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Trump vows to only tweak Canadian NAFTA provisions after Trudeau meeting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won personal assurances from President Donald Trump during an Oval Office meeting on Monday that the United States only wants to tweak the North American free-trade provisions that govern commerce with Canada.

Mr. Trudeau steered clear of controversial subjects – refusing to criticize Mr. Trump's ban on Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries – opting instead to win the President over by convincing him Canada can help his economic agenda.

Mr. Trudeau came to the White House with the overarching aim of obtaining U.S. guarantees that Canada's export-driven economy wouldn't be sideswiped by the President's plan to renegotiate NAFTA.

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"We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We'll be tweaking it. We'll be doing certain things that will benefit both of our countries," Mr. Trump told a joint news conference in the White House after the sit-down. "Our relationship with Canada is outstanding. We are going to work together to make it even better."

The U.S. President promised "to have a great relationship with Canada … as good or better, hopefully, than ever before."

But the President said the United States will be seeking more "reciprocity" in trade with Canada, which could include demands that U.S. firms are able to bid on provincial and municipal projects. And he said "you can never be totally confident" that the U.S.-Canada border is secure, hinting at two possible areas of friction when talks begin in earnest.

Some Canadian provinces and municipalities have local content or "knowledge" requirements written into their procurement policies, giving an edge to Canadian companies. Infrastructure Ontario, for instance, which oversees tens of billions of dollars' worth of provincial transit, hospital and school construction, favours contractors with local knowledge as a way to boost Ontario-based firms. This protectionist policy is important enough that the province fought to ensure it would be allowed to remain in place when Canada negotiated a free-trade deal with the European Union.

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For the most part, however, Mr. Trump reassured Mr. Trudeau that he has nothing to fear from the new administration in Washington. Mr. Trump said his main aim in revamping NAFTA was to take aim at Mexico, which has a $58-billion (U.S.) trade deficit with the United States, compared with an $11-billion surplus with Canada.

"It is a much less severe situation than what is taking place on the southern border. On the southern border for many, many years the transaction was not fair to the United States. It was an extremely unfair transaction … we are going to make it a fair deal for both countries," Mr. Trump said.

A senior Canadian government official said Mr. Trump and his advisers did not say when they expected NAFTA talks to begin. "We have no clarity on that," said the official, who added the Trump team got along well with their Canadian counterparts despite the ideological differences.

The Prime Minister, who was close to former president Barack Obama, is seen by many Americans as a progressive voice on refugees after letting 40,000 Syrians into Canada at the start of his term. But he resisted a push from U.S. journalists to speak out against Mr. Trump's immigration ban.

"The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they should choose to govern themselves," Mr. Trudeau said. "My role, our responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians' approach and a positive example to the world."

However, Mr. Trudeau said Canada's policy of welcoming refugees would continue and he noted U.S. security agencies had a role in vetting the Syrians who came to Canada.

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The President strongly defended his controversial immigration ban even though the executive order has been blocked by the U.S. courts.

"It's stance of common sense and we are going to pursue it vigorously and we don't want our country to have the kinds of problems taking place not only here but all over the world," Mr. Trump said. "We're not going to let it happen."

The pair largely stuck to trade, with Mr. Trudeau repeatedly drawing parallels between his concern for the middle class and Mr. Trump's.

"At the end of the day, the President and I share a common goal: We both want to make sure that hard-working folks can go to work at a good job, put food on the table for their families and save up to take a vacation every once in a while," he said.

The two leaders promised joint co-operation on border security, continental defence and infrastructure spending – and to stop the flow of opioid drugs coming across the U.S. border.

"The illegal use of opioids in our society is nothing less than a tragedy. We will do everything we can to ensure the safety of Canadians and Americans," Mr. Trudeau said.

The Prime Minister's Office is also keen on rebuilding electrical transmission links across the international border, something that could dovetail with Mr. Trump's promised spending on infrastructure.

Mr. Trump, for his part, appeared to pick up on Mr. Trudeau's insistence that trade with Canada could actually help his agenda. At one point, Mr. Trump included Canada in his vision for stopping the export of jobs overseas.

"Having more jobs and trade right here in North America is better for both the United States and it is also much better for Canada … we will co-ordinate closely to protect jobs in our hemisphere and keep wealth on our continent," Mr. Trump said, adding that he wanted a "stronger trading relationship" and "more … bridges of commerce" with Canada.

Such comments are a sharp contrast with the protectionist rhetoric for which Mr. Trump is usually known.

While Mr. Trudeau and the President did not appear to develop the friendly banter the Prime Minister had with Mr. Obama, they were cordial with each other and seemed to have developed a rapport.

Mr. Trump spent half a day with the Prime Minister and his senior cabinet ministers that included an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office, a luncheon with key administration figures, including Vice-President Mike Pence, and a roundtable with female business executives from Canada and the United States.

During a walk from the West Wing to a luncheon, Mr. Trump and Mr. Trudeau were engrossed in conversation, with both strolling slowly and Mr. Trump placing his hand on Mr. Trudeau's back. Mr. Trump's strategist, Steve Bannon, meanwhile, could be seen speaking animatedly and gesticulating to Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary.

Mr. Trump praised Mr. Trudeau and his father, Pierre Trudeau, at the roundtable announcing a Canada-U.S. women's business council, after Mr. Trudeau presented him with a photograph of the elder Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump at an awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in 1981. Mr. Trudeau also gave Mr. Trump a sculpture of a lion, carved out of sandstone from an Ohio quarry.

Mr. Pence's office said he and Mr. Trudeau's ministers discussed ways to "deepen" trade, and work together on fighting the Islamic State.

Mr. Trudeau also held a chummy meeting with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan. Seated in front a fire, Mr. Ryan ribbed Mr. Trudeau for the way Canadian hockey teams scoop up players from his home state of Wisconsin.

Mr. Ryan's office afterward said he and Mr. Trudeau discussed "breaking down trade barriers" between Canada and the United States – suggesting that Mr. Trump's Republican Party may be pushing the President for more free trade rather than less.

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