U.S. ag secretary hopes to ‘modernize’ NAFTA, not break it

TORONTO, Ont. — If Canada wanted a friend inside the Donald Trump administration, one who has deep Canadian friendships and a desire to boost U.S.-Canada trade, they appear to have gotten lucky in Sonny Perdue.

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was warmly received when he appeared at the Southeastern United States-Canadian Provinces Alliance conference June 5. He and former Quebec premier and senior federal cabinet minister  Jean Charest held a “fireside chat” about the formation of the group, which 10 years ago first brought together governors, premiers, government officials and businesses from six states and six provinces in a relationship designed to spur trade and investment between the two regions.

Beyond talk, the conference is also an annual chance for the Canadian provinces and U.S. states to get their businesspeople together to make deals and pursue investment ideas.

The looming NAFTA renegotiation was much discussed throughout the conference, including by Charest and Perdue. The dramatic statements coming out of the White House were discussed by many speakers, but both Perdue and Charest portrayed the situation as being an opportunity to improve the relationship, as opposed to breaking it.

“We can modernize it,” said Perdue, who was credited by Charest with allowing the SEUSCP alliance to form through his early energetic work in visiting Canada in the early 2000s while governor of Georgia.

“I think it’s appropriate to do it.”

Charest said Canada and the U.S. should take advantage of the opportunity to actually improve the deal, rather than just reaffirm its existence with minor tweaks. Charest said a number of areas, such as intellectual property and labour mobility, had sprung to prominence since the original deal was made and should be included in a broader NAFTA.

Perdue said many people do not realize how much cooperative work already occurs between U.S. Department of Agriculture and Canadian researchers and food safety officials.

“We have mutual appreciation,” said Perdue.

Far from the pugilistic language that has occasionally issued from the White House, Perdue struck a constructive and collegial tone.

“Agricultural trade has benefitted bilaterally between Canada and the U.S. under NAFTA,” said Perdue.

“It’s been profitable and prosperous for both sides . . . Trade works because it’s bilaterally beneficial. That has to be the tenet of our negotiations as well.”

He did not specify any specific areas of contention or dispute that American farmers or the agriculture industry might demand be addressed in renegotiations, but noted that “we’ve got a couple of issues that we need to discuss with our Canadian premiers as well as our minister of agriculture that deal with more provincial affairs.”

Charest and Perdue both praised embassy and consular staff of both nations for allowing a warm relationship to develop between U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

“The relationship is easily taken for granted,” said Charest.

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