OTTAWA—Under increasing pressure by the U.S. to sign a deal by Sept. 30, the prime minister and his foreign affairs minister are defending their stance that no NAFTA deal would be better than a bad deal, as American lawmakers warn time is running out.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire in the Commons over trade Tuesday amid fears he would make concessions that could hurt dairy producers and Canadian manufacturers in the bid to find common ground with the U.S. after it signed a new bilateral deal with Mexico.
NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey urged Trudeau to delay implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation free trade deal, “so Canadians can brace for a possible failed NAFTA and more U.S. tariffs.”
Trudeau dismissed his critics. “The NDP don’t want to sign any trade deals. The Conservatives are willing to sign anything they can. We know that only signing good deals for Canadians is in our best interest. As with CPTPP, when it comes to NAFTA, we will sign a good deal or we will not sign.”
“That’s not rhetoric,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, when asked to respond to officials in Saskatchewan and Ontario who are concerned by such statements. “We absolutely believe that no deal is better than a bad deal.”
However, pressure is ratcheting up including in American quarters where Canada has courted political allies.
On Tuesday, a senior Republican member of Congress, House whip Steve Scalise, took a direct shot at the Canadian team.
“There is growing frustration with many in Congress regarding Canada’s negotiating tactics,” said Scalise. “Members are concerned that Canada does not seem to be ready or willing to make the concessions that are necessary for a fair and high-standard agreement.
“While we would all like to see Canada remain part of this three-country coalition, there is not an unlimited amount of time for it to be part of this new agreement.”
He warned that Congress “takes seriously and intends to fully enforce the deadlines” set out in the fast-track negotiating authority Congress gave President Donald Trump last year, which requires a full text of any three-way deal be publicly delivered by month’s end.
“Mexico negotiated in good faith and in a timely manner, and if Canada does not co-operate in the negotiations, Congress will have no choice but to consider options about how best to move forward and stand up for American workers,” said Scalise.
Freeland had not read Scalise’s statement but, when asked to comment, she responded only by saying from the outset of NAFTA talks “Canada has been extremely co-operative. Canada is very good at negotiating trade deals. Canada is very good at finding creative compromises.”
Freeland heads to Washington Tuesday to resume face-to-face meetings Wednesday with her political counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
She refused to say whether Canada would insist on protection from any U.S. tariffs as part of any deal, saying her decision to stick to a promise not to negotiate in public has created a “real atmosphere of trust and good faith at the negotiating table.”
In French she said, “Compromise is absolutely always possible.”
Meanwhile, concerns are mounting in Canada. Premiers like Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s economic development minister, Jim Wilson, have expressed nervousness. Wilson told reporters he’s worried by “rumours” the federal government may not want a deal.
Wilson said on Monday he and Premier Doug Ford are going to Washington “to say that ‘You bloody well need to get a deal.’”
On Tuesday, Ford told reporters “My job as premier, as every other premier in this country, is to protect their sectors.” He cited Ontario’s agriculture, automotive, and steel and aluminum sectors among “many others.” “And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I protect those sectors.”
“Make no mistake about it, we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with our federal counterparts to get this deal done. I know the federal government wants the deal done. I know the U.S. government wants it done. But sometimes when you’re negotiating a tough deal it takes a little longer, but I’m confident we’ll get this past the finish line,” Ford said at the Chatham-Kent plowing match.
As he has done before, Trump on Tuesday told reporters “Canada has taken advantage of our country for a long time.”
“We love Canada. We love it. Love the people of Canada. But they are in a position that is not a good position for Canada. They cannot continue to charge us 300 per cent tariff on dairy products. And that’s what they’re doing. So this is a process, it takes a little time.”
With files from Daniel Dale and Rob Ferguson
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc