Canada’s trade prospects becoming increasingly precarious

It’s a pinnacle time for the Canadian trade file.

The North American Free Trade Agreement remains in jeopardy — a situation, it’s safe to say, few expected that Canada, the United States and Mexico would be embroiled in a year ago.

It’s no secret that the future of the trade deal continues to be uncertain. An American withdrawal remains very much a possibility.

In a matter of weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has gone from musing about extending the trade talks past their March deadline to threatening to pull the U.S. out of the trade pact altogether.

Canada and Mexico have been criticized heavily by U.S. officials in recent weeks with American officials said to be frustrated by the lack of counterproposals and text put forward by its fellow NAFTA members thus far.

For their part, Canada and Mexico continue to try and keep the U.S. at the negotiating table.

The sixth round of NAFTA talks are scheduled for Jan. 21-29 with lead ministers from all three countries set to meet at the end of the round.

Then there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership or the CPTPP. (Say that five times fast.)

The remaining members were scheduled to meet in Tokyo Jan. 23 for a two-day meeting on the multilateral trade pact. It was the first meeting attended by Canadian officials after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a no-show at a leader’s meeting in Vietnam during the Asia Pacific Economic Conference last fall.

Canadian officials, who say the prime minister missed the meeting because of a scheduling mishap, have been trying to sooth ruffled diplomatic feathers ever since. Japan and Australia are said to be particularly insulted by the APEC events with both countries threatening to finalize a CPTPP agreement-in-principal by March with or without Canada.

Ottawa is under increased pressure from many of this country’s leading farm groups — and at least one provincial agriculture minister — to sign the CPTPP, particularly given the threat of NAFTA imploding.

Canada is a trading nation in what is becoming an increasingly protectionist environment. This country thrives on shipping raw materials and goods around the globe and is only one of five countries in the world to have surplus agricultural production.

Canadian farmers and business owners rely on having reliable market access for their products.

At this point, dealing with the NAFTA file remains an all-hands-on-deck, bipartisan issue with all the major political parties presenting a united Canadian front.

Case in point, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer led a small delegation of his party’s MPs to Washington, D.C., for meetings ahead of the sixth round of talks in Montreal. Before leaving, his office reached out to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for messaging and meeting suggestions.

The NAFTA trade deal is too important to the Canadian economy for political shenanigans.

Still, with more and more of the world adopting a nationalist, protectionist mentality (think America First, Brexit) the Liberals — who campaigned on a platform of globalism and open markets — have been forced to adjust, fast.

The economic and political stakes are huge.

So far, there have been few critiques around the Liberals’ management of the trade file, particularly when it comes to NAFTA, setting aside the odd quibble about the government’s desire to seek out a “progressive trade agenda” that includes the environment, gender and indigenous issues.

That can change in an instant.

The Liberals have promised to diversify the Canadian trade environment. They’ve said repeatedly they’re prepared for all NAFTA outcomes and remain interested in the CPTPP deal.

However, if any of the key meetings mentioned above falls to pieces, regardless of the cause or outcome, the Liberals will almost certainly wear a least a portion of the blame. Having a trade plan B will be essential.

The future of Canadian trade depends on it.

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