President-elect Donald Trump has a positive view of Canada and the Trudeau government should avoid attracting negative attention from the incoming president, says the former Canadian ambassador to Washington who helped negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We are not a target and we should not make ourselves a target," Derek Burney said in an interview with guest host Hannah Thibedeau on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Burney served as ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1993 under former prime minister Brian Mulroney. The two have been providing advice to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ahead of Trump's inauguration Jan. 20.
It's a situation that the former ambassador admits is somewhat unique.
"How unusual is it for us to have somebody like Donald Trump as president of the United States?" Burney said. "The difference between Donald Trump and most other American presidents is he comes to office with no background in government, no background in the military."
"He's a businessman. He's a deal maker, but not too many people know what his approach to government is going be. I think reaching out to people who either know him, dealt with him, makes perfect sense."
Burney stresses it's important for the Canadian government to make a positive first impression with the new administration.
"I salute the government for reaching out for advice from wherever they can get it, because there's no relationship that's more important to Canada than this one."
Top advisers meet Trump officials
Trudeau's top aides, principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford, have met with top Trump officials, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, CBC News has confirmed.
The meetings were first reported by the Globe and Mail.
A government official speaking on background said the Canadian government is trying to be proactive and work together with the Trump administration on shared goals — such as infrastructure, trade and growing the middle class.
In a recent YouTube video addressed to American members of congress, the prime minister and Canada's current ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, made the case that the American and Canadian economies are so interconnected it makes sense to coordinate on common goals.
The official said the Trudeau cabinet will not be looking for confrontation on issues like climate change, where there is disagreement, but Canada will not be moving away from its policies or goals.
Trudeau may look to China as a possible market or partner for developing Canada' green technology sector, the official said.
Opportunity to talk trade
Burney said he has provided advice about concerns that had tied up the Canada-U.S. trade agreement and the continent-wide NAFTA deal, which the president-elect has repeatedly said he wants to re-open.
Trump has often said Mexico has gained unfairly from NAFTA. Burney said the integration and balance of payments in Canada-U.S. trade put the Trudeau government on a better footing if the deal is reopened.
"We have a healthy balance in what is still one of the largest trading relationships, if not the largest trading relationship, in the world," he said.
"We're not running a big [trade] deficit with the United States. The countries that are, they're the ones that are the target for some of the things that Mr. Trump has been saying. We are not the target and we should not make ourselves the target."
Burney said he doesn't give much credence to the theory Trump will tear up NAFTA, and that the Canadian government should focus on common priorities in any trade negotiations.
Mulroney, Trump talking
Burney said Mulroney has been informally talking to the president-elect and members of his upcoming administration as it navigates the transition to power.
"Mr. Mulroney's been having conversations — in the way he does generally with world leaders — with Mr. Trump, with some members of the coming cabinet, and I think he's shared those views with our own prime minister and others in the cabinet," he said.
He said Mulroney has found Trump "looks upon Canada positively."
Burney sees parallels with the uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration and the election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
He said there's hope for pragmatic solutions and he sees encouragement in the effort that's going into making a good first impression.
"It's important that we get off, in my view, on a good footing with the new administration and put aside whatever emotions or attitudes of differentiation we as Canadians sometimes take excess pride in when dealing with the Americans" he said.
That effort may also involve putting the best faces forward with a cabinet shuffle.
"Usually, this time of year is when the PMO is making those kind of assessments with the prime minister. We'll have to wait and see what comes out of this, it's kind of evaluation time," Burney said speaking before news broke of a cabinet shuffle coming on Tuesday.