Ontario premier heads to U.S. at ‘critical moment’ in trade relationship

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she will not take a “wait and see” approach to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and that her trip to Rhode Island Thursday is part of her proactive approach to advocate for her province’s interests south of the border.

Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are attending the summer meeting of the National Governors Association and NAFTA will be a main topic of discussion with the leaders, she told reporters at Queen’s Park before her departure.

She touted Ontario’s economic strength and said she is intent on protecting its gains as Canada heads into talks with the U.S. and Mexico in the coming weeks.

“I’m not going to take a wait and see approach to NAFTA negotiations, that’s why it was always my intention to go to the National Governors Association.That’s why I will continue my outreach to governors in the states,” Wynne said.

The Ontario premier said that while the federal government takes the lead on negotiating a new NAFTA deal, the provinces have a role to play and she will be talking about that with the governors she meets.

With NAFTA talks looming and some states pursing protectionist trade measures there is a lot of “uncertainty,” according to Wynne.

Protectionist pressure

“There is an increasing pressure and force from protectionism that we have to deal with,” she said. “It’s a time of uncertainty, we don’t know exactly what that protectionist sentiment is going to lead to.”

She called this a “critical moment,” and said that’s why she’s making the trip to Rhode Island, “in order to highlight the ways that our economies are interconnected.”

Wynne has already made multiple visits south of the border in recent months and has spent a lot of time on the phone with governors across the country. She’s concerned about “Buy America” policies being pursued by various states.

Ontario lobbied hard against Buy America provisions passed by New York and Texas this year and has warned it might implement protectionist trade measures of its own in retaliation to states that go that route. So far, it has not taken those steps with Texas and New York.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands alongside Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne during a funding announcement for the Toronto waterfront on June 28. Trudeau and Wynne will represent Canada at a gathering of U.S. governors in Rhode Island. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Alberta and Quebec have also pushed back against Buy America policies, but Ontario, as the province that is the number one or number two trade partner for more than half of the states, has made fighting the policies a huge priority.

Buy America on the horizon?

Wynne said she will continue to make the case that Buy America policies harm state economies because thousands of their jobs depend on Ontario.

Wynne, the only Canadian premier to attend the conference, is scheduled to hold one-on-one meetings with five governors over the next two days. Their states all count Ontario as a top trade partner, but there are other strategic reasons Wynne wanted to meet with them specifically.

Wynne targeted Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, for example, because he is the incoming chair of the National Governors Association (NGA) for next year so she wants an ongoing connection with him. Plus, she had heard he is “a good guy to know,” an official from her office who spoke on background said.

Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin will also sit down with Wynne. They’ve spoken by phone and had “a really warm conversation,” despite not being politically aligned, her office said.

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Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne, seated next to deputy premier Deb Matthews (in white), met with the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth in her office on June 12 to discuss trade and concerns over Texas imposing a Buy America law. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

They talked about trade and economic development and about President Donald Trump’s nominee for the post of U.S. ambassador to Canada, Kelly Knight Craft. She’s from the state and Bevin spoke highly of her to Wynne.

The premier intends to talk more about Craft with Bevin “to ensure she has a number of ways into the U.S. post here,” the official from the premier’s office said. Craft has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the job in Ottawa.

Wynne will also meet with the governors of Oklahoma, Iowa and Colorado.

Mexico meeting on agenda

She will also sit down with the mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, and join him on a panel discussion on Friday. Trudeau will deliver a keynote address ahead of that session, which will focus on North American competitiveness. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence will also make remarks.

“The primary purpose of course of going to the NGA is to talk to Americans and talk to governors specifically, but it has been a point of the premier’s to ensure that we engage Mexico to the degree we are able in these conversations,” the official from her office said.

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne met with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in Detroit in March as part of her outreach to U.S. governors. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Another session Wynne will attend during the NGA gathering is focused on the opioid addiction crisis gripping so many states. It’s an issue that communities across Canada are grappling with, too, and the premier will hear how different states are dealing with it.

She will bring what she learns on that and on the trade issues to a meeting with Canada’s other premiers in Edmonton next week.

Canada-U.S. trade is expected to dominate talks at the meeting and Wynne will share her “fresh intelligence” with her counterparts her office said.

She told reporters she does not have a formal role representing Canada’s premiers in Rhode Island, but that when she talks to governors she tends to not only represent Ontario’s interests but Canada’s more broadly.

“We are the largest province in the country, so when I talk about the relationship between Ontario and the individual states, I inevitably end up talking about the relationship between Canada and those states, so it is a very easy transition into a discussion about the whole country,” she said.

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Ontario premier heads to U.S. at ‘critical moment’ in trade relationship

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