Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland visits DC to reinforce Canada-U.S. ties

While no concrete steps were taken on NAFTA, Freeland’s meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set a friendly but firm tone with her U.S. counterpart. 

By: /
February 9, 2017
FreelandTillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Ahead of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Monday meeting in Washington, DC, with United States President Donald Trump, senior Canadian Cabinet ministers have been flying south this week for visits with their American counterparts.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan sat down with U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis at the Pentagon on Monday, Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau is expected to participate in talks with White House economic advisors on Thursday and on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met for the first time with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 1.

As part of a Cabinet reshuffle — and the Trudeau government’s wider response to the election of Trump — Freeland, who served as Trudeau’s trade minister, replaced Stéphane Dion as foreign minister in January. She is known for her international experience as a long-time journalist and author and for her contacts south of the border, and is expected to be a fierce advocate for Canadian interests — important qualifications for Trudeau’s representative abroad, given the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

That advocacy was firing on all cylinders this week as Freeland visited with Tillerson and other members of the U.S. government, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain.

“In making the case for how balanced and mutually beneficial our economic relationship was, I really felt I was pushing on an open door with everyone I spoke to,” Freeland told reporters in a conference call with Canadian media on Wednesday. 

“It was important to make this trip now, important to have a very early, initial meeting with Secretary Tillerson and to discuss a number of issues, including but not limited to the Canada-U.S. relationship,” she said.

Freeland and Tillerson discussed NATO, Russia, Ukraine, ISIS, Iraq and Syria, but the bulk of their conversation focused on economic relations between Canada and the U.S.

Freeland stressed in the media call that formal talks on the renegotiation of NAFTA have not yet begun, and declined to speculate on what the Trump administration’s opening positions in such a negotiation might be.

“Neither [Commerce secretary nominee] Wilbur Ross nor [U.S. trade representative nominee Robert Lighthizer] have been confirmed, so our direct interlocutors on that file are not yet available for us to talk to,” she said. “What I was able to do, and what I very much did with Secretary Tillerson, was to establish a dialogue about the Canada-U.S. economic relationship, to really underscore the extent to which it is a mutually balanced, mutually beneficial relationship.”

Highlighting the two-way benefits of the bilateral relationship has been at the forefront of the Trudeau government’s push to best shield Canada from protectionist sentiments brewing in the U.S., especially at a time when little is known about how Canada would be affected by the re-visiting of NAFTA. 

With the orders included in his mandate letter to Freeland, Trudeau demonstrated the extent to which U.S. affairs are a top priority for the government, going so far as to make Freeland the de-facto minister for trade with the U.S. The letter directs her to “lead efforts to deepen trade and commerce between our two countries” and to “strengthen trilateral North American cooperation with the United States and Mexico…to enhance North America’s global competitiveness and facilitate trade and commerce within the continent, including with respect to the North American Free Trade Agreement.”

Freeland showed Wednesday she was not afraid to speak plainly about her intention to “forcefully” protect Canada’s interests. Asked about the possibility of a border tax, proposed by Republican members of the House of Representatives tax committee, she said: “I did make clear that we would be strongly opposed to any imposition of new tariffs between Canada and the United States, that we felt tariffs on exports would be mutually harmful to both Canada and the United States, and that if such an idea were ever to come into being, Canada would respond appropriately.”

This kind of talk squares with current prevailing sentiments among Canadians. A new Nanos poll found that 58 percent of Canadians asked would support a trade war with the U.S., if the Trump administration imposed new tariffs on Canadian exports.

Freeland did make sure to emphasize that the conversation in Congress surrounding a potential tax reform plan, including the border element, is “all very, very preliminary,” and that “many contrasting points of view” exist in Congress around the plan.

Overall, despite the uncertainty hanging over trade relations, Freeland was positive about this week’s visit, underlining that Tillerson “is someone who knows Canada very well…and I think he will be a good partner for us.”

While others — notably Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton — have made the case that senior Trump officials need to be made more aware of the interrelatedness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, Freeland said she had a “very strong sense from everyone I spoke with of the appreciation of the strong relationship [between] Canada and the United States, very much including the economic relationship.”

In addition to bilateral relations, Freeland told reporters that she had a “substantive discussion” with Tillerson on both Russia and Ukraine. “I expressed, as I always do, Canada’s very strong support for Ukraine, and our strong view that the invasion and annexation of Crimea is illegal, and a threat to the international order,” she said.