Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne chose to meet with a group of governors who aren't her natural allies during a visit to the United States this week, sitting down to discuss trade with a number of Republicans closely aligned with President Donald Trump.
Only days before the U.S. administration is expected to cement its position for upcoming negotiations over the future of the North American free-trade agreement, Ms. Wynne made a final push – at what she said was a "critical moment" – to steer Mr. Trump's supporters away from protectionist sentiments at a conference of governors in Rhode Island.
"It's a time of uncertainty," Ms. Wynne said at Queen's Park on Thursday before leaving for the United States. "Right now, there are pressures that we are all aware of. There are increasing pressures and forces for protectionism that we have to deal with."
Ms. Wynne's meetings with five governors capped months of intensive lobbying efforts by Ontario in Washington and state capitals aimed at quashing proposed trade restrictions, including so-called "Buy American" rules. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the same conference and delivered warnings about a protectionist future.
Part of that lobbying has involved a significant shift in how Ontario discusses trade. With Mr. Trump telling his supporters that trade had become unfair and that trade agreements should be torn up, Ontario has stopped talking about how successful Canadian industry has been selling to the U.S. market, and has instead chosen to highlight how much it buys from the United States.
The province has also turned to auto executives, who are at the core of Ontario's largest export industry, for advice. Ms. Wynne has held meetings with executives from auto part manufacturers Linamar, Magna and Martinrea as part of her American strategy, her office told The Globe and Mail.
Ontario exported nearly $166-billion worth of goods to the United States in 2016, equalling nearly one-fifth of the provincial economy. Over the same period, it imported $189-billion. The auto sector alone accounted for more than $120-billion of traffic between the province and the United States.
While the federal government has led the charge over upcoming trade talks, most premiers have made trips to the United States since Mr. Trump's inauguration to convince governors and other senior officials of the importance of open trade links with Canada. Trade is expected to dominate a conference of Canada's premiers scheduled for Edmonton next week.
With Canada's largest economy, Ontario has a number of deep trading relationships with American states – it's either the first- or second-biggest trading partner for 28 of them. As a result, the province has also taken the dive into state politics, helping to defeat a wide-ranging Buy American proposal in New York earlier this year. Lobbying efforts failed to stop a more limited bill in Texas. The province has also threatened to retaliate against any trade restrictions adopted by a state, by targeting that state's economy with similar rules.
Before leaving for Rhode Island, the premier said she didn't expect to discuss any future tit-for-tat trade disputes with the governors she was planning to meet. "We're still concerned about Buy America, but the way I come at the conversation is not a threat," she said. "It is much more in the spirit of, 'Look, we have a very shared interest here, there are thousands of jobs in your jurisdiction and thousands of jobs in my jurisdiction that are dependent on each other's companies. To put in place policies that raise trade barriers, that decrease that connectivity, are actually bad for both of us.' That's a compelling argument."
It's a message that has been working, she said. While many of the governors Ms. Wynne met with have endorsed Mr. Trump, she said on Thursday that her previous discussions with other governors have bridged partisan divides, as most have recognized the importance Canadian trade has had creating jobs in their respective states.
On Thursday and Friday, Ms. Wynne met with Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican who at one time was seen as a possible running mate for Mr. Trump; Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who is seen as a close ally to Mr. Trump; Matt Bevin of Kentucky, who has close ties to the Tea Party movement; as well as Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, a moderate Republican who favours free trade. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was the only Democrat she met with.
"The conversations that I've had so far have given me a lot of confidence that the leadership in states in America understand how important [our trade] connections are," Ms. Wynne said. Most of the governors she met with are from states that have Ontario as their first- or second-largest customer.