TORONTO, DEC. 11 -- Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made public the long-awaited final text of the Canada-U.S. trade agreement today as his allies hinted that he may call an election next year that would effectively allow voters to ratify or reject the pact.
The 315-page agreement, which spells out in detail a schedule for the elimination of all tariffs between Canada and the United States in the next decade, has emerged as the number-one issue for Canadians, eclipsing public interest in such concerns as the economy and superpower negotiations to reduce nuclear arms.
The two national opposition parties in Canada already have fiercely attacked the trade pact, even before looking at the fine print. Liberal Party leader John Turner said he will tear up the agreement if his party wins the next election.
Recent polls here taken before the final text was released indicate that opinion on the deal is almost evenly divided.
"I think what we're dealing with in terms of public opinion is really a hung jury," said pollster Angus Reid. "What I find interesting is the way the free trade issue has changed the political dynamic of this country. It has changed, and is changing, the underlying political forces in this country. This has become, if you will, a barn-burner issue."
The issue has brought to the surface the feelings of admiration, envy, fear and reproach that Canadians harbor toward their powerful southern neighbor.
Labor unions and many intellectuals fear that a deal that more closely integrates the U.S. and Canadian economies will ultimately force Canadians to abandon key elements of their more generous social welfare system, inevitably involve Canada in U.S. world struggles and result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs as multinational corporations, no longer facing tariff barriers, move to the warmer U.S. Sunbelt.
However, for consumer groups, the deal means cheaper prices. And for businesses and mining and energy interests, the agreement provides secure access to the huge U.S. market.
In Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter sent the text of the agreement to Congress today.
In an apparent effort to head off political opposition of special interest groups in both countries who have threatened to try to derail the pact, refinements were made to the 30-page draft outline that was approved on Oct. 4. Canadian magazines, for example, got back preferential postal rates that had been withdrawn in the draft agreement. At the same time, U.S. maritime interests were assured that only they, and not Canadian vessels, would be allowed to ship goods within the United States.
The treaty provides explicit assurance to U.S. customers that Canadian energy producers will not cut off supplies even in times of shortage or other emergencies.
U.S. and Canadian negotiators reportedly wrangled for a long time on the structure of a new joint trade panel with binding powers to settle trade disputes between the two countries.
The last time Canada negotiated a comprehensive trade deal with the United States, in 1911, voters in this country threw out the government and scrapped the agreement. The battle cry of opponents then was "No Truck or Trade with the Yankees."
If he should come to power, Turner could make good on his vow to scrap the agreement by invoking a provision that either country can withdraw from the agreement on six months' notice.
However, the early indications are that the tentative pact is serving to improve Mulroney's political fortunes. For more than a year, his Progressive Conservative Party, plagued by a string of scandals, has ranked a poor third in the polls. But surveys taken in late November and early this month, after Mulroney began his cross-country campaign to sell Canadians on the deal, indicate that the three national political parties are now almost in a dead heat.
Mulroney is not legally required to call an election until the fall of 1989. But Conservative Party President William Jarvis, clearly buoyed by the new polls, told reporters yesterday that the chances of an election early next year have increased "moderately" and will improve if the party's standing in the polls holds in the months ahead. Jarvis said the party does not have to be first in the polls to call an election.
Other Mulroney aides also have said privately that they are confident that the prime minister will call an election before the trade agreement begins to go into effect in January 1989.
When he met with provincial premiers late last month, Mulroney won broad public approval for shedding his mantle of conciliation and taking a tough stance with them. Commentators compared his new style to that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
"This attitude will be more effective in political terms, more convincing for Canadians who, in growing numbers, recognize that their country cannot avoid this agreement any more than Western Europe avoided the need to create a Common Market," wrote Michel Roy, editor of Montreal's La Presse.
The final text of the agreement will be debated in the Canadian House of Commons next week. It is to be signed by Mulroney and President Reagan on Jan. 2.
The heads of the two U.S. congressional committees that will play a lead role in assessing the agreement -- House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) -- told the Reagan administration a week ago that a crowded schedule will prevent them from holding hearings on the Canadian agreement until June. They promised, though, that Congress would vote on the pact before adjourning next fall.
Opposition leaders in Canada are pressing Mulroney to wait until Congress acts before taking a final vote in Parliament, although it appears doubtful that he will do so. Because of the Conservatives' large majority in Parliament, it does not appear that Mulroney will face any obstacles in getting legislative approval here.
The leading Canadian opponents of the trade pact are the country's militant trade unions and its fervently nationalistic intellectual community. At a rally here a few days ago, author Margaret Atwood recited a poem written for the occasion entitled, "The Cremation of Almost Everything." Nature writer Farley Mowat spun a vision of Canada in 2000 as completely under the control of the United States because of the trade agreement. Writer Rick Salutin said, with a straight face, "We could lose everything, even our language. Eh?"
Staff writer Stuart Auerbach in Washington contributed to this report.