Bush reaffirms support for NAFTA

U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement Monday, at the end of the first day of a summit in New Orleans with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.

U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement Monday, at the end of the first day of a summit in New Orleans with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.

"This summit comes at an opportune time to reaffirm the benefits of the trading arrangements between our three nations. Canada and the United States have a very unique and important relationship," said Bush.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs supporter Helen Meridy at a welcoming ceremony in New Orleans on Monday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

While free trade was not on the formal agenda, the topic came up in discussion because those vying to replace the U.S. president in the upcoming November election have suggested NAFTA could be renegotiated.

Canadian business leaders were looking for reassurance that the trilateral trade agreement would be here to stay.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are vying to become the Democratic presidential candidate, have threatened to dump NAFTA unless it's reopened to include protection for workers and the environment. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has appeared more supportive of NAFTA, but not enough to reassure business leaders.

"This issue of transition is of concern to us because we have no idea what a president Obama or president Clinton or a president McCain might do with this," Tom d'Aquino, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said before the summit got underway.

Bush praises Harper's leadership in Bucharest

The two-day North American Leaders' Summit began Monday afternoon with one-on-one meetings between Harper, Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

The leaders, dubbed the Three Amigos, discussed issues of shared concern including border, trade, the environment and energy.  

Canada has deeper interests in bilateral relations with the U.S. than the link with Mexico, especially now that the two countries will be working closely together in Afghanistan.

Bush also took the opportunity to congratulate Harper for his commitment to climate change, as well as to praise what he described as Harper's effective and strong leadership at the recent NATO summit in Romania.

At the Bucharest summit in early April, NATO members agreed to Canada's demand for 1,000 more troops to support Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan. U.S. marines will be moving into the Kandahar region to help the Canadians.

"Our armed forces look very much forward to working with your people in Kandahar," Harper said to Bush.

All the leaders' comments were made during tightly scripted photo ops. The three won't take questions until a joint news conference after the summit finishes on Tuesday.

Business community worried about border

Other issues that were expected to dominate the New Orleans agenda include oil, Cuban and Venezuelan leadership, carbon sequestration and food testing. The U.S., meanwhile, has said it will push for common regulations in the auto sector, including rules about fuel efficiency.

The discussions were also expected to look at the increasingly uneasy flow of goods across the Canada-U.S. border.

"The border is getting thicker, rather than thinner, and that means more delays," d'Aquino said.

D'Aquino was one of a handful of prominent business leaders invited to the summit, which is also being attended by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Industry Minister Jim Prentice.

D'Aquino said border delays are a large worry for Canada's business community.

"Perhaps it means some deterred investment, and we're deeply concerned about that."

U.S. officials have hinted at a possible announcement about improving the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, a four-lane bridge built in 1929 that handles one-quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade.