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Canada's chief NAFTA negotiator Steve Verheul talks to reporters in Ottawa on March 28, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government has been orchestrating the Canadian approach to the North American free-trade agreement talks so carefully that at one point, Ottawa issued talking points to help ensure even the provinces and territories were all speaking with one voice.

The e-mail inbox of Steve Verheul, Canada’s chief NAFTA negotiator, shows the Department of Global Affairs had prepared message lines for other levels of government on the very day last summer that the United States first released goals for a new trilateral deal.

“Canada’s position is that any modernization of NAFTA will need to take the North American relationship forward,” one of the proposed lines said.

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The Canadian Press obtained the e-mails in response to an Access to Information request.

The package included facts and figures on how the United States benefits from trade with Canada, but suggested little be said when asked about specific topics U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer put on his list.

The U.S. summary released last July 17 included things such as keeping “Buy America” rules, increasing the amount Canadians can purchase online without paying import duties and a greater ability to export U.S. agricultural goods, such as dairy products, which in Canada are protected by supply management.

“The objectives are not outcomes,” was one of the suggested responses to questions about specific items on the list.

“Canada looks forward to sitting at the table with negotiators from Mexico and the U.S. to modernize the NAFTA,” was another.

The document also did not include any specifics on what Canada would like to see in the new agreement, beyond some vague language on modernizing digital trade and customs facilitation and noted the United States is required by law to publish its objectives.

Ottawa also expected the provinces and territories, whose premiers were gathering that week in Edmonton, to mention that modernizing the 1994 agreement with the United States and Mexico would give Canada the chance to push for what has become a key part of the Trudeau trade agenda.

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“A strong, modern and flexible NAFTA is important for North America to maintain its competitiveness in an increasingly complex and connected global marketplace,” the document said. “The modernization of NAFTA also offers Canada the opportunity to integrate progressive, free and fair approaches to North American trade and investment.”

The Liberal government has been working to incorporate such “progressive” elements into trade deals, which in the case of NAFTA included proposing entire chapters on gender equality and Indigenous rights.

A government official said on Friday that renegotiating NAFTA is a federal prerogative, but it makes sense to work closely with the provinces and territories every step of the way.

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