The Canadian government is conducting a lobbying blitz of politicians in key U.S. states to help persuade the Trump administration to spare Canada from protectionist trade measures being contemplated in Washington.
At least one dozen cabinet ministers are travelling across the United States this spring in an effort that federal officials liken to a political campaign, trying to remind American lawmakers and U.S. media of how crucial trade with Canada is to their economic well-being.
Canadian premiers – even those such as Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, who are locking horns with the Liberal government on domestic issues – are joining the effort.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has selected 11 states in particular that will be the focus of this outreach. They include the most populous states: New York, home to U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as California, Florida and Texas.
The Trump administration, which has said it wants to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement, has already signalled in a letter to Congress that it wants across-the-board changes that would tilt the rules of cross-border commerce more clearly in favour of U.S. business. These could include a border adjustment tax on foreign imports, broadening "Buy American" provisions of U.S. government purchasing rules and scrapping a dispute settlement tribunal that Canada has relied on to resolve trade tiffs.
The outreach by such cabinet members as Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, is scheduled to continue until the second week of June.
Mr. Wall said Mr. Trudeau asked all premiers several weeks ago to pitch in. He was dispatched first to Iowa – the crucial first state to vote in the U.S. presidential nominating process and a swing state that flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 – then to Washington.
"All premiers are being asked to engage with our American counterparts, to be proactive on this issue, lest decisions be taken here that are perhaps not informed by the reality of the relationship," he told an audience Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
In Iowa, Mr. Wall met with Governor Terry Branstad and spoke to the state's House of Representatives. In Washington, he had meetings lined up with heavy hitters in the Trump administration, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump's point man on NAFTA renegotiations. He also had sit-downs with high-profile legislators, including Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
Mr. Wall's blunt message echoed that of the Trudeau government: Protectionist measures will do more to hurt the U.S. economy than help it.
"You consider something as blunt as the border-adjustment tax, in the manifestations that I've heard, and you wonder: Well, what would that do … to that business in the U.S? What does it do to the proposition of these integrated value chains?" Mr. Wall told the Heritage Foundation.
And he warned that if the Trump administration follows through on its edict to bar non-American steel – such as that made at the Evraz plant in Regina – from use in U.S. oil pipelines, he would ask Ottawa to fight back.
"We would quite rightly ask our federal government to retaliate, any premier might … Any governor faced with the same proposition might say the same thing to its federal government," Mr. Wall said. "And then we're into it, folks, aren't we? Then we're into this destructive process where you have an escalation of responses."
In Iowa, Mr. Wall said he emphasized cross-border supply chains. Saskatchewan farmers buy John Deere tractors, made in Waterloo, Iowa, to harvest oats that are then sold to General Mills in Cedar Rapids, turned into Cheerios and exported back to Canada, he said.
Canadian government officials say the air-war component of the campaign consists of interviews with American journalists in state capitals. The ground-war phase involves meetings Canadian envoys are holding with American lawmakers and business people.
States have been chosen for this campaign not only for the importance of their trade with Canada but also their connections, sources say.
Wisconsin is included because it's home to Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Kentucky is the home state of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Vice-President Mike Pence hails from Indiana.
The strategy in the Prime Minister's Office is to win over lawmakers and media in these influential states when it comes to opposing measures such as a border-adjustment tax – a measure the Republicans are considering imposing on foreign imports – or Buy American laws. If they can do that, officials say, it should be easier to win over decision makers in Washington.
"Visits by a number of ministers across these states will serve to highlight our two countries' focus on building stronger economies where the middle class, and those working hard to join it, have greater opportunities to succeed and prosper – on both sides of the border," said Cameron Ahmad, press secretary to the Prime Minister.
Mr. Trudeau himself helped kick off the campaign, attending a Houston energy summit last month to highlight the importance of Canadian petroleum, electricity and uranium to U.S. industry.
Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, said Canada must also heavily target Congress, not just senators and members of the House of Representatives but also key staffers who are most knowledgeable about trade.
"For Americans more generally, we need to demonstrate specifically and statistically how important our trade is to American jobs and interests and emphasize that damage to one partner inevitably damages the other," Mr. Burney said.
The Trump administration has said the draft letter to Congress is not its official negotiating plan for NAFTA but Mr. Burney said Canada cannot be complacent about the document.
The Canadian strategy is well developed and, so far, well executed, said Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based trade lawyer well versed in such negotiations.
"The effort has been constructed and orchestrated as a bipartisan non-political effort to make the case in the United States," Mr. Herman noted.
Canadian officials have shown that they understand the U.S. political system better than any other country and have put the resources in place to make sure the message is delivered to their U.S. counterparts, he said.
"The House of Representatives and the Senate will respond to specific constituency interests and those interests hopefully will make the case for continuing with the important parts of the NAFTA untouched," he said.
Gary Hufbauer, a fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, agreed that lobbying of U.S. governors and Washington representatives makes sense.
But the strategy needs to include other actions, he cautioned, such as emphasizing to U.S. officials that the United States has a trade surplus with Canada when energy shipments are excluded from the calculation.