WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled today that Canada wants more from its negotiating partners before signing on to a revamped North American free trade pact.
“We’ve been very clear that we’re interested in what could be a good deal for Canada, but we’re going to need to see a certain amount of movement in order to get there,” Trudeau said in Ottawa.
“And that’s certainly what we’re hoping to see.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is back in Washington – and back in search of a way to bridge the divide that’s keeping Canada out of a revised NAFTA deal.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau commends Chrystia Freeland on ongoing NAFTA talks
A team of Canadian trade negotiators worked with their American counterparts through the night, Freeland said today as she headed into a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
“So there is some very intensive work happening.”
Freeland returns to the U.S. capital as a prominent congressional ally of President Donald Trump makes it clear that American lawmakers are growing weary of what they see as Canadian intransigence.
House of Representatives majority whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) is warning of “growing frustration” on Capitol Hill with what he calls Canada’s “negotiating tactics.”
Trade observers say that while many in Congress want Canada to be part of a three-way trade deal, they may not be willing to sacrifice an agreement in principle between Mexico and the U.S. negotiated earlier this year.
WATCH: Trump says Canada is not in a good trade position
That deal is widely seen to require congressional approval before Dec. 1 in order to survive the arrival of an incoming Mexican government whose supporters have mixed feelings about the deal.
Canada, meanwhile, has been pushing back against deadlines declared by the Trump administration – first the end of August, then the end of September.
“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,” Scalise said in a statement.
“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.”
Freeland says Canada has been negotiating in good faith throughout the process, which is about to enter its 14th month.
“From the outset of these modernization negotiations, Canada has been extremely co-operative,” she said Tuesday. “Canada is very good at negotiating trade deals. Canada is very good at finding creative compromises. We have been extremely engaged.”
WATCH: Freeland says ‘no deal’ talk on NAFTA is not rhetoric
Negotiators have been working “extremely hard” and are committed to doing the necessary work to reach an agreement, she added – but they aren’t about to settle for just any agreement.
“It is our duty – it’s my duty – to stand up for the national interest and I will always do that.”
Trump, for his part, sounded a familiar note, accusing Canada of having long taken advantage of the U.S. even as he sang the praises of his country’s northern neighbour.
WATCH: Flexibility needed on all sides to get new NAFTA deal, Freeland says
“We love Canada. We love it,” he told a news conference. “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.”
WATCH: Freeland describes tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber as ‘inappropriate’
Ottawa has privately expressed frustration with Mexico’s decision to go it alone last month. But one source familiar with how the negotiations have progressed, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details freely, says Canada transgressed first with a surprise auto proposal last spring.
Mexico still wants Canada in a three-way deal – so much so that the language in the deal with the U.S. was written to facilitate a trilateral agreement, the source said. And Mexico feels their agreement works in Canada’s favour on a number of fronts.
While Canada has been pushing for wording in NAFTA aimed at strengthening labour protections and gender equality, the overall negotiations are said to have stalled over Canada’s insistence that an agreement contain an independent dispute-settlement mechanism.
Trudeau has also vowed to protect Canada’s so-called supply management system for dairy and poultry products against U.S. demands for greater access by its farmers to Canada’s dairy market. Sources say Canada has offered some limited concessions on access while also ring-fencing the system itself.
A spokesman for Trudeau tweeted late Tuesday that the prime minister had spoken with Trump to convey his condolences on the loss of life from hurricane Florence, which has left 37 people dead in three states. Cameron Ahmad wrote that the two leaders also discussed the ongoing NAFTA talks, with Trudeau reaffirming “his commitment to a deal that works for both countries.”
WATCH: Mulroney praises how Trudeau handling Trump during NAFTA talks
Supply management has been a big issue in the provincial election campaign in Quebec, home to about half of Canada’s dairy farms. Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has warned there will be “serious political consequences” if there is any further dismantling of the protections for dairy farmers through NAFTA negotiations.
That has some trade watchers suspicious that Ottawa may be trying to get past Oct. 1, which is election day in Quebec, as well as a latest congressional deadline.
“The rumblings around Washington have been Canada may attempt to push any deal beyond Oct. 1, largely due to the Quebec election,” said Dan Ujczo, an Ohio trade lawyer with Dickinson Wright.
“Rep. Scalise is putting down the marker that these are real deadlines.”
— With files from Mike Blanchfield