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A container ship is unloaded at Peel Ports Liverpool container terminal in Liverpool, Britain.

Phil Noble/REUTERS

As Britain starts the process of leaving the European Union, the U.K.'s top trade negotiator tried to assure Canadian businesses that robust trade between the two nations would not be disrupted.

"The United Kingdom must reforge our relationships with those nations who have been our longest-serving and closest allies," Liam Fox, Britain's international trade secretary, told an audience at the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Thursday. "Ensuring that there is no disruption in our free trade either with Canada or any other partner is a top priority."

Canada's trading relationships with two of its largest partners, Britain and the United States, are uncertain as the U.K. moves to exit the EU and President Donald Trump pushes to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement.

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Although the British government envisions new free-trade agreements when it leaves the EU, it is unknown how long it will take Britain to break up with the European Union or negotiate fresh trading deals.

The country faces a number of hurdles, including strong opposition from many of its members of Parliament who want to maintain access to EU's single market.

Britain cannot broker new trade deals while still in the EU, as trade pacts are signed by the European Union on behalf of all member states. But Mr. Fox said his country is allowed to "scope out future agreements and have discussions about it."

"We are scoping and discussing a lot," he said.

Mr. Fox said he will meet Canada's new international trade minister, François-Philippe Champagne, in Montreal on Friday, where he is expected to hold informal discussions about trade after the country leaves the EU.

Britain is Canada's third-largest trading partner. It is a key destination for Canadian companies because of its membership in the EU, which gives Canadians the dual benefit of accessing member states and conducting business in English.

Mr. Fox praised the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and said the pact was a model for a free-trade deal between Britain and Canada. "For us it's a win-win. Either we get CETA … or we leave the EU and get CETA as the basis for [a free-trade agreement,]" he said. "It is a great model."

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In addition to the informal British talks, Ottawa is gearing up for trade discussions with its U.S. and Mexican partners in NAFTA.

It is unknown when NAFTA talks will begin, although Mr. Trump has said he would walk away from any deal he does not like.

If NAFTA is repealed, some trade lawyers believe the 1989 U.S.-Canada free trade agreement would go into effect and allow certain goods to move freely across the border. But it unclear whether that would happen or if the U.S. would abide by those terms.

As Mr. Fox woos Canada, British Prime Minister Theresa May was making the rounds with the new U.S. government. Ms. May addressed Republican lawmakers at their retreat on Thursday and will meet Mr. Trump in Washington on Friday, becoming the first foreign leader to visit him.

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