Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that what while it is possible to re-negotiate NAFTA so all three countries come out with a better deal, Canada has "to be ready for anything" that might come next.
"We remain focused in a serious way on the NAFTA negotiations and will continue to demonstrate that we understand that it is very important, and very possible, to get a win, win, win," Trudeau told reporters after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington Wednesday.
"I think it's been clear that circumstances are often challenging and we have to be ready for anything, and we are."
Trudeau said that Trump is prone to making surprising decisions but Canada is ready to deal with the unpredictability of the U.S. administration.
"I think Canadians are aware that the American administration and the president makes decisions that surprise people from time to time, and that is something that we are very much aware of, and very braced for and conscious of."
Trudeau said that the negotiations have been "unpredictable at times," but he believes that Trump is focused on helping the middle class in his country and that trade deals "are a very powerful lever for getting that done."
"My optimism towards NAFTA, toward a re-negotiation, isn't based on personality or reading political tea leaves, My optimism is based on the fact that I know how good NAFTA has been for millions of citizens of Canada, of the United States and indeed for Mexico," he said.
Trudeau also said that he would rather stick to NAFTA than falling back on the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, because that deal was even more out of date than the one all three countries are currently renegotiating.
Earlier in the day, in the Oval Office, Trump said he'd be willing to negotiate a free trade deal directly with Canada in the event NAFTA talks fail, conceding that it's not yet clear whether talks to renegotiate the trade agreement will succeed.
"We'll see what happens," the president told reporters during a photo op with Trudeau. "We have a tough negotiation and it's something that you will know in the not too distant future."
The president made the remarks in the Oval Office at the start of a meeting with Trudeau, whose visit coincides with the start of a fourth round of NAFTA talks in nearby Alexandria, Va.
Trump said it's possible the talks to renegotiate NAFTA will fail, but that he could see the U.S. striking a new deal with Canada.
While it's no secret the president is not a fan of NAFTA, it's the first time he's mused publicly about the possibility of a bilateral agreement with Canada. Earlier this week Trump told Forbes magazine NAFTA "will have to be terminated."
Trudeau meets with key U.S. lawmakers
The prime minister was on Capitol Hill earlier in the day meeting with dozens of members of the powerful House of Representatives committee that oversees trade negotiations.
"The U.S. sells more to Canada than it does to China, Japan and the U.K. — combined," Trudeau said in his opening remarks to the committee. "We are already your biggest customer."
Senior members of both major U.S. parties echoed his view that trade with Canada is mutually beneficial.
But there were also signs of discord: the top Republican says he wants to pry open Canada's dairy sector while the top Democrat wants to see free trade in cultural products — some progressive lawmakers were outside with anti-NAFTA protesters.
Committee chair Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, mentioned dairy access, customs barriers and intellectual property as areas that need to improve.
"America and Canada are great allies. We share the world's longest international border and a remarkably successful and mutually beneficial trading relationship through NAFTA. But no relationship is without its challenges," Brady said.
A Democratic lawmaker said after the meeting that Trudeau maintained his commitment to Canada's supply-management system and pointed out that the U.S. maintains a basket of support programs for its own agricultural industries.
But Sander Levin credited Trudeau's progressive trade policies on labour, the environment and gender rights. He said stronger labour protections will be essential in winning minimal Democratic support that might give an eventual deal the necessary votes to win passage in Congress.
Officials within the Canadian government say this is one of the objectives of their so-called progressive trade agenda, one overlooked by critics at home who might not appreciate the need to win some votes from centre-left U.S. lawmakers to ratify the deal.
Meanwhile, the House committee's top Democrat asked Trudeau to open up the trade in culture — a historically sensitive area in Canada-U.S. trade relations. Richard Neal said he wants to see "our cultural industries go forward with non-discriminatory access to the Canadian ... markets that Canadian creators have here in the United States."