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Atlantic premiers vow vigilance on trade with U.S.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball says the province will be participating in softwood lumber negotiations with Washington.

KEITH GOSSE/THE TELEGRAM/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Atlantic Canada's premiers say they are focused on strengthening trade ties with the United States as Canada looks to establish its economic footing with President Donald Trump's administration.

The premiers emerged from a two-day meeting in Corner Brook, N.L., Monday pledging vigilance with the region's largest trading partner, and acknowledging the need to promote their interests.

"We will be participating, as an example, in the softwood lumber negotiations in Washington later this spring," said host Dwight Ball, the Newfoundland and Labrador premier. "It is important for us to be able to do that."

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Although no formal lobby program was announced, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said the four provinces plan to sell U.S. businesses on the importance of the trading relationship with Canada.

"We are going to do everything we can in our capacity to ensure that message gets out there consistently and aggressively," said Gallant.

The premiers said trade would also be a key theme when they meet with their New England counterparts in Charlottetown in August.

Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan said that for the first time the annual conference of New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers would include a forum to bring together business interests from both sides of the border to discuss trade and commercial issues.

"I believe our firms in Atlantic Canada have done an excellent job of putting us on the map, of building those relationships," he said. "Anything we can do to encourage ... those efforts and relationships – that's what's really going to determine our trade success."

Recently the Canadian government has made it clear it will seek greater certainty around softwood lumber in upcoming trade negotiations, along with more access to public construction projects in the U.S. and beefed up worker-mobility rights.

The premiers said they took part in two teleconferences with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on trade issues since Trump's inauguration last month.

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Gallant said they are "cautiously optimistic" that the trading relationship would remain "robust," and that it might even improve. He cited the positive tone of the recent meeting between Trump and Trudeau as proof that Canada's message is getting through.

"We also see many allies in other elected officials," Gallant said. "We have spoken to many governors about the importance of trade between our two countries and they get it."

Also Monday, the premiers pointed to , including a review of public drug plan coverage to seek service improvements, cost containment and more help for high-cost therapies for rare diseases.

Drug costs are a particular concern in Nova Scotia, where the province was forced last year to abruptly shelve a plan that would have tripled pharmacare premiums for some seniors.

Premier Stephen McNeil, who was not at the Newfoundland meeting, left it to his health minister to describe what is under consideration.

In a telephone interview, Leo Glavine said while there's no commitment yet, the initiative could ultimately see something like a single drug plan for the Atlantic region.

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"If we don't get as quickly as possible to national procurement of drugs, at least the Atlantic region can have the buying power of roughly 2.3 million people," said Glavine.

He said the potential exists for "enormous cost containment" that would keep drug programs viable well into the future.

Glavine said Nova Scotia would put planned consultations on its pharmacare program on hold until the results of the regional review are known. He said as a result there would be no change to the program either this year or in 2018-19.

The premiers also pledged their provinces would work together on strategies to manage chronic disease, with an initial focus on diabetes.

The Atlantic premiers will meet again this spring in New Brunswick.

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