Skip to main content

Premier Brad Wall speaks with members of the media following the 2017 budget speech at the Legislative Building in Regina Wednesday, March 22, 2017.Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

In Canada, Brad Wall is a thorn in Justin Trudeau's side, threatening to take the federal government to court over its plan to bring in a carbon tax. But in Washington, the Saskatchewan Premier is the Prime Minister's secret weapon.

Mr. Wall spent four days in the U.S. capital this week as part of Canada's full-court press to head off U.S. President Donald Trump's promised turn to economic nationalism – and his conservative bona fides were a key part of his pitch to the right-wing administration and its congressional allies.

Read also: (subscribers) Ottawa unleashes lobbying blitz in U.S. in effort to save Canadian trade access

For a subnational leader, he gained impressive access, landing sit-downs with such heavy hitters as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump's point-man on the North American free-trade agreement, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.

In an interview in the lobby of his hotel between meetings, Mr. Wall chuckled when asked if it's awkward to serve as international emissary for a man he's planning to sue.

"No, it really isn't. I think that it's very important to separate those issues – especially for something as important as this," he said.

Mr. Wall said he called up Mr. Trudeau and volunteered his services. Shortly after, the Prime Minister asked him to go to Iowa – a crucial U.S. swing state with strong trading links to Saskatchewan – to meet with Governor Terry Branstad and address the legislature. Then came the Washington trip.

It's all part of a wide-ranging lobbying effort by Canada to impress upon the United States that protectionist measures would hurt both countries. At least a dozen federal cabinet ministers are fanning out to 11 U.S. states, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also visited Washington in February.

"He's got a very focused and clear plan for engagement at all points of contact. He said to me 'I need the premiers to engage at the subnational level, with states, and reach out,'" Mr. Wall said. "The federal government has a multifaceted approach in terms of contact but a pretty focused one in terms of message."

Talks on renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement have not yet begun, due to delays in the Trump administration giving Congress 90 days' notice before the start of negotiations and Senate Democrats stalling the confirmation of Mr. Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.

Mr. Wall mostly arranged his meetings in Washington through David Wilkins, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and Republican politician. Nelson Mullins, the lobbying firm for which Mr. Wilkins works, is on contract with the Saskatchewan government to represent the province's interests in the United States.

One Republican insider said Mr. Wall's reputation as a right-wing stalwart helped him open doors in Washington. The Saskatchewan Premier is already known to many conservatives inside the Beltway, said the source, pointing out that Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman Tom Rice have previously visited Saskatchewan.

And the Premier put a distinctly free-enterprise twist on his pitch. In a speech Wednesday to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Mr. Wall floated the possibility of Canada loosening its system of supply management on milk, eggs and poultry in exchange for the United States swearing off a border adjustment tax and Buy American provisions on infrastructure procurement.

"My wife and I, we're lucky to have a place in Arizona, together with my folks, so we get down there a little bit, and I catch myself staring longingly at the price of cheese at the local Fry's. It's 25 per cent, sometimes, of what we pay at home," he said.

He also played to his reputation as a champion of the oil industry, suggesting Canada is a better bet to supply oil to the United States than OPEC: "I happen to think the world would rather buy oil from countries that are free and democratic, who respect the rule of law and might be a few centuries removed from public beheadings."

Mr. Wall admitted to some bafflement that ostensible conservatives around Mr. Trump are turning to a policy of closed borders. Bringing in immigrants, for instance, has been a key part of his province's economic growth over the last decade.

"A robust immigration policy and a free-trade policy, to me, are synonymous with free enterprise politics and conservative politics," he said in the interview. "It's surprising that that seems to be changing for some."

But if the Premier's views on such topics are sharply different from those of Trump administration, they also represent a broader Canadian consensus.

At the Heritage Foundation event, diplomat Colin Bird pointed out that the NAFTA psychodrama playing out in the United States today was settled in Canada in the 1980s.

"I have never seen such unanimity in belief in the power of trade as a force for prosperity for Canada as we have now. It is no longer a partisan issue," said Mr. Bird, minister-counsellor for trade at Canada's embassy in Washington.

Bryan Riley of the Heritage Foundation said Canada's progress cutting tariffs, particularly on inputs used by manufacturers, has outpaced the United States': "Canada actually ranks ahead of the United States in … economic freedom," he said.

It's a case a conservative like Mr. Wall is uniquely positioned to make. But he was careful not to raise expectations he could break through to the administration: Asked if he hoped to be Mr. Trudeau's "Trump whisperer," Mr. Wall laughed.

"There are things about what's going on here that are hard for anyone to understand – regardless of where they are on the spectrum," he said.

Want to interact with other informed Canadians and Globe journalists? Join our exclusive Globe and Mail subscribers Facebook group

Prime Minister Trudeau and U.S. President Trump respond to a question on the future of trade between the two countries at a joint press conference in Washington, D.C.