Here is a timeline of key events in Canada’s dispute with the United States over NAFTA, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and American tariffs on steel and aluminium:
June 28, 2016: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declares his antipathy for the North American Free Trade Agreement in a campaign speech in Pittsburgh, in the heart of a Rust Belt state that he would eventually win to secure the presidency. “NAFTA was the worst trade deal in history,” says Trump, pledging to renegotiate the pact “to get a better deal for our workers.” He promises to leave the agreement if Canada and Mexico refuse to bargain with him.
Aug. 16, 2017: Canada, Mexico and the United States begin the renegotiation of NAFTA in earnest. The Trump administration opens with a lecture, upping the ante from earlier remarks that it simply wants to “tweak” the deal. Trump’s trade czar Robert Lighthizer declares: “We feel that NAFTA has fundamentally failed many, many Americans and needs major improvement.”
October: The U.S. introduces so-called “poison pills” that Canada says it simply can’t accept. The U.S. wants to increase American content in automobiles, get rid of Canada’s supply-management system in agriculture, introduce a five-year sunset clause to force regular renegotiations, do away with a dispute-settlement mechanism and reduce Mexican and Canadian access to bidding on U.S. procurement projects. The three countries do eventually reach a new deal on autos, while the U.S. backs away from the other demands.
March 14, 2018: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada won’t be “bowled over” at the NAFTA talks by Trump. Trudeau makes the remarks while visiting steelworkers in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “We’re standing up for ourselves. But we know there’s a win-win-win we can get to,” Trudeau says. “We’re pushing back on some things that we think might not be the right suggestions, which is what people would expect from Canada.”
May 31: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declares that the Trump administration is making good on its threat to slap hefty tariffs on Canadian metals exports – 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum – on the grounds that foreign steel dependency poses a threat to American national security. However, Ross signals clearly the tariffs are linked to the trade talks: “As to Canada, Mexico, you will recall that the reason for the deferral (of tariffs) had been pending the outcome of the NAFTA talks,” he said. “Those talks are taking longer than we had hoped.”
June 7: Trump hurls a series of personal insults at Trudeau from Air Force One after a G7 summit in Quebec. The president calls Canada’s prime minister “dishonest” and “weak” after Trudeau repeats his objections to the steel and aluminum tariffs. The incident marks a new low in prime ministerial-presidential politics across the 49th parallel at a time when NAFTA negotiations remain deadlocked.
July 1: Canada imposes dollar-for-dollar tariff “countermeasures” of its own on up to $16.6 billion worth of imports of steel, aluminum and other products from the U.S. – everything from flat-rolled steel to playing cards and felt-tipped pens. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calls the U.S. tariffs illegal and counterproductive; Trudeau calls it inconceivable that Canada could be seen as a national-security threat to the U.S.
Aug. 27: Mexico and the United States announce their own bilateral trade deal after weeks of negotiations that were supposed to be only about autos. Instead they negotiated a sweeping text covering the full scope of the trading relationship. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland blows up a trip to Europe and diverts to Washington, starting a month of intense negotiations to bring Canada into the NAFTA fold.
Sept. 20: Liberal government insiders indicate that as the NAFTA talks come down to the wire, the so-called Section 232 tariffs – so named for the obscure U.S. trade-law provision under which they were imposed – remain a major sticking point. Some observers suggest negotiating the tariff dispute separately would mean a shorter path to a deal.
Sept. 26: Trump strikes again, this time at the UN General Assembly: “Frankly, we’re thinking about just taxing cars coming in from Canada,” he says when asked about the stalled talks. “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada,” he continues, adding, “We don’t like their representative very much” – a reference to Freeland.
Sept. 30: Staring down a midnight deadline to provide a text of an agreement to Congress, Trump’s and Trudeau’s team work out last-minute details that bring Canada into a renewed continental trade pact. Trudeau leaves the Prime Minister’s Office after a late-night cabinet meeting and says six words: “It’s a good day for Canada.”
Oct. 19: Liberal government officials make it clear Canada will not accept any sort of a quota restriction on steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. in exchange for lifting the tariffs. Meanwhile, Mexican officials fuel speculation that the U.S. plans to lift the tariffs once the new agreement is signed during a G20 summit in Argentina.
Nov. 30: Trump, Trudeau and outgoing Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto sign the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, at the summit but there is no sign of movement on tariffs.
Jan. 30, 2019: Kevin Brady, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee (its senior member from the minority Republicans), sends the first clear signal that the tariffs could be a problem for both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to ratifying the new trade deal. “They’re not really willing to consider this agreement until the steel and aluminum tariffs are ensured to be lifted off, including quotas,” Brady tells a trade conference in Washington.
Feb. 21: David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., declares publicly that he’s confident the tariffs will be lifted “in the next few weeks” – comments he later acknowledges were aimed at lighting a fire under recalcitrant U.S. negotiators. Later that same week, Transport Minister Marc Garneau tells a gathering of governors in the U.S. capital that Canada would struggle to ratify the agreement with the tariffs still in place. “I got the message loud and clear,” responds Larry Kudlow, Trump’s senior economic adviser.
May 17: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suddenly adds a trip to a Stelco plant in Hamilton, Ont., to his schedule. He confirms reports that an agreement on tariffs has been reached and that the levies will be gone within 48 hours. “This decision reflects what is known to be true by friends on both sides of the border,” Trudeau says. “Canada has been America’s most steadfast ally for more than 100 years, and our long-standing partnership and closely linked economies make us more competitive around the world and improve our combined security.”