TORONTO — Voters in Canada's most populous province went to the polls Thursday and were expected to reelect Ontario Premier David Peterson with a mandate to challenge the federal government's free trade initiative with the United States.
An opinion poll last week by Angus Reid Associates showed that 48% of the decided voters backed Peterson's ruling Liberal Party, enough to give it a solid lead over the other parties in the three-party Ontario Legislature.
Polls predicted that the opposition Conservatives would receive 23% of the vote while the socialist New Democratic Party would garner 27%.
An estimated 6.2 million people in 130 voting districts were eligible to cast ballots.
Five seats have been added to the Legislature. When Peterson called the election, his Liberals held 51 seats, the Conservatives under leader Larry Grossman had 50 and the New Democrats under leader Bob Rae held 23. One seat was vacant.
Peterson, 43, asked voters for a mandate to support his stand on federal Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's trade initiative with the United States, which emerged as the key issue in the election in Canada's industrial heartland.
Canada and the United States are negotiating toward a comprehensive pact to lower trade barriers and tariffs. Many Canadians oppose the deal, which they say would cost thousands of jobs in Canada and threaten its cultural and political independence.
The two countries have fought bitter disputes in the last 18 months over U.S. duties on Canadian lumber, while Ottawa has attacked Washington for allegedly escalating the farm subsidy war with Europe at the expense of Canadian farmers.
Peterson believes he can wreck any deal because Ontario's jurisdiction includes certain marketing boards and other areas that would be affected.
He said he would reject an agreement that destroys the 1965 Canada-U.S. auto trade pact, which allows for certain duty-free trade if major car makers meet production ratios and content guidelines.
He also wants a mechanism to settle disputes, safeguards for cultural industries, protection for the "family farm" and screening of foreign investment.
"We're going to have to send a very strong message to Brian Mulroney that Ontario and Ontarians are not going to trade away the heart and soul of this country," Peterson said of the auto pact.
Home to Auto Industry
Ontario is home to the auto makers and is a major trading partner of the United States, accounting for more than 67% of total Canada-U.S. merchandise trade.
Last year, Ontario exported $40.5 billion in goods to the United States, primarily vehicles and auto parts. It imported from America goods valued at $42 billion, also primarily car parts and vehicles.
The Liberals came to power two years ago, ousting the Conservatives who had ruled almost 42 years.
On the eve of the election, more than 2,000 brewery workers in Ontario staged a one-day strike to protest the proposed free-trade pact with the United States, which they fear will wipe out the Canadian beer industry.
The trade issue has sharply divided Ontario's three rival parties.
The Conservatives, backing the policy of Mulroney, strongly support the free-trade initiative as an engine for growth.
The New Democratic Party, founded by the labor movement, opposes free trade because it fears a loss of jobs in the auto, textile, electrical goods, farming and other industries.
A poll this week showed public support for free trade down to 42%, the first time since Mulroney proposed the initiative that support had fallen below 50%.
With an unemployment rate of just 6%, the Ontario economy is booming, and all three parties promised new programs costing billions of dollars.
The Liberals pledged to clean up Lake Ontario's polluted beaches, re-equip public schools and give tax breaks to new-home buyers. The Conservatives would cut income and sales taxes, rescue family farms and finance any dislocation caused by free trade. The New Democrats would subsidize child day care, cut the retirement age to 60 and upgrade the sewer system.
The election is being watched closely by the rest of the nation to see if business-oriented Ontario will turn decisively against the Conservatives, who governed without challenge for so long.
The outcome could have a bearing on the next federal election, due by mid-1989. Mulroney's Conservative government is languishing a poor third in the polls and the New Democrats are enjoying unprecedented national popularity, despite their pledge to withdraw Canada from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.