Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer offered dueling narratives on negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in two press conferences held around southwestern Ontario on Friday.
In a speech before a Mississauga Board of Trade luncheon, Scheer accused the government of not acting quickly enough to recognize the pending uncertainty of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would mean for Canadian trade and suggested Trudeau and his ministers squandered the chance to find solutions to some issues before Trump came into office.
“Here at home, we will be holding this Liberal government to account as to whether or not they’ve been taking this as seriously as they should have been as early as they should have been. Take for example the issue of softwood lumber, which is very important to our economy,” Scheer said, criticizing the government for not getting discussions on that file “over the finish line” before the Trump administration came in.
He suggested the approach to NAFTA in the final weeks of discussions may turn out the same way.
“Justin Trudeau doesn’t seem to have a plan,” Scheer said.
The Trudeau government began on Nov. 4, 2015, and Trump was elected on Nov. 8, 2016, before being inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017.
The period between the election and inauguration of an incoming president is called a “lame duck session” in the U.S. because there is generally very little movement on political files as one administration makes way for the next.
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After Trump was elected, Trudeau held a significant cabinet shuffle aimed at retooling his front bench to deal with the unpredictable and erratic president.
He also set up what has become known colloquially as his “war room” of staff tasked with managing the relationship with the U.S.
NAFTA has dominated that relationship over the past year. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are trying to renegotiate the 25-year-old agreement, which allows for the free flow of goods across the continent.
Reports over the past several days that Canadian officials are increasingly bracing for Trump to withdraw have sent stock markets and the loonie tumbling.
Meanwhile, in London, Ont., Trudeau told reporters that everything is under control.
“People know that we remain positive and hopeful, but we know that this administration can be somewhat unpredictable,” he said during a press conference wrapping up the final day of a brief cabinet retreat in the city.
“We have contingency plans.”
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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is leading Canada’s renegotiation of NAFTA, had also told reporters Thursday that Canada will “stand up” for Canadian workers and that officials are prepared for the possibility that the U.S. could signal its intention to withdraw from the agreement.
“Our approach from the start has been to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. So Canada is prepared for every eventuality,” she said. “That is a whole-of-government operation.”
NAFTA negotiations are set to enter a sixth and final round in Montreal over three days beginning on Jan. 23.