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Canada Wynne reaches out to U.S. governors to win allies on free trade

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Windsor, Ont., on March 30, 2017.

Dave Chidley/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is reaching out to U.S. governors in the hopes of winning free trade allies, fearing a proposed Buy American bill in New York state could trigger a domino effect in other states.

Wynne talked trade in a phone call with Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Thursday afternoon, and is headed to Illinois on Monday to meet with business leaders and deliver the same pro-trade message to Gov. Bruce Rauner, the premier's office told The Canadian Press.

Wynne has already met with the governors of Michigan and Vermont, and spoken with governors of Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee.

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Her outreach comes as New York state legislators continue a protracted debate over their state budget and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's related New York Buy American Act, which would require all state entities to buy from American companies for all procurements greater than US$100,000.

Ontario has a government relations firm on the ground in the New York, monitoring every "twitch and movement" of the evolving situation, with plans to remain there during the state legislature's Passover/Easter recess, a senior government official said.

The conversation with Kasich this week was a "wide-ranging discussion" that lasted about 30 minutes, that began with trade, the government official said.

The premier's message is always about making the case that free trade is essential for jobs in both jurisdictions. The conversation with Kasich also touched on areas of mutual interest, including early childhood education and auto innovation, the official said.

The broader plan is for the premier to create "a network of champions and advocates" for Ontario on trade issues in the event a "wave of protectionism" washes over the U.S., the official said.

Should a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement occur, Ontario is hoping to have strong bilateral relationships with states and "a chorus of high-profile politicians and other influencers south of the border," who understand the importance of trade with Ontario, the official said.

New York's Buy American legislation is particularly concerning because it the "strongest," "most protectionist" such piece Ontario officials have seen and was quickly embraced by legislators, the official said.

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That "test case," combined with protectionist rhetoric coming from the White House, has the Ontario government studying the severity of potential negative repercussions to the province's economy, the official said.

Wynne has said Ontario intends to seek an exemption to New York's Buy American legislation, should it pass.

The premier and Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid have used tough language with New York, and implied Ontario could respond in kind and stop buying from New York companies, should it not receive an exemption.

"This premier is building transit, and roads, and bridges, infrastructure," Duguid said last week. "We've got $160 billion in investment coming in the next 12 years and I expect New York companies are going to want to have access to that as well."

On Friday, Duguid also said a U.S. wave of protectionism could put Ontario's economic footing at risk.

"We are one of the leading economies in North America right now in terms of growth and job creation and there's no question that the protectionism in the U.S. is a potential risk to the good work we've done to build the strong economy we have here in Ontario," he said.

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