Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. The Trump administration will soon be forced to choose between two contrasting goals it has articulated for upgrading NAFTA, a fast-approaching dilemma over which of those objectives it truly prizes: A vast deal or a fast deal.Detailed statements over the last week have been overshadowed by the intrigue swirling around U.S. President Donald Trump’s brief flirtation with the idea of blowing up the continental trade pact by way of executive order. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. The Trump administration will soon be forced to choose between two contrasting goals it has articulated for upgrading NAFTA, a fast-approaching dilemma over which of those objectives it truly prizes: A vast deal or a fast deal.Detailed statements over the last week have been overshadowed by the intrigue swirling around U.S. President Donald Trump’s brief flirtation with the idea of blowing up the continental trade pact by way of executive order. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Fact-finding major goal for Canada at between-round NAFTA talks this week

WASHINGTON — Canada’s NAFTA negotiators are on a fact-finding mission this week in Washington, seeking places where compromises might be found in the new year when the talks enter a critical, potentially do-or-die phase.

Officials from the three NAFTA countries began gathering Monday at a downtown hotel for a week of meetings between formal rounds. Canadian officials say they expect less-controversial chapters to get closer to completion.

They don’t foresee formal offers, counter-offers, and text-tabling happening on some of the hardest issues.

Instead, one official said, the Canadian team intends to try learning more about what the U.S. hopes to achieve as an end goal, on auto parts for instance, to see whether there might be constructive pathways for achieving it that all countries can live with.

“We’re prepared to have conversations to better understand their priorities,” said the Canadian official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks. “Perhaps there are other solutions…. We are always prepared to think creatively.”

Several of the toughest issues have seen early impasses: they include auto parts, agriculture, and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Canada and Mexico have described some U.S. proposals as non-starters, and have frustrated some U.S. officials by refusing to make counter-offers so far.

One trade-watcher warns the clock is ticking.

Dan Ujczo says several situations will soon push the NAFTA situation to a head, with President Donald Trump facing a decision, likely by March, on whether to take steps to withdraw the U.S. from continental trade agreement.

Those include the approaching Mexican election and U.S. midterm primaries the conclusion of the easier, non-controversial NAFTA chapters a U.S. debate over whether to extend its so-called fast-track law and the end of the currently scheduled round of talks, all of which are happening around the same time.

The Dickinson Wright lawyer says Trump will be tempted to make a big move around that time, before the U.S. midterm election season — so he can say he kept his promise to either rip up or renegotiate NAFTA.

That means, with the next formal round of talks scheduled for next month in Montreal, Canada and Mexico will be under pressure to start counter-proposing soon, Ujczo said.

“I think this (week in Washington) is a clean-up-the-text round. Clean up the text, and really tee up the issues for 2018. (But) my biggest fear is we’re going to run out of clock in 2018,” he said in an interview.

“If it becomes clear after Montreal that people aren’t negotiating, that there’s not a negotiation happening on autos and agriculture, they’re going to say, ‘What are you gonna do now, Mr. President?’ And then the reality is, even if he doesn’t want to act, he has to do some things by March…

“If I was Canada and Mexico I wouldn’t give him an excuse to issue a notice to withdraw… You’ve got to counter-propose on some of these issues. And come up with creative solutions. Doing nothing is not an option here.”

Trump himself has cited the trade issue as a major reason he got elected.

The president said so in a speech to a partisan rally last Friday, where he revealed that he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have debated in private about whether the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada.

Trump insists it does. The most recent statistics from his own U.S. Trade Representative say it doesn’t.

The fact that this controversial yardstick for economic success is even the subject of a debate, especially given that the balance is so tiny compared to the U.S. trade deficit with other countries, especially China, doesn’t bode well, according to the former U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Bruce Heyman tweeted over the weekend: “When our trade negotiations devolve into a public he said/he said situation or a disagreement over a deficit or surplus that amounts to less than 3 per cent of total trade we are at an ominous point.”

Canada’s chief negotiator described the state of play in recent testimony to Parliament.

Steve Verheul said Canada is capable of making constructive suggestions, but he called the auto proposal completely unworkable, and said his side is trying to figure out what the U.S. really wants from this negotiation.

He said the other countries can offer solutions, if the U.S. wants solutions that benefit the region.

“We will not accept U.S. proposals that would fundamentally weaken the benefits of NAFTA for Canada, and undermine the competitiveness of the North American market in regard to the rest of the world,” Verheul said.

“That is one of the issues we’re struggling with: What does the U.S. need for a win? Because I think we can certainly bring a lot of creativity to the table in developing outcomes that could be characterized as a U.S. win, or as a North American win.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19, in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020. Alberta is set to join three other provinces in exploring the feasibility of small modular reactors as a clean energy option. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Four provinces to sign memorandum of understanding to explore small nuclear reactors

Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick sign memorandum of understanding

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, Chris Kempczinski, then-incoming president of McDonald’s USA, speaks during a presentation at a McDonald’s restaurant in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, McDonald’s said the company will mandate worker training to combat harassment, discrimination and violence in its restaurants worldwide starting in 2022. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
McDonald’s to mandate anti-harassment training worldwide

New standards starting in January 2022

Innisfail RCMP say Brandon Pitts is missing. (Photo contributed)
FOUND: Missing central Alberta man

Innisfail RCMP request public’s help

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircrafts are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet says it will extend its temporary suspension of international sun flights to destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean until June 4. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
WestJet extends temporary suspension of international sun flights until June

Customers with affected itineraries will be notified of cancellations

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19, in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020. Alberta is set to join three other provinces in exploring the feasibility of small modular reactors as a clean energy option. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Four provinces to sign memorandum of understanding to explore small nuclear reactors

Alberta government said in August that it would enter into the agreement to help diversify its energy sector

File photo
City of Wetaskiwin awarded $5.1 million grant for additional RCMP officers

10 Additional RCMP officers to serve the City of Wetaskiwin as a result of the grant.

In this Nov. 12, 1995, file photo, Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy looks on during the second quarter of the Bills game against the Atlanta Falcons at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bill Sikes, File
Former Alouettes head coach Marv Levy tops 2021 Canadian Football Hall of Fame class

The ‘21 class will boost the Hall of Fame’s membership to 316

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, provides an update on health system preparations in Nova Scotia for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in Halifax on Friday, March 6, 2020. Strang says plans are in place to stage the women’s world hockey championship in the province next month with limited spectators.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Nova Scotia plans to allow limited crowds at women’s world hockey championship

All 10 teams in Halifax and Truro must participate in a 14-day quarantine

”Kim’s Convenience” cast member Andrew Phung poses in this undated handout photo. “Kim’s Convenience” has just ended but Andrew Phung is already “knee-deep in ideas and stories” for his next project, “Run the Burbs.” The Calgary-raised actor, who played comical car-rental employee Kimchee on “Kim’s,” co-created the upcoming comedy series and will star in it as a stay-at-home dad with an entrepreneur wife and two kids. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - CBC
‘Kim’s Convenience’ actor Andrew Phung on crafting his own series, ‘Run the Burbs’

‘Run the Burbs’ production could start in the summer or fall

Canisia Lubrin poses in this undated handout photo. Rising literary talent Canisia Lubrin is among the Canadian finalists for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. The Griffin Trust announced the three homegrown wordsmiths and four international poets on this year’s short list on Wednesday. Lubrin, who recently received the US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize, is nominated for “The Dyzgraphxst” (pronounced diss-graff-ist), published by McClelland and Stewart. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Anna Keenan
Rising writer Canisia Lubrin among Canadian finalists for $65K Griffin Poetry Prize

Griffin will award two winners, one international and one Canadian

A prairie fire in the Burnt Lake district. (Photo by Bert Fors via Red Deer Archives)
Michael Dawe: Fires of spring 1931 in central Alberta

Central Alberta has just come through a relatively warm and dry winter… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Opinion: Boris Johnson is to blame for what’s happening in Ireland

Twenty-three years of peace in Northern Ireland, after a sectarian war that… Continue reading

Most Read