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Politics Ambrose named to NAFTA advisory council as Liberals push for united front in talks

Rona Ambrose speaks in Ottawa, on May 16, 2017.

Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose will be advising the Liberal government on its approach to renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement as part of a new 13-member council.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the advisory council Wednesday as Ottawa prepares to enter formal negotiations with the United States and Mexico later this month.

The panel includes former Conservative and NDP politicians as well as business and labour leaders.

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Former Conservative industry minister James Moore, who now advises corporate clients, is also on the council. From the political left, the council includes Brian Topp, a former federal NDP leadership candidate who previously served as chief of staff to Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

"I do think it is smart for the government to cast a wide net and to listen widely and I hope that's what they do," Mr. Topp said in an interview. "These are very difficult issues. They're going to be potentially divisive and complex and hard to balance and the more voices you listen to, the more likely you are to get it right."

The Liberal government has largely succeeded in convincing Canadian political leaders of varying political stripes at all levels of government to forge a common front on the issue of renegotiating NAFTA. Provincial premiers have played a role in representing Canada abroad by engaging state governors and meeting with officials in Washington.

Having a wide range of perspectives inside the negotiating process may help the Liberals deflect any political criticism the government may face during the process. However, Mr. Topp said members of the council are under no obligation to refrain from criticizing the government should they wish.

"I was very clear with the government, as I'm sure the folks from the Conservative Party who are on it were, that agreeing to sit as a volunteer on this advisory committee in no way means that I'm not going to criticize stuff I don't agree with," said Mr. Topp, who is now a fellow with the Public Policy Forum. "We weren't asked to commit to toe the government line by joining this committee."

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent praised the makeup of the council, stating in an e-mail that "it looks like a very competent group of folks."

Other members of the NAFTA council include Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde; Quebec lawyer and current Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Marc-André Blanchard; Gaz Métro president and chief executive Sophie Brochu; BMO CEO William Downe; Union des producteurs agricoles president Marcel Groleau; Linamar Corp. CEO Linda Hasenfratz; the new Canadian consul-general in San Francisco, Rana Sarkar; NRStor Inc. CEO Annette Verschuren; Canada's consul-general in New York, Phyllis Yaffe; and Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff.

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The first round of talks between the three NAFTA countries is scheduled to take place in Washington between Aug. 16-20.

Also on Wednesday, Ms. Freeland appointed new consuls-general in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta, and a new deputy ambassador in Washington.

Ms. Ambrose, the former interim Conservative Party leader, formally resigned her seat in the House of Commons early last month. She had previously announced her decision to become a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Canada Institute, based in Washington.

While it may seem surprising to see a former leader of the Official Opposition move so quickly to advise the government she once criticized daily on the floor of the House of Commons, Ms. Ambrose had long embraced the plan for Canada to speak with one voice when it comes to trade negotiations with the United States.

In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail that she co-wrote with Laura Dawson of the Wilson Center, Ms. Ambrose recommended that Canada focus the conversation on emerging sectors that were not part of the original trade pact.

"Focusing the negotiations on new trade issues is another way to make sure that we're building on what we have instead of backsliding," they wrote. "… It's high-growth service and technology industries – many of which didn't exist in their current form at the time of NAFTA's founding – that need the most attention. What do construction companies, software engineers, animators, clean tech and cybersecurity experts need from government to allow them to do cross-border business better? Let's find out and incorporate them into a new NAFTA."

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