Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland delivers a speech in the House of Commons on Canada’s Foreign Policy in Ottawa. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Cabinet ministers spend a lot of time, but not much money, on NAFTA outreach

OTTAWA — The Liberal government has put a lot of effort into travelling to the United States to help ease the way into the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations, but so far, a relatively small amount of money.

The Canadian Press tallied the travel expenses a dozen cabinet ministers — excluding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — racked up in airfare, meals and accommodations for trips to Washington, D.C. and elsewhere south of the border since President Donald Trump came to power.

The total amount, with some caveats, was about $96,000 for 29 trips from mid-January to the end of May.

The travel included in this amount is just one part of a wider strategy to send federal cabinet ministers, parliamentary secretaries, MPs, senators, premiers, political staffers and government officials across the U.S. to secure face-to-face meetings with everyone from state legislators to Trump and those around him in the White House.

“Our government has worked hard to establish a constructive working relationship with all orders of the U.S. government, especially with the administration, and the president and his team directly,” Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for Trudeau, said in an emailed statement.

“We have been actively engaging in comprehensive outreach across the United States in order to build upon the strong relationship between our two countries and advance areas of mutual interest.”

The data analysis was based on a list of trips by cabinet ministers that the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland considered part of these efforts. Freeland is the lead minister on Canada-U.S. relations and the NAFTA talks.

The list was then cross-referenced with travel expenses disclosed under government transparency measures.

These early figures provide a snapshot of the ground game the Liberal government has been building to deal with one of its biggest priorities — and challenges — through forging relationships not only with the White House, but also members of Congress who will ultimately decide the fate of any new trade deal, and anyone else they might be listening to.

The list includes high-profile events such as when Freeland, alongside Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Andrew Leslie, the parliamentary secretary for Canada-U.S. relations, attended the inauguration of Trump in Washington, D.C.

It also counts trips to events the cabinet minister in question might have attended anyway, such as when International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau went to Washington for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group.

Trips that received little attention, such as when Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, who is also the minister of state for small business and tourism, went to Toledo, Ohio and Chicago, Ill. to discuss cross-border trade, were also on the list.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who is co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group, said these meetings can help Canada set the facts straight — and get its message across — on thorny trade issues such as dairy and softwood lumber.

“I think if ever there was a time we had to deal with facts — and clear facts, not the perception — it’s now,” Easter said.

The analysis comes with some caveats.

There was no amount available for two trips Sajjan took to Washington, including to attend the inauguration, because he flew on a Challenger jet and his office did not have that information available.

There was also a handful of expense claims that lumped the cost associated with a visit to the U.S. in with other legs of a much larger trip.

The figures for trips taken since June 1 are not yet available, and neither are the costs associated with trips taken by the prime minister.

And each cabinet minister would also be travelling with at least a couple of staffers and officials, which would multiply the costs.

The numbers also exclude travel by everyone outside of cabinet, which has been quite extensive.

According to data provided by Freeland’s office, overall there had been 78 visits to Washington plus 87 trips to 42 other cities, from Albany, N.Y. to Whitefish, Mont., as of last week, which is just part of the more than 315 individual contacts that have taken place as part of this outreach so far.

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