Sergio Marchi is president and CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association.
As pundits prepare to judge President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office, earlier this month – Days 74 and 75 – our board of directors visited Washington. We met with many officials, who offered a rich array of insights.
Five reflections help situate the political environment we experienced.
First, Washington is in a significant flux. While promising to shake things up, Mr. Trump and most of his advisers have no government experience, and some 4,000 political appointments remain largely unfilled.
The President also relies on intuition, meaning that the political agenda is forever changing. Some suggested he is still in campaign mode. For the sake of our bilateral relationship, the Trump team will hopefully soon transition from the "poetry" of electioneering, to the "prose" of governing.
Second, the U.S. political class views Canada with considerable warmth. Despite turbulent times, our bonds run deep. They have been fortified by deep friendships, commercial partnerships and strategic alliances. Not that historical ties will always prevent contemporary disagreements, but we should never underestimate this asset.
Also, many U.S. politicians were favourably impressed with how quickly and astutely our federal and provincial governments have engaged the Trump administration. This "Team Canada" approach must continue.
Third, Mr. Trump's promise to lift middle America explains a lot. Not only is it reminiscent of Bill Clinton's campaign slogan, "It's the economy stupid," but Mr. Trump has added an "America First" dimension.
It is in this context that priorities, such as renegotiating trade deals or a border tax, find their currency. And both are high risks for Canada.
Most of our interlocutors believed the tax will not come to pass. They find it harmful to both nations. But to Republicans looking to fund corporate tax cuts, this remains very seductive, which is why we must continue to press the case.
Regarding NAFTA renegotiations, there have been few specifics. Some congressional representatives talked about a possible two-track approach: one quick, light round before the midterm U.S. elections and the Mexican presidential election; and a deeper revisit after that.
Our delegation left Washington with the unmistakable impression that the renegotiations will involve more than tweaks, which is in line with what former prime minister Brian Mulroney has been saying.
And if Mr. Trump's softwood salvo and dairy talk are any indications, this could be a bumpy road indeed. Our ministers and negotiators must balance the necessity to get along, with a firm backbone that will earn their counterparts' respect.
Fourth, energy co-operation should be a critical strength. Several U.S. officials openly remarked that they see a "duty" to protect the things that work, and for them, energy collaboration is not broken. They readily recognized that our exports of electricity, oil and gas have contributed mightily to their national energy security, and that we are custodians of a shared electrical grid.
They also cited new energy infrastructure builds, lessening red tape and pursuing joint innovation and research and development as opportunities to build on.
That is why the President's comments slamming our energy trade were so puzzling. They ran counter to everything we heard, and no one seems to know what he meant.
Finally, in crafting messages for U.S. consumption, we must explain how these will advance American interests. Our success will ultimately be dictated by weaving win-win threads into our story lines.
We must prove how trade is mutually beneficial; position our energy exports as essential inputs for American families and businesses; and showcase how our shared values impact the region and world we live in.
We must also target this strategy at the subnational level. Canada counts many U.S. governors and mayors as friends. We must leverage that goodwill.
Despite the last few days of sabre-rattling on trade, I came away from our visit thinking that Canada can do business with Mr. Trump. Clearly, it will not always be smooth, and we won't win every battle.
However, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently noted, Mr. Trump is no doctrinaire. His instincts are anchored in pragmatism and flexibility. As such, there are many opportunities for constructive partnership, and new frontiers to explore together.
We must also keep our nerve, if we are to successfully write another chapter in this remarkable Canada-U.S. story.