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9/11 anniversary, looming hurricane disaster appear to temper NAFTA tempers


Washington, DC — Solemn cross-border remembrances slammed headlong into the present-day fight over free trade Tuesday as Canada and the U.S. resumed their protracted effort to rescue NAFTA on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York City.

As foreboding skies belied national worry over a new threat, a monstrous hurricane menacing the U.S. east coast, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland cited the memory of 9/11 as evidence of deep and friendly ties that have long bound the two countries together.

“Maybe that helps us all put into perspective the negotiations that we’re having — and also put into a little bit of historical perspective the importance and the significance of the relationship between Canada and the United States,” Freeland said as she arrived at the talks.

“At the end of the day, we’re neighbours — and at the end of the day, neighbours help each other when they need help.”

On Canadian soil, a prominent American voice was expressing much the same sentiment.

U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, a fixture at the NAFTA talks last week, was in Gander, N.L., to commemorate the role that town played on the day 17 years ago when the United States shut down its airspace, forcing countless passenger airliners to find refuge wherever they could.

“Forget what you read about NAFTA negotiations and Twitter wars, that’s not who we are,” Craft told the gathered crowd as she thanked Canada — and Gander — for playing host in 2001 to countless stranded American air passengers.

“Sure, it’s business and it’s important, but Gander is the place that — in a snapshot — illustrates the Canada/U.S. relationship.”

But if anything has encapsulated the shift since then, it has been the difficult renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has dragged on for some 13 months already — and is only one part of the ongoing cross-border trade dispute.

In June, U.S. President Donald Trump slapped Canada with tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. A month later, Ottawa struck back with duties of its own on American steel, aluminum and dozens of other products.

The federal government says it collected more than $286 million worth of surtaxes in the first two months after it applied the retaliatory tariffs.

Ottawa received an additional $118 million in July and another $168 million in August from the surtaxes, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Most of the extra cash was generated by steel and aluminum surtaxes. But a closer look shows that, between July 1 and Sept. 4, the government pulled in $7 million worth of surtaxes from handkerchiefs, facial tissues and towels, $6.5 million from roasted coffee and $5.8 million from imported sacks and bags.

“We are committed to making sure that every dollar raised in reciprocal tariffs is given back in the form of support for affected sectors,” Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a spokesman for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, wrote in an email.

The government has announced a financial aid package for industries caught in the crossfire, including up to $2 billion in fresh funding and support for workers in the steel, aluminum and manufacturing sectors.

Meanwhile, the talks drag on.

“The atmosphere continues to be cordial, there continues to be goodwill on both sides,” said Freeland, who said she made sure the significance of Tuesday’s date was not lost on her American counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

“We have, over the past couple of weeks, really understood the needs of both sides better. Both sides did a lot of thinking over the weekend, so this was a very productive meeting…. The atmosphere is definitely productive, constructive, we’re working hard, we have a little more work to do now, and then we’re going to come back to talk more.”

Freeland and Lighthizer left the bargaining table Friday without a deal following two weeks of negotiations. She was expected to spend much of Tuesday in the U.S. capital before heading to Saskatoon to attend Liberal caucus meetings beginning later in the day and running through Thursday.

It remained unclear, however, when — or even if — Freeland will be back in Washington this week, given the path of hurricane Florence, a mighty Category 4 colossus that observers are expecting to make landfall in the Carolinas sometime late Thursday, and is sure to make its presence felt in D.C.

Ottawa and Washington are trying to reach an agreement that could be submitted to the U.S. Congress by month’s end. A deal would see Canada join a preliminary trade agreement the Trump administration struck last month with Mexico.

The two sides have so far been unable to break an impasse over U.S. access to the Canadian dairy market, a cultural exemption for Canada and the Chapter 19 dispute resolution mechanism.

While that latter issue has been widely seen as the major sticking point, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled in recent days that Canada might be prepared to show some flexibility when it comes to dairy.

“There’s a range of things we’ve been firm on and will continue to be firm on, but there’s also things we’re looking to be flexible because it’s time to update this deal after 25 years,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Winnipeg radio station CJOB.

“We’re just going to stay working constructively to get to that win, win, win that we know is there.”

— with files from Andy Blatchford and Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa