Republican governor says NAFTA brings benefits on 'both sides of the border'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make his NAFTA pitch to U.S. governors today — but several state leaders, including some Republicans, are already signalling that they see significant value in ensuring trade ties stay strong.

Justin Trudeau will be 1st PM to address meeting of U.S. governors

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu speaks in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S., July 13, 2017. (REUTERS)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make his NAFTA pitch to U.S. governors today — but several state leaders, including some Republicans, are already signalling that they see significant value in ensuring trade ties stay strong.

The early stages of renegotiating the decades-old trade deal could start next month.

U.S. President Donald Trump has routinely said NAFTA is a "disaster" for American workers, promising to rip up the deal if he can't squeeze concessions out of Canada and Mexico. Trudeau, meanwhile, has indicated a willingness to renegotiate some parts of the deal, while insisting it works, on the whole, for both sides.

The governors are in Rhode Island for their annual summer conference, and Trudeau's appearance will mark the first time a Canadian prime minister has spoken to the group.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, left, said in an interview with CBC News he will be an ally of Canada if impending NAFTA talks go sideways. (Canadian Press)

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said in an interview with CBC News that he will be an ally for Canada if impending NAFTA talks go sideways, vowing to stand up "100 per cent" for the trade relationship in the face of protectionist sentiments from some elements in the U.S.

"We're going to keep pushing this administration so it knows the benefits for countries on both sides of the border," Sununu said.

"Canada remains one of America's strongest partners both economically and strategically, whatever the Trump administration does moving forward," he said ahead of the National Governors' Association conference. "We're not just going to throw [NAFTA] out."

His openness to Canada is not simply to maintain good relations with a neighbour. Last year, New Hampshire sold nearly $650 million worth of goods to Canada. Some 40,000 New Hampshire jobs depend directly on U.S.-Canada trade, including around 4,600 employees hired by 48 Canadian-owned companies in the state.

"This is critical for the state," he said.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, also said she's willing to go to bat for trade with Canada, a key source of wealth for her small coastal state.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said Trudeau is smart to make his trade pitch at the National Governors' Association conference because Washington policymakers are "deadlocked." (CBC News)

"I would hope the Trump administration doesn't do anything to harm the longstanding relationship," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's very smart of the prime minister to want to be here [at the governors' conference] ... because it's no secret that there's a great deal of gridlock in Washington. We, the governors, are actually making things happen."

Tough talk has 'forced people to the table'

The stakes couldn't be higher for Trudeau, as annual trade between the two countries is worth nearly $600 billion, or $1 million a minute, according to the Canadian government. In Ontario alone, 70 per cent of the province's global trade is with the U.S. 

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a strong Trump supporter, said the president's tough talk is part of the negotiation.

"That's how businesspeople do business, and he's not kidding. Canada should not expect a better deal than America," Bevin said. "But what he's really saying is that it needs to be updated, and it does. He's not saying we're going to get rid of it in its entirety, he's created, however, a dialogue that has forced people to the table and that's healthy."

Bevin, a Tea Party Republican who grew up not far from the Canadian border before becoming a multimillionaire investment banker, said officials in Ottawa shouldn't be too fearful. "You're a huge partner, our best ally," he said. "Nobody is looking to get a leg up."

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said Trump's tough talk is "just negotiating." (CBC News)

Sununu, too, said while his support for NAFTA runs deep, he sees no reason why these renegotiations can't be an opportunity for the countries to "update and refine" some aspects of a deal that was penned some 20 years ago. "It's a very friendly partnership but that doesn't mean we can't boost it," he said.

The Republican governor said he'd like to see reciprocal work visas for Canadian and U.S. citizens be simplified, for example. Under the terms of the current deal, nationals from either country can apply for NAFTA immigration status if they work in a number of highly skilled fields. He said there is simply too much paperwork, and too few people can actually qualify.

"All the rules and regulations, and the bureaucracy, really bogs these things down," he said, adding he'd like to see a greater flow of people over the northern border, in both directions, for employment purposes.

States are where 'the rubber hits the road'

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is also in New England to make her own pitch to her state-level counterparts in an effort to stave off major economic disruptions. 

Despite some obvious political differences — many governors are conservative Republicans — Wynne said respect for Canada "actually crosses those partisan boundaries. We all agree that the interconnected economies are benefiting both of us."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said U.S. governors have been very receptive to Canadian policymakers and their message on NAFTA. (CBC News)

Gitane Da Silva, Alberta's trade representative in Washington, said outreach to state leaders is at the heart of Canada's approach to securing a good deal despite threats from Trump.

"The state level is where the rubber hits the road, governors really understand the implications to jobs if we are to have challenges at the border," she said in an interview.

Governors are the perfect interlopers because they typically have positive relations with their state's Congressional delegation, the people who will eventually authorize changes to a trade deal, she said. "They can really carry our message back. We have to speak to them, and get them to speak up in favour of Canada."

Canada will get a better sense of how well its lobbying efforts have worked early next week when the U.S. is required to publish its specific negotiating objectives on NAFTA. The 90-day consultation period required by Congress before beginning talks with Canada and Mexico ends on Aug. 16. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that NAFTA talks could start next week. In fact, the 90-day consultation period required by the U.S. Congress before a renegotiation can begin does not expire until Aug. 16.
    Jul 14, 2017 8:34 AM ET

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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