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For Canada, all hands on deck during NAFTA renegotiations

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The rules of the road for trade with our biggest trading partner are about to be renegotiated. We need an all-of-Canada effort to get ready.

The stakes are critical: Three-quarters of our exports head south to the United States. Trade with the United States represents almost a third of our GDP and it sustains close to one in five Canadian jobs.

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In the coming days, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will formally advise Congress of NAFTA renegotiations, setting in play a 90-day consideration by House and Senate committees. By the latter part of the year, Mr. Ross expects that we will be into "real" negotiations that he predicts will take at least a year.

Following his White House meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, President Donald Trump described the Canada-U.S. relationship as just needing some "tweaking." But, as Mr. Ross told Bloomberg this week, "there is a lot of meat to be dealt with," including addressing the digital economy and revising the rules of origin.

After meeting with her Mexican counterparts, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week in Toronto that Canada's preference is for trilateral negotiations. Mr. Trump prefers bilateral deals but Secretary Ross says he is "open-minded" about the form. Regardless, Canada and Mexico need to stay close to avoid the divide-and-conquer techniques that are integral to Mr. Trump's "art of the deal."

Getting Canada's act together means real collaboration between the federal and provincial governments and close, continuing consultations with business, labour and civic society. We need consensus on two questions:

  • What do we want from the negotiations?
  • How do we get there?

The more creative we can be, the better. The expertise of sectoral advisory groups proved vital to the successful negotiation of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement (1988) and NAFTA (1993-4). They should be resurrected and made permanent. We need to co-opt the best brains in our research community to rapidly crunch data and provide timely analysis for our negotiators.

The Canadian strategy going into the talks must be bold. A new agreement should be broad and comprehensive, providing for the free flow of people, goods and services with enforceable standards for labour and the environment. Let's take the best from the stillborn (at least for now) Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Most of the American "asks" are readily identifiable. As Mr. Ross told Congress during his confirmation hearings, the United States wants to reduce its trade deficits and to restore manufacturing through increasing the "Made in America" content for rules of origin.

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The United States Trade Representative annual National Trade Estimates report lists United States' complaints with Canada. These include extending the intellectual property protection for pharmaceuticals; ending supply management for dairy and poultry; and inspecting for counterfeits, especially for Chinese goods shipped to U.S. destinations through Canadian ports like Vancouver or Prince Rupert.

The easiest solution on rules of origin would be to move to a customs union, but the Americans are unlikely to buy in unless it is a strictly Canada-U..S agreement. Otherwise we need to redefine rules of origin as "Made in North America." American manufacturers should be our allies, especially those in the automotive industry, where supply-chain integration dates from the 1965 Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

We should agree to counterfeit inspection in return for extended pre-clearance of goods and easier business travel access. Reforming supply management is long overdue, but let's get something in return, such as access to U.S. shipbuilding contracts.

Where they were once divided, today Canada's premiers are of like mind on the value of trade, leading missions across our oceans. Now they need to focus on our biggest customer, especially through cultivating their governor counterparts in regional meetings and through visits to their states. Premier Rachel Notley has been assiduous in working Washington on behalf of Albertans and she sets the bar. She was in Houston last week with Prime Minister Trudeau for a gathering of global energy leaders.

Access to procurement is vital, especially at the state and provincial government level and, for the premiers, this should be job one. Working with governors, they did a procurement reciprocity deal around the Obama infrastructure investments in 2010. Now we need to make it permanent.

The Americans like us, indeed, more than we like them. The Trudeau government has created good working relationships within the Trump administration. But complacency is a mistake. Mr. Trump's priority is "making America great again." The business of America is business. Canada needs to be ready.

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About the Author
Former Canadian diplomat

A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is a Senior Advisor for Dentons LLP living in Ottawa, Canada and working with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He is Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. More

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