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NAFTA talks bring out the lobbyists

Canadian Press logoCanadian Press 3 days ago Joanna Smith

© Provided by thecanadianpress.com OTTAWA - The federal government has spent a lot of time in the U.S. of late, making Canada's case in advance of this week's long-awaited NAFTA talks. Back home, though, industry groups have been working hard to make sure they deliver the right message.

Andrea van Vugt, the vice-president of policy for North America at the Business Council of Canada, said her organization was bracing for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement even before Donald Trump's election win.

"It was clear that NAFTA was going to become a discussion, regardless of who was elected, given the role that it played in the election," van Vugt said.

John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister who is president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, is registered to lobby the federal government on any changes to the 23-year-old trade deal between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

The monthly communication reports filed to the federal lobbying commissioner do not single out NAFTA, but they do show Manley has had six meetings in the last six months alone where international trade has been one of the subjects, including in April with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Business Council of Canada is not alone in these efforts.

The Canadian Press found 45 active entries in the federal lobbyist registry, representing 24 organizations who have signed up to make their case to the Liberal government — or hired lobbyists to do it for them — ahead of the first round of talks, which get underway Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

There were also 1,458 active registrations where the subjects included international trade. A number of those included organizations, such as the Dairy Farmers of Canada, that didn't specifically mention NAFTA, but whose priorities are clearly linked to the trade talks.

Any activity that followed the release of the U.S. government's summary of objectives last month would not be reflected in the registry; the reports for any meetings that took place in July are not due to be filed until next week.

They represent a wide range of interests, from agricultural producers and auto manufacturers to pharmaceutical companies and unions.

"Canadian business is really well engaged with the government and the government's doing a really good job at staying close to industry to make sure that they know what's on our agenda for the talks," said van Vugt.

The Liberals are aiming for a unified message, but that does not mean the groups lobbying them are all on the same page.

Jerry Dias, the national president of Unifor, Canada's largest labour union, has a vastly different perspective than those Canadian business interests that want to see the trade deal improved, but not necessarily overhauled.

"You have no idea how much I am looking forward to participating in fixing this colossal disaster," said Dias, whose union is calling for higher wage and labour standards, especially in Mexico.

The International Cheese Council of Canada, meanwhile, is setting its sights on the often-controversial supply management system, which protects the domestic dairy industry by placing sky-high tariffs on imports.

"We want to see more cheese coming into Canada and we want the right to import that cheese," said their lobbyist, James McIlroy.

The Canadian Sugar Institute, meanwhile, wants the new NAFTA to ease some American protectionist measures, such as quota restrictions on sugar and some sugar-containing products, in addition to preserving what access they do have to the U.S. market.

"The problem for us is that trade for Mexico was liberalized, but trade for Canada was not," said Sandra Marsden, president of the institute.

The Liberal government has been holding consultations, but Carl Rodrigues, CEO of Soti Inc., a technology firm based in Mississauga, Ont., registered to lobby the government on NAFTA, said he wishes there was more of a back-and-forth conversation.

"There is going to be a bunch of negotiators at the table for the Canadian government and they are going to be determining and guiding the policies that, in the end, would affect us," he said.

"There is kind of a void."

And there are others, like the Chicken Farmers of Canada, who registered to lobby on NAFTA talks, but have so far not felt the need to do so, even though the poultry sector here is also under supply management.

Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokeswoman for the association, said they checked with their American partners and found they were not agitating for change.

"Let's just not mess with a good thing," she said.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

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