Ministers cycle through Washington ahead of Trump-Trudeau talks

Canadian cabinet ministers are fanning throughout the U.S. capital this week to meet members of the new Trump administration, laying the groundwork for an anticipated visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

First Sajjan, now Freeland and tomorrow Morneau all in U.S. capital to meet new counterparts

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland at the State Department Wednesday morning. At this photo call, neither responded to shouted questions about renegotiating NAFTA or the U.S. travel ban, but Freeland is scheduled to speak to reporters Wednesday afternoon. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Canadian cabinet ministers are fanning throughout the U.S. capital this week to meet members of the new Trump administration, laying the groundwork for an anticipated visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Three ministers have meetings in Washington this week: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland landed Tuesday for a two-day visit, just after her colleague Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan left town and before Finance Minister Bill Morneau was to arrive Wednesday.

Those meetings are taking place as the national governments prepare for a first encounter between Trudeau and new President Donald Trump, which could happen as early as next week. The governments are still nailing down details of a meeting agenda before settling on an official date.

Freeland began by visiting Capitol Hill and the highest-ranking member of the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan. Hailing from the dairy-producing state of Wisconsin, Ryan raised oft-stated U.S. concerns about Canadian regulatory practices that limit imports of certain American products, although officials said that conversation did not broach NAFTA and the possibility of dairy supply management becoming an issue in trade negotiations.

"Minister Freeland and I share a common commitment to the U.S.-Canada relationship," Ryan said in a statement.

"We had a productive conversation about how we can enhance these ties, including by strengthening NATO and improving dairy market access," he said. "I appreciate Minister Freeland's friendship and support for our important bilateral partnership."

The Canadian release describing the meeting did not mention dairy market access.

"The two had a productive meeting focused on how our integrated economies drive middle class growth on both sides of the border," Freeland's office said. "They discussed the $1 billion in exports to Canada from the Speaker's district, as well as the fact that 35 states count Canada as their number one customer."

"In addition to bilateral issues, both sides shared a commitment to international security and NATO," the Global Affairs Canada account said.‎

On her first day in Washington she also met Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and veteran Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Freeland is meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, as well as the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, Sen. Ben Cardin.

Tillerson, the longtime chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, was sworn in as secretary of state last week and he and Freeland spoke by phone on his first day on the job.

Met female members of Congress

Freeland crossed paths with members of both parties at a reception Wednesday evening at the Canadian embassy, which was hosting a gathering of women in Congress.

The partisan divide of the moment played out in some lighthearted jokes: two Democrats speaking at the event thanked Canada for not building a wall following Trump's election.

This was after Freeland gave a speech about her own experiences as a woman in politics, including some bumps in the road. She credited her boss, Trudeau, for making gender balance a priority starting when he worked to recruit female candidates.

She told a story about the prime minister surprising an unnamed foreign leader. The leader asked Trudeau about picking so many women for his cabinet — and Trudeau left him speechless by replying that his cabinet would have fewer men if he'd gone on the basis of talent.

"The look on the face of this head of state, who I won't name, I could just see him thinking, 'Oh, my goodness,' Canadians really are bonkers," Freeland said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Freeland also told the story of how she was attacked for tearing up while staging an intentionally dramatic walkout at the stalled Canada-Europe trade talks. She said her intention was to put pressure on some Belgian obstructionists.

The tears, she said, just came out.

"We kind of wanted to make the Walloons feel guilty," she said. "It was kind of more a tone of sorrow than of anger I was aiming for." She said: "When we got back to Canada I was just attacked like crazy for a week — kind of for the crime of being a woman. The opposition said the prime minister needed to bring in adult supervision. Etcetera, etcetera."

But Freeland added, drawing cheers from the congressional guests: "All was forgiven in the end. Because we got the deal signed."

Morneau's counterpart not sworn in yet

Freeland is expected to speak with media at the end of her Washington visit Wednesday, and shed some light on her chats.

Officially, the U.S. government has said almost nothing about what it wants in a new NAFTA, other than Trump saying he wants a fair deal and wants negotiations to start soon.

The president has also said he's not aware of how extensive he'd like the NAFTA changes to be.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau will also be in Washington to meet some "newly appointed" Trump cabinet members as well as members of Congress.

But his soon-to-be opposite number, financier Steven Mnuchin, won't be among them, because he has yet to be confirmed as treasury secretary.

Canadian officials, from the prime minister on down, have been speaking regularly with their European counterparts to compare notes and strategize on how to engage constructively with the new Trump administration. 

On Parliament Hill Wednesday, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr was asked why so many ministers are in Washington this week.

"To make friends," he said, describing how mayors are calling mayors, premiers are calling governors and interest groups are calling their counterparts, all in an effort to lobby for Canadian interests.

"That's, I think, a prudent strategy."

With files from CBC News, CP's Mike Blanchfield