The NAFTA circus has arrived in Montreal. Here's what to expect

Negotiators from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are descending on Montreal this week for talks on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

6th round of negotiations set to begin today, with a lot on the line

Federal International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Quebec Economy Minister Dominique Anglade arrived in Montreal Monday for NAFTA talks. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

You may have heard: the NAFTA talks are in town.

Negotiators from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are descending on Montreal this week to discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There are meetings and protests and, later in the week, top officials from all three countries will arrive in the city.

Here is some background, as well as details on what to expect.

Why Montreal?

This is the sixth round of negotiations. Previous talks were held in country capitals: Washington, Mexico City and Ottawa. 

Canadian officials chose Montreal because of its proximity to Ottawa and because of Quebec's dependence on free trade. 

The meetings in Montreal will run from Jan. 23 to 29 at the Hotel Bonaventure.

Along with government officials, representatives of unions, industry groups and the international media will be here for the talks.

What's at stake?

A lot.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tried to put a positive spin on the talks, saying last week he remains optimistic that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico can strike a deal to modernize NAFTA that benefits all three countries.

But U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened repeatedly to pull out of the continental trade pact. 

Trudeau, though, has effectively dismissed those threats as a negotiating tactic.

The talks appeared to stall before Christmas as both Canada and Mexico flatly rejected a number of U.S. demands.

They include:

  • ending Canada's system of supply management for dairy and poultry.
  • hiking American and North American content requirements for automobiles. 
  • adding a clause that would automatically terminate the agreement after five years unless all three countries agree to extend it.
A Ford assembly plant is seen here in Oakville, Ont. The U.S. wants to hike American and North American content requirements for automobiles as part of the NAFTA talks. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

What can we expect?

It's hard to say. 

Negotiations have been made more difficult by Trump's shifting and sometimes contradictory statements, said Andrea Bjorklund, a McGill law professor and visiting fellow at Oxford University.

"One of the concerns is that now the U.S. side — I'm not sure that the U.S. negotiators know what their position is," she said.

"I think there's so much uncertainty around [U.S.] goals."

Bjorklund, an expert in international arbitration and commercial law, suggested distinguishing between what we can "expect" and what we would "hope" to see. 

"What I would hope to see is some movement from all sides," she said.

"I think President Trump has signalled that he is more flexible."

Canada, for its part, intends to be constructive and innovative, Federal International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Monday.

"Canadians expect us to be creative, but at the same time, Canadians expect us to be firm when it is about key sectors like supply management," he said.

What does Quebec want?

Quebec Economy Minister Dominique Anglade told reporters Monday it was important to stand firm in the face of U.S. punitive duties on products such as softwood lumber and Bombardier jets.

"At the end of the day, we have to defend what we really believe in, and when we think something is not just, we have to go forward and say it loud and clear," she said.

Anglade and federal Champagne met Monday with Quebec stakeholders from cultural industries, agriculture and labour, as well as representatives of key employers and municipalities.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has imposed sky-high duties on Bombardier's C Series commercial jets, such as these being assembled at Mirabel, Que. Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union which is organizing a demonstration in downtown Montreal Tuesday, said the U.S. has launched 'unfair attacks' on Canada's aerospace industry and many other sectors. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Protests against 'race to the bottom'

Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, organized a demonstration to emphasize the importance of maintaining labour rights.

"NAFTA continues to erode the rights of working men and women in North America," the union, which represents 315,000 Canadians in the private sector, said in a statement. 

"Good jobs are on the chopping block in the NAFTA renegotiations while the U.S. has launched unfair attacks on the aerospace, forestry and pulp and paper, automobile, aluminum and several other sectors."

A demonstration was held this morning at Dorchester Square. Protesters then marched to the Hotel Bonaventure.

Members of Unifor marched through Montreal on Tuesday. (Lauren McCallum/CBC)

With files from The Canadian Press