WASHINGTON - Post-election tensions between the West and the federal Liberal government are showing signs of easing, two of Canada's premiers suggested Friday as provincial leaders fanned out across the U.S. capital to argue for cross-border trade and investment under a new trade agreement.
With Ottawa's work on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement gradually receding, a delegation from the Council of the Federation took its turn in Washington, hoping to convince gubernatorial counterparts of the importance of closer trade ties with the provinces.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan's Scott Moe, speaking at a panel discussion at the Wilson Center's Canada Institute, acknowledged the cold front that moved in after voters in their provinces froze out the climate-conscious federal Liberals last October, in large part over perceived federal hostility to Canada's emissions-causing oilpatch.
But there have been cracks in the ice of late, said the leaders, crediting the work of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. The Alberta-born former foreign minister was dispatched by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to lead the outreach.
“It seems to be an attitude change, it really does,” Moe said. “The outreach from the deputy prime minister to Saskatchewan has been good, it's been appreciated, and it's a relationship we'll be looking forward to continuing in the future.”
Added Kenney: “We have a long way to go yet, but at least we feel that some of our issues are being listened to.”
The stated goal of this weekend's mission is to thank U.S. federal and state lawmakers for their support during the drawn-out negotiations to replace NAFTA, and to celebrate the imminent dawn of the USMCA, which awaits only Canada's ratification. Most experts anticipate it will be the law in all three countries by mid-summer.
But they also intend to promote the importance to Alberta of resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, a project to deliver landlocked Alberta oilsands bitumen to refiners and shippers along the U.S. Gulf Coast. It was rejected by the previous Obama administration - a rejection Trudeau seemed to abet with his “co-ordinated surrender” to Barack Obama shortly after becoming prime minister in 2015, Kenney said.
“What could he have done? He could have done something,” said Kenney, a former Harper-era cabinet minister who accused the government of promising the Obama White House ahead of time that it wouldn't contest the decision.
“They never wanted that project, and they were not willing to employ any political or diplomatic leverage against a political decision by a U.S. administration to violate the spirit of NAFTA, which was about, in part, open access to the U.S. markets for our energy exports.”
The net result of Canada's inability to build pipelines has resulted in more oil travelling by rail, added Moe, who pointed to the derailment Thursday in Saskatchewan as evidence of what can happen.
“That is not the way we should be moving that product,” he said, noting that much of the U.S. Midwest has a similar problem. “We're cramping our rail capacity - capacity that we need if we're going to be producing and exporting other goods that should be on rail.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs were also part of the delegation that met with state leaders at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, which got underway Friday.
In a discussion with Scotty Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council, Ford called on his federal Conservative counterparts to set politics aside on Parliament Hill long enough to get the government's USMCA implementation bill passed.
“This is not the time to play politics,” he implored. “Let's get this deal signed.”
Ford also made it clear where his own political allegiances lie when it comes to the United States. He described the prospect of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders becoming president as “scary” - “socialism doesn't work, raising taxes doesn't work,” he insisted - and said he was disappointed to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tear up her copy of President Donald Trump's state of the union speech.
“That's uncalled for,” he said. “I've never seen anything like that in any state of the union speech, ever.”
Freeland, who took part in a number of Friday's meetings in Washington, including with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, demurred when asked about Ford's remarks.
“U.S. domestic politics are domestic, and federal ministers should bear that in mind,” Freeland said, citing the advice of former U.S. ambassador David MacNaughton. “That's advice that I think it's prudent for the federal government to stick to.”
Freeland acknowledged that she raised with Lighthizer recent media reports that the Trump administration was contemplating leaving the World Trade Organization's $1.7-trillion General Procurement Agreement, or GPA - a long-standing agreement that was supposed to backstop a USMCA that lacked the preferential access to U.S. government contracts Canada enjoyed under NAFTA.
But she refused to elaborate, citing her long-standing policy of keeping private discussions private.