Canada's premiers have embarked down the rocky road toward a new U.S.-Canada trade deal, signalling that they would open their markets to the United States in return for exemptions from Buy American policies.
The premiers, meeting in Regina, endorsed the process started by the federal government to seek a new deal for Canadians who are shut out of U.S. state and municipal contracts funded by U.S. President Barack Obama's stimulus package.
The issue is expected to come up next week when Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends the Three Amigos summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, with Mr. Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, frustrated by Canadian companies blocked from U.S. contracts, voted this spring to apply their own buy-local policies if Canada doesn't gain an exemption from Buy American by the fall.
The premiers decided Friday to work alongside the federal government to seek a deal as quickly as possible, before the stimulus spending runs out. They also plan to meet with U.S. governors to press the issue.
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said the provinces are looking for a reciprocal agreement with the U.S. on access.
"What we expect them to give to us, they can expect us to give to them," Mr. Campbell said. "We have to act quickly. The Prime Minister will be meeting with the President this week … we want this to happen quickly."
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said he would go so far as to legally bind the municipalities in his province to open their markets if he has to.
"If we have an agreement with the United States, it's my responsibility to deliver it in my own province, through the legal means we have possible," he said. "Obviously it's best through consultations, but when you make a commitment, you have to deliver on it."
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, asked if he would direct his municipalities to keep their markets open, said Quebec's cities and town understand the issue "and they support it."
But the negotiations will be fraught with caveats and conditions, as exemplified by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who indicated yesterday that he intends to protect Ontario-content policies for public transit and green-energy initiatives. Ontario requires 25-per-cent provincial content for transit projects and is establishing thresholds for green initiatives such as wind power.
"Even in the freest of free-trade arrangements there are always exceptions," Mr. McGuinty said. "We're looking for freer trade than exists at present, and ideally, we'd simply go back to where we were six months ago."
Mr. McGuinty said that, over the long term, provinces and states will have to sign on to an agreement that provides certainty that businesses will have access to each other's government business.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who chaired the premiers' conference, said that if Canadians want the U.S. to "to stop rattling the protectionist sabres down there … our own house better be in order. If we're going to ask for free and fair trade from others, we better be prepared to provide it ourselves.
Mr. Wall said only a few Saskatchewan municipalities have indicated they may pursue preferential policies.