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Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown in Ottawa on Nov. 2, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown in Ottawa on Nov. 2, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Harper’s chief of staff takes lead on Trans-Pacific talks, irking cabinet members Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has parachuted in chief of staff Nigel Wright, a former Bay Street deal-maker, to help steer efforts aimed at winning U.S. approval for Canada to join talks on a trans-Pacific free-trade zone.

It’s an unusual move given that International Trade Minister Ed Fast normally leads the file, and it speaks to the urgency of Canada’s desire to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

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Washington, a driving force behind the negotiations, had previously suggested in May its priority was getting a deal among the TPP’s existing nine members, not admitting new ones.

Canadian business sources said Friday that they believe the Harper government’s efforts may bear fruit. They said they’ve been given a head’s up that Washington will give Canada its blessing to join the TPP as early as next week.

Mr. Wright’s prominent and public actions on this file have nevertheless irked some members of the Harper cabinet, who feel it’s unusual for staff in the Prime Minister’s Office to play such a prominent role – one that’s normally left to ministers.

“Some cabinet members are upset that Trade Minister Fast is being nudged out of the way,” a source said.

On Tuesday, meetings in Washington on the matter were led by Mr. Wright although Mr. Fast was also in attendance, the source said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Wright made a presentation to Harper cabinet members on the file and led discussion.

The chief of staff has also met with senior U.S. embassy officials without the Trade Minister.

“People are more used to the PMO operating behind the scenes,” the source said.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment, saying it does not discuss who is playing what role in TPP-related talks.

Another source, familiar with the Prime Minister’s Office, said Mr. Fast is well regarded but that it’s possible the White House nevertheless appreciated a well-connected chief of staff such as Mr. Wright taking a very active hand in the file.

That’s because, the source said, it showed Canada’s strong commitment right from the executive office in Ottawa.

Mr. Wright left a senior post at Onex Corp., one of Bay Street’s largest private-equity firms, to take the job in the PMO and has a wealth of business connections that he can draw upon.

Canadian industry sources said Friday they believe the United States has now agreed to admit Canada, an important endorsement. An announcement could come at the Group of 20 meetings in Los Cabos, Mexico, that begin Monday.

Most – but not all – of the countries in the trans-Pacific talks have okayed Canada’s entry and Washington’s assent would go a long way to ensuring the country is ultimately admitted.

Business sources say they’ve been told that early next week the U.S. administration will give Congress advance notice of plans to enter negotiations with both Canada and Mexico in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Canada has had to work hard to persuade the U.S. government that it can be relied upon to mount a staunch defence of intellectual property – from movies to TV shows to software – both within its own borders and in Trans-Pacific talks.

The United States wants allies to fight heartily for strong intellectual property protection rules during discussions and has sought assurances from the Harper government that Canada will do so.

“The U.S. wants to be sure they’re not going to bring another person to the [TPP] table that is going to stymie their campaign for strong intellectual property protection,” a source familiar with the TPP talks said.

The Conservatives have also expedited the passage of a long-overdue reform of copyright law that tightens protection for intellectual property and cracks down on digital pirates.

While interventions by PMO chiefs of staff is infrequent, it isn't unheard off. During the Mulroney era chiefs such as Derek Burney and Stanley Hartt played key roles in negotiations.

The next round of TPP talks take place in San Diego in early July. It’s not certain whether Canada will be granted observer status for the meeting.

Since Mr. Harper announced Canada’s interest in joining the TPP talks last November, Mr. Fast has been travelling throughout the world to press TPP member countries for admittance.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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