much of our craft listening to the stories of our elders and betters, and none more so than Simon. In addition to nego- tiating the FTA, staffers at the TNO attended a master class in trade policy and negotiations. This memorial of Simon reflects some of the lighter moments in our graduate educa- tion at the TNO and later, over lunch, at the Rideau Club.
Simon was born in the Montreal of Duddy Kravitz. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau " who was also born in Montreal in 1919 " noted in Simon’s citation for the 1974 Distinguished Public Service Award that they had grown up in neighbour- hoods not far from each other. Geographically, yes, but cer- tainly not socially or economically. Trudeau also noted that, as signs of esteem, boys from these two neighbourhoods enjoyed throwing stones at each other! Unlike Trudeau, Simon attended a public high school, Baron Byng, and then went on to McGill to take both a BA and an MA in econom- ics. His passion for hands-on learning was evident in his early choice of economics, the most practical of the social sciences.
What he learned at McGill became the basis for a life- long appreciation of the limits of government and the importance of markets. But not immediately. As he never tired of telling us, anyone who is not a socialist during his youth lacks a heart. Anyone who is still a socialist as a man lacks a brain. While at McGill, he dabbled in the kind of socialism that was common on university campuses.
Life at McGill may not have prepared him for the rigours of war, but his advanced degree assured Simon of a post- ing as an officer when he volunteered for the army. As an artillery officer, he distinguished himself during the cam- paigns in Italy and Holland. He survived four years of dep- rivation and trial to become a battle-hardened veteran with a strong commitment to his country and to public service. He also lost the hearing in one ear. From then on, there was a right side and a wrong side if you wanted to get Simon’s attention. At the TNO, not everyone learned to work with this reality. Sitting across from him was a lot smarter than sitting down the table at the wrong end. His partial deafness also explains why Simon never whispered. He spoke with conviction, clearly, loudly and often. There was never a dull moment with Simon in the room.
Simon was in London when he was demobilized and took the opportunity to spend some time at the London School of Economics (LSE), the famed school established by the Fabians at the turn of the century and over its first half-century host to some of the most influential political, social and economic thinkers of the 20th century, ranging from Harold Laski to Friedrich Hayek. Under the lead- ership of William Beveridge, the future father of the British welfare state, the LSE redefined the study of economics as a ”œscience that studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means that have alternative uses.” As such, the LSE became a pioneer in mod- ern economic studies. Simon was much impressed by people like Niki Kaldor and James Meade, men with whom he would later joust as a senior official, and deter- mined to pursue a career as an academic economist. But first he had to return to Montreal to be reunited with his bride, Connie.
While at the LSE, he made a small, prescient purchase. Walking up the Aldwych one day, he stopped to browse in a government bookstore and saw a copy of the British Printing Office version of the 1945 US Proposals for Expansion of World Trade and Employment. He bought it, never realiz- ing what a momentous role he would soon play in pursuit of these proposals.
Back in Canada, Simon planned to further his academic studies at Har- vard, but first he needed to earn some money and start a family. He went to Ottawa and took a position as an econo- mist at the Department of Labour. Sever- al months later he learned of an opening at the more prestigious Department of Finance, and applied. He was interviewed by one of the senior members of the department, a stern-looking Winnipeg- ger named Mitchell Sharp. Simon was offered the job, but at a lower rate of pay than he was earning at the Department of Labour. When he pointed this out to Sharp, he was told that was all that he was worth and that Finance offered other advantages. Simon swallowed his pride but ever after harboured reservations about Sharp, attributing his flinty atti- tude to his Presbyterianism.
Simon never made it to Harvard. Instead, he furthered his education as a Finance man. At the start, he joined the International Economics Division, working with John Deutsch, another giant of Canadian public policy and one of Simon’s most important men- tors as an economist and a public ser- vant. He joined Deutsch, Dana Wilgress, Hector McKinnon and other veterans of the small Canadian trade policy community in pursuing the heady new postwar venture in multi- lateral trade negotiations, first in London, then in Geneva and finally in Havana, Cuba. He was part of the Canadian delegation to the Second Preparatory Committee for the World Trade and Employment Conference in Geneva in 1947, out of which emerged the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and joined Wilgress as his right-hand man in Havana in the negotiations that resulted in the ill- fated International Trade Organization.
His expertise on the GATT became the mainstay of much of his career in Finance: he formed part of the Canadian delegation to GATT meetings throughout the 1950s and again in the 1960s as he rose through the ranks first as a director and then as an assistant deputy minister. He participated in the early rounds of negotiations in Annecy and Torquay and later in the Dillon and Kennedy rounds. From 1955 to 1957 he took a detour from trade policy by accepting a position as assistant director of research for the Gordon Royal Commission. As such, he demonstrated his prowess as an accomplished eco- nomic analyst, joining with Irving Brecher from McGill to produce a research volume on Canada- United States economic rela- tions and directing work on two other research volumes by Jack Young and Roger Anderson. The Young vol- ume, Canadian Commercial Policy, which demonstrated the negative impact of the Canadian tariff on Canada’s economic development, proved particu- larly controversial with the chairman. Gordon did not want it published. It took all of Simon’s powers of persuasion to change his mind, and then it appeared only with a note that the com- missioners did ”œnot accept responsibili- ty for or necessarily approve the statements and opinions which it con- tains.” Time has been much kinder to the analysis prepared by Young than to that espoused by Gordon. Simon was right to insist on its publication.
Early in his career, Simon decided he needed to brush up on his French. As a Montrealer, he was comfortable with street French, but the public ser- vice demanded more. He worked dili- gently but found the subjunctive in particular a tough slog. When his teacher explained he needed it in order to express fear, anxiety or uncertainty, he brought the lessons to an end. Expressions of fear, anxiety or uncer- tainty were not part of his experience.
He returned to Finance in 1957 just in time to deal with such challenges as the Commonwealth Economic Conference hosted by his minister, Donald Fleming, and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s desire to shift 15 per- cent of Canadian trade from the United States to Britain. Simon’s analysis helped to bury this quixotic impulse. By the end of the Diefenbaker years he had become firmly established as one of the leading mandarins in Ottawa, known for his tough talk and sound policy instincts. His no-nonsense style had already become legend. As Tom Kent recounts in his memoirs, Reisman was part of a group of senior officials who met with him and other members of Lester Pearson’s transition team and expressed serious reservations about some of the ideas Kent and Pearson were advancing.
Whether Simon was abrasive or not, Pearson also had confi- dence in him and appointed him in 1964 to take over as deputy of the newly organized Department of Industry. One of the biggest files was what to do about the auto industry and the problems of the small Canadian market. Based on the recommendations of the Bladen Commission, various industrial policy gimmicks soon landed the industry with the threat of a US countervailing duty suit. Wiser heads prevailed and Simon found himself at the head of a senior delegation of officials " includ- ing Jake Warren from Trade and Commerce, Jim Grandy from Finance and Allan Gotlieb from External " butting heads with an American delega- tion headed by Phil Tresize and report- ing to George Ball. President Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Pearson had committed their two governments to finding a constructive solution. That was helpful, but it was up to Simon and his colleagues to find one that would pass congressional muster and fit within the rules of the GATT.
The solution was the Autopact, an ingenious set of asymmetric obliga- tions that allowed automotive parts and assembly plants on both sides of the border to become more integrated and to trade parts and vehicles freely across the border. It allowed the indus- try to rationalize production on a North American basis with full Canadian participation. As a result, the auto industry thrived and soon became the mainstay of the Ontario economy.
In 1968, Simon moved to the Treasury Board as its secretary, i.e. deputy minister. It proved a challenging portfolio. Treasury Board manages the government’s spending, and by the end of the 1960s, government spending was reaching new heights with the prolifer- ation of social and other programs, as well as new federal-provincial revenue- sharing programs. Prime Minister Trudeau and the clerk of the Privy Council, Gordon Robertson, felt that Simon was the right person to bring order to Canada’s spending habits: he was direct, tough as nails, smart as a whip and highly informed, so no one would pull any wool over Simon’s eyes.
Two years later, Simon reached the pinnacle of his public service career, suc- ceeding the legendary Bob Bryce as deputy minister of finance. Simon had by this time built a formidable reputa- tion for toughness, tenacity and intellec- tual brilliance, and as finance deputy, he was well placed to play a pivotal role in every aspect of the government’s agen- da, from trade and industry to health and welfare policy. In August 1971, for example, he led a delegation to meet with US Treasury Secretary John Connally to seek relief from the punitive import measures adopted by President Richard Nixon to address the growing US balance of payments problem. Legend has it that during the discussion, Simon angrily stubbed his cigar on the Secretary’s desk. Not true. Simon liked the story, but also insisted that he would never have behaved in such an uncouth manner. Nevertheless, the story added wonderfully to his feisty reputation.
Simon presided over the making of four budgets, with first Edgar Benson and then John Turner. Two of these budgets coincided with the minority Liberal gov- ernment of 1972-74, with the Liberals depending on the NDP to stay in power. The first four years of the Trudeau gov- ernment had already expanded the role of the federal government considerably, but the minority government threw all restraint out the window, severely straining Simon’s orthodox economic instincts. His legendary temper and penchant for lecturing minis- ters were on full display. His disagreements with the direc- tion of government policy were exacerbated by the appointment of Michael Pitfield to succeed Gordon Robertson as clerk of the Privy Council. They had never gotten along and Simon considered Pitfield too inexperienced for the job. By the end of 1974, Simon con- cluded that he had had enough. Under pension rules he had helped to devise, he was able to include his military years as pensionable time and had thus become eligible for a full pension when he turned 55 in June of 1974. He exercised his right at the end of the year, together with his friend and long-time colleague Jim Grande, and opened a consulting prac- tice. While there was much public con- troversy about the ability of senior public servants to move directly from their gov- ernment offices to a consultancy focused on public policy, Simon and Jim had acted fully within the rules.
Over the next 10 years Simon pur- sued a new career as an adviser to corporate Canada: as a consultant, board member and participant in vari- ous business groups. One of the proj- ects on which he provided advice was the Grand Canal project championed by Newfoundland visionary Thomas Kierans. He also mused that at some point it might be advantageous for Canada to use its vast freshwater resources as negotiating coin in any future trade negotiations. Nothing ever came of either idea, but Simon was from then on identified as promoting bulk water exports to the United States, a major bugaboo of Canadian national- ists and conspiracy theorists.
While this new career proved finan- cially and intellectually rewarding, Simon missed the opportunity to forge public policy and serve broader public interests. On two occasions, therefore, he accepted assignments to serve the government. The first was an offer in 1978 to head a royal commission to investigate the prospects of the Canadian auto industry. The industry had expanded considerably as a result of the 1965 Autopact, but it was now facing new challenges as a result of rapid inroads into North America by the Japanese manufacturers, particularly after the first energy crisis in 1974. Simon recommended that the govern- ment use such industrial policy tools as duty remissions to encourage Japanese " and European " companies to invest in North America and thus expand opportunities for domestic parts manu- facturers and other suppliers. In 1983 he accepted an assignment as chief negotia- tor for Aboriginal land claims in the Western Arctic and succeeded in becom- ing the first, and for many years to come, the only such negotiator to settle Aboriginal land claims to the satisfaction of both the federal government and the affected Aboriginal tribes.
In the fall of 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney approached Simon and asked him to advise him on how he would organize and pursue the negotia- tion of a free trade agreement with the United States. Simon had long been actively engaged in public discussion of the benefits of such an agreement. His views had been increasingly acceptable to Canadian business leaders and provin- cial politicians and, in September, had been recommended by the Macdonald Royal Commission. The government had accepted that recommendation and, encouraged by Simon’s memo, Mulroney appointed him ambassador and chief trade negotiator for Canada, responsible for not only the Canada-US negotiations but also impending multilateral negotia- tions at the GATT in Geneva. Simon could not have wished for a more chal- lenging and potentially rewarding assign- ment. Nearly 40 years of thinking, researching and writing about and then negotiating and implementing trade arrangements with the United States had prepared him as well as any Canadian to tackle the potentially biggest and most difficult negotiation any Canadian gov- ernment had ever undertaken.
Simon immediately set about build- ing a team, finding appropriate quarters for them and preparing a mandate. For the next two years he devoted his considerable energy, experience, insight and tenacity to serving the country and build- ing the legacy of his dreams. It was not an easy task. Free trade was as controversial an issue as the country had ever faced. The government, while politically com- mitted, was at times skittish. The media often proved uninformed and mischie- vous. His former minister and long-time friend, John Turner, now leader of the opposition Liberal Party, had decided that opposing free trade would provide his defining moment in Canadian history. Provincial support was often fickle, as provincial ministers and officials saw the negotiations as coin to be used in the never-ending game of federal-provincial relations. Most challenging of all, howev- er, was the obdurate attitude of the Americans. Starting with the appoint- ment of the much younger and relatively inexperienced Peter Murphy as his oppo- site number, Simon found that the American commitment to free trade was a mile wide and an inch deep. President Ronald Reagan may have enthusiastically welcomed Prime Minister Mulroney’s proposal, but working with the highly decentralized American negotiating team and interpreting the many mixed signals coming out of the US capital ensured very trying negotiations.
We have described the drama and the detail of the negotiations elsewhere (Decision at Midnight, UBC Press, 1994). Suffice it to say that Simon persevered and achieved his vision. In October of 1987 he was able to report to the Prime Minister that Canada had succeeded in concluding an agreement in principle, and two months later, he was able to deliver the final, complete agreement to the Prime Minister. The controversy, however, was not over. Having con- cluded the agreement, Simon the chief negotiator now became Simon the chief advocate. He resigned his posi- tion as chief negotiator and spent the next year tirelessly crisscrossing the country, speaking to audiences large and small, appearing on radio and tele- vision, granting interviews and pen- ning op-eds, explaining to all and sundry that Canada had negotiated a good agreement, one that would bene- fit the country and lead to a stronger, more competitive economy.
Canadians agreed. The 1988 cam- paign focused almost exclusively on the FTA and the government was returned, albeit with a reduced majority. The Liberals and the NDP, joined by a chorus of opposing voices drawn from nationalist, activist and populist camps, pulled out all the rhetorical stops in an effort to convince Canadians that free trade would spell the end of everything from medicare to culture. Business groups, on the other hand, joined the government in putting forth a more realistic picture, and both could be for- given for promising more jobs. Simon stayed on a more economically ortho- dox road. As he had never tired of telling us, trade agreements are about not more jobs, but better jobs, more competitive industries and more and better economic opportunities.
And so it turned out. Similarly to Simon’s first venture into bilateral free trade with the United States, the Autopact, the FTA goaded industry into adjusting and adapting to more open and competitive conditions. The process was at times painful but the results lasting and clear: a stronger, more outward-oriented, more competi- tive economy, providing Canadians with greater prosperity and more choice and more opportunity. For someone who had been ready more than 40 years earlier to embark on a career as an academic economist, this was some achievement.
The FTA entered into force on January 1, 1989, allowing Simon to return to a private life of corporate boards, con- sulting contracts, lunch at the Rideau Club with the Roundtable and more time for his wife, Connie, a succession of dogs and his grandchildren. He also developed a close relationship with Carleton University. He had earlier served on its board of governors, but was now principally interested in the work of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law. One of its associates, Laura Dawson, worked closely with him in producing her Ph.D. dissertation focused on his negotiation of the Autopact and the FTA. He was sup- portive of the analytical and historical work produced by other associates of the centre. In 1998, Carleton honoured him with an honorary degree, and in 2000 it established the Simon Reisman Chair in Trade Policy and the Simon Reisman Lecture to ensure a continued focus on the work that had defined his career.
One of us last spoke to him a few weeks before his death to remind him that the next lecture would be delivered by Tom d’Aquino on March 27. As it turned out, Simon would miss that lec- ture. After a brief illness, he died quietly in his sleep early on the morning of March 9. He lived a full and rewarding life, serv- ing his country with great panache and distinction and leaving a remarkable lega- cy: soldier, economist, author, analyst, negotiator, public servant, husband, father, grandfather, and friend.