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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference at Rideau Cottage, in Ottawa, on June 22, 2020.

Blair Gable/Reuters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not be joining his U.S. and Mexican counterparts Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the coming into force of the new NAFTA, his office says.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador are meeting in the U.S. capital to mark the start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a renegotiated version of the North American free-trade agreement.

Mr. Trudeau’s no-show will take place as the United States threatens to hit Canada with tariffs on aluminum shipments – a matter casting a cloud over Canada-U.S. relations.

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The Prime Minister said he’s too busy with a House of Commons sitting Wednesday, as well as the economic snapshot of federal government finances being delivered that day.

“We wish the United States and Mexico well at Wednesday’s meeting. While there were recent discussions about the possible participation of Canada, the Prime Minister will be in Ottawa this week for scheduled Cabinet meetings and the long-planned sitting of Parliament,” said Cameron Ahmad, director of communications for the Prime Minister’s Office, in a statement.

“The entry into force of the new NAFTA is good for Canada, the United States and Mexico. It will help ensure that North America emerges stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Ahmad said. ”We continue to work with our NAFTA partners to ensure this new agreement becomes a success for all three countries.”

Mr. Trudeau has mentioned health concerns when he was considering making the trip to Washington, as COVID-19 infection rates have been rising in a number of states.

Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who once served as a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau, noted the Prime Minister has been trying to follow health recommendations during the pandemic; a U.S. trip would result in him and his staff going into self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

Plus, he added, it’s not clear the Washington meeting would be anything more than a photo op. “Does that count as essential?” Prof. Paris asked. “I am sure [Mr. Trudeau] is not interested in being used as a political prop.”

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who had publicly urged Mr. Trudeau to attend, told reporters Monday that he would soon speak to the Prime Minister by phone.

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The Mexican President also said he would undergo a coronavirus test before leaving Mexico and was prepared to do another in the U.S. if required.

A Canadian government official told The Globe and Mail that Canada regarded the Wednesday event as more of a Lopez Obrador-Trump meeting from its inception. The official is not being identified because they were not authorized to publicly discuss foreign relations.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has threatened to reimpose a 10-per-cent tariff on Canadian aluminum. The Globe reported last month that Mr. Trump’s trade officials told their Canadian counterparts that they would recommend tariffs to the President if Canada did not promptly cut back on exports of the metal.

Reimposing tariffs would contravene the spirit of the USMCA, which came into force on July 1. Like NAFTA, the new agreement allows tariff-free trade on almost all goods between the three countries.

Mr. Trump has used Section 232, an obscure provision of the Trade Expansion Act, to justify new tariffs. It allows the President to get around free-trade agreements by imposing tariffs for “national security” purposes, even though Canada is a U.S. ally and part of that country’s defence industrial base.

One Canadian government source said Monday that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Mr. Trudeau’s point person on the U.S. file, is in discussions with Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump’s trade chief. The official said it did not appear that Mr. Lighthizer had recommended tariffs to Mr. Trump but it was still unclear whether such an outcome could be avoided.

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One aluminum industry source said the Trump administration wants Canada to do what Australia did last year: In response to tariff threats from the White House, the Australian government told its industry to cut back on exports to the U.S. The Trudeau government, however, wants to do no such thing, and Canadian officials have been holding their ground in talks with the Americans, the industry source said.

The Trump administration may also reimpose a 25-per-cent tariff on Canadian steel, but those discussions are less advanced than the ones on aluminum, the government and industry sources said – neither of which is being identified by The Globe because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Mr. Trump imposed the tariffs on Canada and dozens of other countries in 2018 as part of a broad effort to protect the U.S. metals industry from foreign competition. Canada fired back with tariffs on a range of U.S. goods, including ketchup and bourbon.

In 2019, Mr. Lighthizer and Ms. Freeland reached a deal to lift the tariffs. Under the terms of that arrangement, a “surge” of any steel or aluminum product from Canada could be met with U.S. tariffs on that specific product. Two U.S. aluminum companies say there has been such a surge and have been lobbying the Trump administration to reimpose tariffs. The Canadian industry, as well as the main U.S. aluminum industry group, say there has been no such flooding of the U.S. market.

The U.S. does not produce enough aluminum to meet its demand, which means that, even with tariffs, manufacturers would likely have to keep importing Canadian metal and paying the tax, making U.S. aluminum cheaper.

With files from Reuters

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