SASKATOON— NAFTA talks between Canada and the U.S. are at a critical juncture as the U.S. continues to push for greater access to Canadian dairy markets and cultural industries while Canada insists on a robust independent rules-based trade system.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters late Wednesday she is not returning to Washington until next week but has dispatched Canada’s lead negotiator Steve Verheul and Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton to probe issues at a “technical level” with their American counterparts.
She said she still believes a three-way Canada-U.S.-Mexico deal “is achievable” even though U.S. President Donald Trump says he is prepared to put his bilateral agreement with Mexico before Congress for approval without Canada’s sign-on by Sept. 30.
Freeland denied her absence from the table for the rest of the week means the political ministers are at a stalemate. But she stressed that in such a complicated negotiation “nothing is done until everything is done.”
Freeland briefed caucus on the talks, and later she and the Liberal government’s team of negotiators including senior PMO aides met behind closed doors with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for an hour and a half.
Freeland continued talks by phone with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in the afternoon and in the evening Freeland again met with the prime minister.
Trudeau, who did not take questions from reporters, told caucus his negotiators were still looking for “a deal that will strengthen our economy, that will create jobs and opportunities for Canadians and we will not sign an unfavourable deal, we’d prefer to not sign a deal.”
Canada’s premiers have until now lined up behind Trudeau’s approach.
But Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said after meeting Trudeau that he had concerns about such talk.
“We cannot move forward with a bad deal,” Moe told reporters, but “I’m not certain we can move forward with no deal either.”
Moe said his province sends 55 per cent of its exports to the U.S. and buys 85 per cent of its imports from Americans, and questioned how trade would move forward in the absence of a deal. “I’m not sure no deal isn’t a bad deal,” he said.
A senior Canadian official, speaking on background, denied the talks were at a stalemate, saying things remain “fluid.”
Trudeau’s approach to the NAFTA talks appears to have the full backing of his caucus. MPs gave both Trudeau and Freeland standing ovations.
But on gun violence, it’s less clear there is any unanimity.
Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, the newly named minister of border security and organized crime reduction who is to study the implications of a handgun ban and to recommend effective measures to combat gun violence, acknowledged there are concerns in caucus.
Blair said police officers have asked the government to legislate gun markings, a move that would bring Canada into compliance with a UN treaty, but one the government has repeatedly delayed. Gunmakers and owners argue it would increase the cost of firearm production at no real gain in public safety.
Police argue that regulations requiring Canadian-made firearms to carry a CA mark would help trace guns used in crimes.
Blair said he has heard their complaints but has not decided the best way forward, and said any list of options would likely include anti-poverty and anti-gang measures. He hopes to bring forward recommendations by year’s end.
Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina—Fort York, said in an interview that he believes there is enough support in caucus to finally enact a handgun ban.
“Guns, particularly hand guns in urban environments are just too bloody dangerous,” he said.
As for the political price paid by the party in the past when it attempted stricter gun control, Vaughan was blunt.
“I think the consequences of listening to the gun lobby have been measured in human life in our city streets this summer and it is unconscionable not to take action against handguns,” he said. “That means stronger border controls, more restrictions and banning handguns in this country.”
Trudeau did not mention gun violence in his open remarks to caucus, choosing instead to rally his troops by taking shots at the Conservatives for opposing measures to counter climate change and accusing them of having “absolutely no plan to grow our economy.”
“The populists of the right offer no concrete solutions to the real problems that concern Canadians,” he said.
Trudeau drew another contrast, without naming Ontario Premier Doug Ford or federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who has backed Ford’s use of a constitutional override to push forward a bill to limit the size of Toronto city council
“Our government will always defend the rights of Canadians and always respect the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms,” he said to rousing cheers from the caucus.
But the Conservatives have new ammunition with which to attack the Liberals next year, after Wednesday’s condemnation by the federal ethics commissioner of cabinet minister Dominic Leblanc. Leblanc was found to have violated ethics rules when he gave a surf clam licence to a company that was connected to his wife’s cousin.
Leblanc, who said he accepted without reservation the ethics watchdog’s report (which comes with no penalty), is the third top cabinet member of Trudeau’s government to run afoul of ethics rules.
The other two were Finance Minister Bill Morneau for failing to disclose his ownership of a French villa through a holding company, and Trudeau himself, for his Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc