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Atlantic premiers, eastern U.S. governors take centre stage in NAFTA talks

By Jesse Robichaud      

The timing of this weekend's gathering of Atlantic premiers and New England governors in Charlottetown makes it a natural proxy of the high-stakes NAFTA negotiations that began earlier this month in Washington.

A meeting of Atlantic premiers and New England governors in Prince Edward Island that started Aug. 27 has taken on an extra sense of importance, as NAFTA renegotiations hit full stride, writes Jesse Robichaud. Pictured: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre left, chats with U.S. President Donald Trump, centre right, during G7 meetings in Taormina, Italy, in May. Adam Scotti photograph courtesy of the PMO
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United States President Donald Trump isn’t visiting Canada’s smallest province this weekend as New England governors meet with Eastern Canadian premiers to talk trade. But his latest threat to axe the North American Free Trade Agreement arrived days earlier, when he told a rambunctious crowd in Phoenix on Tuesday that it looked like his administration would end up “terminating” the pact at some point. He reiterated that sentiment in a tweet Sunday.

But even without Trump’s predictably dramatic rhetoric, the timing of the gubernatorial and premier summit in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, being held Aug. 27-28, makes it a natural proxy of the high-stakes NAFTA negotiations that began earlier this month in Washington, and which will continue Sept. 1 in Mexico and Sept. 23 in Canada. Moreover, the meeting’s players are viscerally aware of how critical the free trade deal is to the 25 million people who live in New England and Eastern Canada’s economic neighbourhood, one divided only by a common border.

The region’s north-south trading relationships pre-date Canada’s 150 years of east-west Confederation, and it would be a tall task to find another cluster of territories in North America where the integration of economies and supply chains is so firmly rooted. The recent appearance of Irving Oil’s familiar logo on an outfield wall at Boston’s iconic Fenway Park is a small acknowledgment of how trade linkages continue to grow in this region where NAFTA is a big deal.

However, the extra attention and scrutiny generated by the tension around NAFTA is a bit unusual for the often sleepy summer conference that, since 1973, has annually brought together the leaders of Quebec, the Atlantic provinces, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

For instance, at the conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 2008 former Quebec premier Jean Charest’s media scrum was momentarily interrupted when Major League Baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. walked in to the same hotel lobby following a round of charity golf. Unable to deny the draw of some actual excitement, a few cub reporters retreated and began tossing questions at baseball’s ironman. I know because I was one of them.

This year, though, the spotlight is firmly fixed on the governors and premiers, as they find themselves at NAFTA’s centre stage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers have engaged in a NAFTA lobbying strategy that places a pronounced focus on the importance of state-to-province trade relationships and seeks to build personal connections with governors and legislators from states where a great number of jobs depend on trade with Canada.

Of course, Trudeau attended the National Governors Association conference this summer in Rhode Island where he delivered an effective message of how and why Canada matters to the economic fortunes of so many U.S. states. While he was there, Trudeau met with Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, whose small state is home to 27,600 jobs that directly depend on trade with Canada according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Economic Analysis. Trudeau has also notably taken time to meet with Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, where 459,700 jobs depend on trade with Canada, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose state’s trade relationship is valued at 223,300 jobs.

Trudeau’s ministers have followed his lead, meeting with governors or senior officials from states like California (1.1 million jobs), Ohio (308,700 jobs), Michigan (259,000 jobs), Nebraska (57,400 jobs), and Maine (38,500 jobs), while Canada’s Ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton participated in this summer’s Western Governors’ Association meetings in Montana alongside Liberal MPs.

MacNaughton is in Charlottetown this weekend to participate in a forum on Canada-U.S. relations, and he is joined by former U.S. Ambassador Frank McKenna, who is giving a keynote speech as part of a program that is also focusing on energy, climate change and emergencies, and food innovation.

In 1990 as the premier of New Brunswick, McKenna attended the annual meeting in Mystic, Connecticut where the “Mystic Covenant” was signed by the American governors and Canadian premiers including Robert Bourassa, Joe Ghiz, Clyde Wells, and John Buchanan. The agreement they signed in Connecticut recognized “the necessity of a stronger North American presence in global economy” and resolved to cooperate and share information while “monitoring international trade discussions that affect both the economic growth and the economic well-being of the region.”

By that definition NAFTA certainly qualifies, but it would be outdated to think governors and premiers still see themselves as limited to “monitoring” trade talks or anything less than an active role in discussions that will inevitably shape the economic future in their states and provinces.

Jesse Robichaud is a consultant at Ensight, a public affairs firm in Ottawa. He served as an adviser to former New Brunswick premier David Alward and worked previously as a journalist. 


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo visited Charlottetown for the annual gathering of Atlantic premiers and New England governors. Although she originally planned to attend, Ms. Raimondo did not travel to Charlottetown for the summit. The Hill Times regrets the error. 

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