OTTAWA — Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet praised former prime minister Brian Mulroney for giving them useful advice during a closed-door meeting Thursday on the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It was part of an unprecedented display of non-partisan co-operation, a healing of old political wounds and unity in the name of managing a new, wildly unpredictable U.S. presidency.
There was also a hint of deja vu. A smiling Mulroney, who departed politics more than a quarter century ago, said it was “as if I never left” as he exited the hallway from the Centre Block’s cabinet room.
Trudeau was not at the meeting of his cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations; he was in New York City for a women’s leadership summit. His ministers, however, said Mulroney made a valuable contribution.
Trudeau told reporters he had found Mulroney “thoughtful and helpful” in connecting with the Trump administration.
“I think it’s really a credit to all Canadians that we’ve been so able to put aside partisanship on an issue that goes beyond political parties and goes to the fundamental success of our economy,” Trudeau said. “Working well with the United States is not a partisan issue; it’s one that we can all align on.”
Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who chairs the cabinet committee, said: “We welcomed Mr. Mulroney this morning and certainly we benefited from his insights.”
Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said it was “interesting to hear the expertise and experience from people who have had decades of experience dealing with the United States.”
Mulroney’s government fought and won an election on the first Canada-U.S. free trade deal in 1988, which became the precursor of the current NAFTA deal when Mexico was brought on board.
The 79-year-old former prime minister, a personal friend of Donald Trump, has been helping Justin Trudeau’s government navigate the new U.S. administration, setting aside a bitter antipathy for his father, Pierre Trudeau, in the process.
Mulroney has also been embraced by the new Conservative party — the one that former prime minister Stephen Harper essentially banished him from almost a decade ago after winning power.
He has repeatedly urged Canadian politicians to set aside domestic partisan interests to protect the country’s economic interests with the U.S., praising interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose for offering to work with the government.
“It was good to see him (Mulroney) accept the invitation to participate,” said Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent. “As we have said any number of times, this is a bipartisan issue.”
But Mulroney didn’t mince words on what the Liberals face as they move forward on the NAFTA talks with an unpredictable Trump administration.
“I think they’re going to be very challenging,” Mulroney said of the upcoming negotiations.
Following Trump’s fiery anti-NAFTA rhetoric, a meeting with Trudeau at the White House appeared to cool the U.S. president, who at the time seemed to have adopted a “pretty reasonable posture,” Mulroney said.
“Then the letter from the (U.S. trade representative) comes out with a different version of things, so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Mulroney added.
“It is a document that reflects a territorial wish for advantage by the Americans, so you could expect it’ll be tough.”
Mulroney briefed the cabinet ministers on the efforts so far to divine the Trump administration’s specific intentions and how NAFTA negotiations are likely to proceed.
He says so-called country-of-origin rules, long a sore spot in NAFTA, and the dispute resolution mechanism are likely to be sticking points.
David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., and one of his predecessors, Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former chief of staff, joined the cabinet discussion.
MacNaughton said the timeline on the start of the talks is slipping, but the Americans control the agenda, so Canada will wait and be ready when the time comes.
“I keep being assured that it’s imminent, but imminent seems to be dragging on,” MacNaughton said after the meeting.
He said the Liberals have forged “extremely good” relations with the Trump White House, which has been “extraordinarily responsive” to Canada. But he predicted harder times ahead.
“Obviously we’re getting into some things that are pretty tough,” MacNaughton said. “The Americans are no slouches in terms of their negotiations, but neither are we.”
Mulroney said it was too early to say what Canada might have to give up in the forthcoming talks, because there is no clear picture of what the American demands will be.
But he added: “The question is, what will they have to give up, too?”