Much of the U.S. administration and Congress is on the same page as Canada in the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement – but the result will still be "unpredictable" when Ottawa sits down with President Donald Trump's government this summer, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is warning.
Ms. Wynne delivered this caution after a three-day lobbying effort in Washington by a group of Canadian premiers, including Brian Pallister of Manitoba and leaders of all the Atlantic provinces.
While most of the American officials the delegation met with understand the importance of NAFTA, Ms. Wynne said, this doesn't necessarily mean Mr. Trump will be knocked off some of his more protectionist impulses.
"There's a good chance that it will be a very rational process that looks at how do we improve NAFTA. But I think it's unpredictable," she said in an interview at the Canadian embassy.
"We have to be vigilant. I don't think we can just say, 'Oh, well, now we've been to Washington, it's all good, it's on the right track.' We are going to continue to reach out."
The key for Canada will be to encourage pro-NAFTA members of the U.S. administration and Congress to make the case for free trade, she said.
"The people who are working and living here are operating in an unpredictable and uncertain environment. We have to respect that and continue to support them as they continue to advance what they know is our mutual best interest," Ms. Wynne said.
Among the heavy-hitters the premiers met with were Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue; Stephen Schwarzman, head of the Strategic Policy Forum, a group of business leaders that advises Mr. Trump; and Stephen Vaughn, counsel to the United States Trade Representative.
The Canadians also lobbied a slew of senators and representatives, including members of the powerful House ways and means committee.
The visit was part of a larger attempt by the federal, provincial and territorial governments to press the case that tearing up NAFTA would hurt the U.S. This effort has included lobbying the White House directly, as well as reaching out to Congress, governors and business groups that can then put pressure on the Trump administration.
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, who led the delegation as chair of the Council of the Federation, said the Republicans the delegation met were frank about the problem with dealing with the Trump administration.
"They're not making any bones about it … he and his administration are rookies, they're new to politics and it's their job to help make sure that the political systems are fully understood by his team," Mr. Silver said.
The Premiers did, however, find allies in the U.S. capital who are on the same page as Canada. Ottawa's hope is to make the negotiations purely about modernizing NAFTA – such as by adding language on the digital economy – while preserving all the open-market provisions in the current deal.
"For the most part, what we're hearing is, 'You've got to look at this in a positive way. It's going to be good for both us,' " Mr. Silver said.
He said many Americans told them the disputes with Canada were confined to specific disagreements – such as over softwood lumber – but the overall trade deal was fine. Still, he said, it was hard to gauge whether the U.S. would allow those disputes to unfold separately or insist they be resolved as part of NAFTA talks.
"The overall theme that we're hearing is that, if you take those small things aside, the NAFTA agreement as a whole between the countries is very functional but just needs to be modernized," he said. "[There is] a little bit of a mixed message there in terms of whether these irritants are going to be dealt with."
He particularly praised Mr. Perdue, with whom he said he was able to build a rapport by giving him a close-to-home example of the advantages of economic integration: Mr. Silver's sister is a veterinarian, as is Mr. Perdue. She completed part of her education in Washington State and now practises in Massachusetts.
"Not only are we neighbours, we're in each others' backyards. And it wasn't lost on him," Mr. Silver said.
Mr. Perdue is generally seen as one of the administration's more pro-NAFTA members: When Mr. Trump was considering an executive order in April that would have begun the process of pulling the U.S. out of the deal, Mr. Perdue is said to have helped change his mind.
Mr. Trump last month gave Congress 90 days' notice of the start of talks, meaning discussions could get under way by mid-August. The goal is to have them wrapped up by the end of the year – a tight time frame that may work to Canada's advantage, as it will leave little opportunity to get into some of the more complex issues.
Ms. Wynne was unusually vocal during the election last year, blasting Mr. Trump as "dangerous" and "blindly protectionist."
Now, however, she is more cautious, saying she will stick purely to economic discussions and not weigh in on Mr. Trump's performance as President.
"There would always be personal disagreements, I mean, there's no secret about that," she said. "But the fact is that this is a relationship that's critical to both of our jurisdictions."