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Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade/Library and Archives Canada.

Derek Burney


“Burney was a master at handling – even driving – Canada’s complex relations with the United States and pursuing Canada’s interests (and managing its sensitivities) while building respect and friendship, too. His career is a window on a modern Canada’s ties with the world.”

Robert B. Zoellick
President of the World Bank (2007-2012)


Derek Burney paved the way for Canada’s free trade agreement with the United States. As Assistant Undersecretary for Trade and Economic Policy, he produced a review of Canadian trade policy urging for a more secure trading relationship with the United States and played an important role organizing bilateral summits intended to draw Canada and the U.S. into a free trade agreement. In 1987, Burney became chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and continued his work toward North American free trade. U.S. President Ronald Reagan agreed to enter into negotiations for a free trade agreement but set a deadline to present the deal for Congressional review by midnight on October 5. After months of impasse, Burney joined the negotiating team in Washington for a final round of talks. As American negotiators dug their heels on a dispute settlement mechanism, Burney and the negotiating team held out to secure a deal that eliminated tariffs and other barriers to trade. Within minutes of President Reagan’s deadline, the two sides reached an agreement that satisfied Canadian objectives. That deal became the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement.

Derek Burney (third from right), John Manley, Paul Tellier, and David Mulroney sit with village elders from the Zhari District as part of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan. Louie Palu/Canadian Press.

Burney joined the Canadian Foreign Service in 1963. After his first posting in Japan, Burney returned to Ottawa to work as senior departmental assistant to Don Jamieson, Secretary of State for External Affairs. Burney was appointed Ambassador to Korea from 1978 to 1980, then returned to Ottawa as Assistant Undersecretary for Trade and Economic Policy. After his time with the Prime Minister’s Office, Burney was appointed Ambassador to the United States.

Burney was born in Fort William, Ontario in 1939. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from Queen’s University. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition for his service as a diplomat.

Further reading:

Burney, Derek Hudson. Getting it Done: A Memoir. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Hart, Michael, Bill Dymond, and Colin Robertson. Decision at midnight: inside the Canada-US free-trade negotiations. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1994.

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