Chrystia Freeland says Canada prepared for 'strong offensive position' on NAFTA

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says that if negotiations restart on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Donald Trump's administration won't be the only player at the table looking for a better deal.

'Rest assured that we will very forcefully advocate for the national interest,' foreign affairs minister says

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says that 'when and if' Canada is part of talks to update NAFTA again — which has been done 11 times before, by her count — Canada's best defence will be a good offence. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Wednesday that if negotiations restart on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Donald Trump's administration won't be the only player at the table looking for a better deal.

When asked what Canada might be looking to gain if NAFTA is reopened, as the new U.S. administration has vowed to do in order to get a "better deal" for American workers, Freeland put her game face on.

"It's good to be good at playing defence, but the best defence is a strong offence," she said. "And Canada definitely will be and is good at taking strong offensive positions."

"We will do that if and when negotiations begin," she said, emphasizing again Wednesday, as she did in the House of Commons last week, that no formal talks have begun, despite reports that Mexico was beginning a 90-day consultation period with its stakeholders leading up to a presumed start of negotiations later this spring.

Freeland was in Washington for her second day of talks with senior congressional leaders, culminating in a meeting with her newly sworn in U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on Wednesday morning.

Tillerson, she said, has a "very deep understanding of our economic relationship," something she said was an advantage for Canada.

Freeland told reporters several times that no formal NAFTA talks can begin at the moment because the counterparts Canada would deal with, Trump's nominee for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and the nominee for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, have yet to be confirmed by Congress and sworn in to assume their duties.

Leaked NAFTA briefings 'quite different' from political position 

Freeland was asked about recent leaked NAFTA briefing documents that purported to outline the U.S. priorities for a NAFTA renegotiation. She dismissed their value and relevancy to the eventual talks.

"It is important for Canadians to understand that those were the briefings provided by officials. And as someone who has been briefed by officials, I know the value of briefing notes, but I also know that briefing notes are quite different from a political position taken by a government," she said.

"It's premature to be having specific technical conversations with the U.S.A.," she said.

It's routine for Canada to update and modernize its trade agreements, she said, noting that NAFTA by her count has had 11 significant updates.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met his counterpart Freeland at the State Department Wednesday morning. They were mum about NAFTA talks during their photo call, with Freeland telling reporters later any substantive discussion would be premature. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

But as for Canada's position in those talks, what would it want to renegotiate, exactly?

"You are all Canadian," she told reporters on the call. "I hope you won't expect me to compromise a negotiating position by today, at such an early moment, putting all my cards on the table."

Freeland described her meetings with representatives from the automotive industry last Friday, and the lumber industry Monday, as valuable for understanding the position of different sectors of the economy likely to be part of the talks.

"Rest assured that we will very forcefully advocate for the national interest," she said.

Dairy threat dismissed

Freeland also downplayed a threat to Canada's dairy sector some read into House Speaker Paul Ryan's account of his meeting with Freeland yesterday.

The American readout of the meeting said the pair discussed "dairy market access." The Canadian account did not mention this issue.

"As I would expect from a representative from Wisconsin, Speaker Ryan did indeed raise the issue of dairy," Freeland confirmed.

"As I always do, I forcefully defended our national interest and I forcefully defended that sector."

Freeland said she researched the value of the exports from Ryan's congressional district to Canada. He was struck when she presented that number to him, she said, and impressed they'd gone to the trouble of figuring it out.

"This is the beginning of some very granular diplomacy we are going to be doing," Freeland said.

Canada would 'respond appropriately' to border tax

The foreign affairs minister, who is also serving as Canada's de facto trade minister overseeing Canada's economic relationship with the U.S., also had firm words when asked to comment on other proposals from the early days of the Trump administration, including the idea of a border adjustment tax on imports coming into the U.S.

"The political debate there is only beginning," she said, summing up what she's learned from talks with both Republicans and Democrats this week. "There are, in the Congress, many contrasting points of view around that plan and so that was good to know."

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"Canada will have no position on the tax reform plan or the border adjustment tax idea until it is fully formed and is a concrete proposal. But I did make clear that we would be strongly opposed to any imposition of new tariffs," she said, calling the idea "mutually harmful."

"If the idea were ever to come into being, Canada would respond appropriately," she said.

Freeland said she and Tillerson spent "quite a bit of time" having a "good substantive discussion" about Russia and Ukraine.

She said they compared experiences from their respective backgrounds — hers as a journalist with Ukrainian roots, his as the CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil — dealing with Russia.