Montreal talks could signal beginning of the end for NAFTA

Montreal's NAFTA talks could signal the end of a golden age of free trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to members of Canada's advisory panel on the trade meetings.

Canadian trade advisers fear Donald Trump is preparing to pull the plug

National flags representing Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. are lit by stage lights at the NAFTA renegotiations in Mexico City, on Sept. 5, 2017. The sixth round of talks kicks off in Montreal next week, two people on the Canadian advisory panel are nervous this could signal the beginning of the end. (Canadian Press)

Montreal's round of NAFTA talks could signal the demise of a golden era of free trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to members of Canada's advisory panel on the trade meetings.

Donald Trump's hot-and-cold attitude has stalled months of attempts to find a quick way through the negotiations, and the advisory panel fears his impact is far from over.

"It's not if but when he triggers the six-month withdrawal," Rona Ambrose told CBC Radio's The House on Friday.

"The longer we go with nothing accomplished the more we start to think that Trump's likely scenario is he wants to be able to say 'There's no outcome, we're not making any progress, we don't have partners that are working well with us, we're going to trigger the six-month withdrawal.'"

Threats from the U.S. president to pull out of the trade deal have circulated, but his administration is still subject to the clause that requires half a year's notice before withdrawal.

U.S. 'not looking for an agreement' soon

The sixth round of talks kick off next week and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she'd be bringing some "creative" new proposals to the table in response to U.S. inflexibility.

But if her U.S. counterparts are unwilling to bend — even slightly — it could seal the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"It is clear the Americans are not looking for an agreement any time soon," Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said.

"I think it's really critical that we brace ourselves."

Both Yussuff and Ambrose said it will be obvious from the tone of the Montreal meetings how the United States intends to proceed with NAFTA.

"We haven't seen any concrete gains to date," Ambrose said.

And that's concerning to both of them.

'America first' could kill NAFTA

The fears, however, are directly contrary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's most recent comments on the talks.

Earlier this week, Trudeau said he remains optimistic that Canada, the United States and Mexico can strike a "win-win-win" deal that would benefit all three countries.

Officials from all three countries have acknowledged reaching a deal would benefit their respective economies — even notable Republican Karl Rove said withdrawing from NAFTA would kill American jobs.

Yet, Ambrose worries the president and his cabinet are unmoved.

"The people that are right around him on trade… they're nationalists, they're 'America first' and that's what Trump is."

Yussuff echoed the dismay.

"The president hears what he wants to hear and believes what he wants to believe."

The meetings in Montreal will run from Jan. 23 to 29.