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Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland makes statements to the media following NAFTA round six renegotiations in Montreal on Jan. 29, 2018.


Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is accusing the "explicitly protectionist" Trump administration of wanting to use the renegotiation of NAFTA to slash trade between the United States and Canada.

In a broadside at her American negotiating partners two days after concluding the latest round of talks, Ms. Freeland accused Washington of taking an unrealistic "zero-sum" view of trade, said the U.S. is "never going to win" the race to bring back low-skilled jobs – a core tenet of President Donald Trump's economic strategy – and slammed politicians who use economic anxiety "as a political resource" to attack immigrants and trade deals.

"At the NAFTA table, [Canada's] overall goal is to say 'Let's modernize, let's update and let's find ways to trade even more together," the Foreign Minister told a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York Wednesday afternoon. "The U.S. … administration is different. This is an administration that is explicitly protectionist and, in many areas, the objective quite explicitly is to shrink the trading relationship."

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While Ms. Freeland's comments were effectively a summary of widely-held views within the Trudeau government, it is rare for a Canadian official to express them so openly. At NAFTA talks on Monday, for example, she was careful to refer to the U.S.'s tough protectionist demands merely as "unconventional proposals."

Ms. Freeland on Wednesday hit back particularly hard at the U.S. over its auto content demands, a core sticking point in the NAFTA talks. Washington is proposing that all vehicles made in Canada and Mexico contain 50 per cent U.S. content, on top of boosting the required amount of North American content in NAFTA-zone autos to 85 per cent from 62.5 per cent.

Canada proposed a compromise at talks in Montreal last week that would instead see the method for calculating North American content revamped to include high-tech work, such as software development. The U.S. rejected this approach, arguing it would not do enough to force auto makers to use more car parts manufactured on the continent.

Ms. Freeland said Canada "had a hard time engaging with [the U.S.] directly" on autos. She said Canada's proposals would encourage more high-skilled jobs in North America and include "credits" for auto companies to build or expand production of self-driving vehicles on the continent.

Without naming Mr. Trump, Ms. Freeland also slammed the brand of populism that forms the centre of his political message. "You have this real anxiety of people, and some political leaders in many countries around the world see that anxiety as a political resource," she said. "The easy way to harness it is to point fingers at outsiders. To say 'It's the fault of that immigrant who speaks a different language and looks different from you,' or 'It's the fault of that bad trade deal and that bad country that's taking advantage of us.'"

Ms. Freeland said Wednesday that Canada's strategy is to "find some creative ways that everybody gets a win."

"You can see this negotiation as a zero-sum game: One guy wins, one guy loses. We sincerely think a trade relationship is a win-win. We think a win-win-win is possible – otherwise, why would you trade if it wasn't good for both parties?" she said.

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And despite the wide philosophical distance, Ms. Freeland said she would assume the U.S. has "positive intent" and push for a deal, even while preparing at least five contingency plans.

"We believe in preparing for the worst. We prepare for the blizzard," she said.

Ironically, given her remarkably candid comments, Ms. Freeland opened the event by invoking the confidentiality of NAFTA talks. When the event's host, former U.S. treasury secretary Jack Lew, asked how NAFTA talks were going, she replied: "I could tell you, but I would have to kill you."

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