July 23, 2018
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Canada’s NAFTA negotiators may find an unusual ally in LePage

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Jesse Robichaud, Special to the BDN

Canada’s NAFTA lobbyist-in-chief has revealed the key but unorthodox ally she has found inside President Donald Trump’s inner circle — one who is fluent in the president’s bombastic political language.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a committee of members of parliament last week that she often speaks with him on the phone to discuss ways the Trudeau government can make its NAFTA advocacy resonate within the Trump administration and, most importantly, in the president’s ear.

But Canada’s man in Washington is not your typical D.C. power broker. He proudly spends as little time in the American capital as he can, a fact that endears him to the president and the “drain the swamp” supporters they share.

Despite speculation, he has yet to take an official role within the administration, although he has joked to reporters he would be happy to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Canada in the summer and Jamaica in the winter.

At least for now, though, when the thoroughly progressive Freeland wants to bounce an idea off an outspoken populist, she dials Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage has raucously governed as a headline writer’s dream since 2011.

“I have been in close contact with him, I speak on the phone with him often. He is an influential voice in this administration,” Freeland told the International Trade committee on Aug. 14 when she notably outlined the labor, environmental and gender equality objectives of Canada’s negotiators.

“I have also found him, not solely in conversations with me, but also in his advocacy in Washington, to be very good in explaining a key element of our economic relationship with the United States, which is we build things together. That is a key element and it can sometimes be missed,” she said.

LePage knows Canada well. His first language was French. He lived in New Brunswick through most of the 1970s, where his adult daughters still live today, and he worked in the province’s forestry sector, which is closely integrated with Maine’s industry.

But what makes LePage most valuable to Freeland is that his connection to Canada neatly intersects with a political brand of populism and hyperbole that he shares with Trump.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage said in February 2016 when he became one of the first governors to endorse Trump.

The Boston Globe called it a “bromance” in March 2017, and in April, Trump warmly poked at LePage’s recent remarkable weight loss.

“I knew him when he was heavy, and now I know him when he was thin, and I like him both ways.”

Many of the blunt adjectives used to describe Trump’s crude and cartoonish political style were tried on LePage first, with the same approximate result among his staunch supporters and detractors.

When Freeland calls LePage, she knows she is the only progressive on the call, and it would be naive to think LePage is acting solely out of sentimentality for Canada. But as she reminded the International Trade committee, exports to Canada support 38,500 jobs in Maine, where jobs are scarce. Therein lies the Trudeau government’s NAFTA strategy in a nutshell with its focus on American jobs and our integrated supply chains.

Despite their political differences, when Freeland talks jobs she is speaking LePage’s language and tapping in to the cold calculation that — like her — his own self-interest and the economic health of his state are hanging in the balance with NAFTA negotiations underway in Washington.

Freeland does her homework, and would know that when Canadian fishermen mounted barricades to block Maine lobster exports from reaching New Brunswick processing plants in 2012, the usually explosive LePage did nothing to cause an international incident. Instead, he calmly identified an opportunity for Maine to build up its seafood processing capacity and keep more of its resources, and jobs, at home.

Likewise in June, the pro-jobs governor took the extraordinary step of writing U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to lobby against new tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber that would hurt his state and its workers.

“He understands very well the intense and interconnected relationship between Maine and Canada. He happens to have a personal background in the forestry sector and that informs his point of view in a very useful way,” Freeland said.

For now, it appears both Freeland and LePage need each other, and so when Canada’s progressive foreign minister calls, it is likely the Republican governor will continue to pick up the phone.

Jesse Robichaud is a consultant with Ensight, an Ottawa public affairs firm. He served as an adviser to New Brunswick Premier David Alward from 2010 to 2014.


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