WASHINGTON—Seeking influence with U.S. leaders who are not President Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau will be the first Canadian prime minister to deliver a speech to a major conference of American state governors.
Trudeau will give the keynote address at the National Governors Association meeting in Providence, Rhode Island next Friday, just over a month before the expected opening of North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation talks.
Trudeau’s address will focus on trade, his government said in a news release, and he “will also emphasize the importance of the Canada-U.S. partnership in cross-border security and the potential for common solutions on climate change.”
The address is part of Trudeau’s effort to build relationships with U.S. officials at the state and local levels. On the whole, state governors are far more pro-NAFTA than Trump, who calls the deal a “catastrophe.”
But the appearance will also give Trudeau another chance to make his trade case to Trump’s administration, with which his aides have been in frequent contact on trade. Vice-President Mike Pence is thought to be planning to attend, and economic officials may also be present.
Trudeau’s government described the attempt to build ties with governors as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, its healthy ties with the president’s team.
“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,” said Trudeau press secretary Cameron Ahmad. He added: “The prime minister’s attendance at the National Governors Association summer meeting next week is part of that effort, and only builds upon our direct engagement with the administration.”Trump has alternated between praising the trade relationship and portraying Canada as an economic predator taking advantage of Americans. In his weekly radio address, released Friday, he said he is pursuing a “total renegotiation of NAFTA.”
“And if we don’t get it, we will terminate — that is, end NAFTA forever,” he said.
Association spokesperson Elena Waskey said Trudeau was invited to speak by the chair of the National Governors Association, Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and the vice-chair, Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, because of “the meeting’s strong international focus.”
Thirty-three of the nation’s 50 governors are Republicans.
Former diplomat Colin Robertson called Trudeau’s appearance a “smart tactic” that can only help Canada in NAFTA talks. Canada is the top export market for most of the states Trump won, he noted, and governors are “very conscious about trade and jobs generated by trade.”
“We are seeing governors talking about the importance of Canada-U.S. trade to their states,” Robertson said.
While Canadian federal governments have long pursued ties with U.S. state governments, Trudeau, confronted with a president skeptical of multilateral pacts and the international order more generally, has made sub-presidential connections a greater priority than his predecessors.
Canadian premiers and federal legislators regularly attend National Governors Association meetings, and Trudeau’s government has sent representatives. But no Canadian prime minister has spoken there since its founding in 1908, according to U.S. State Department records.
“Not in modern times have we had a sitting Canadian Prime Minister deliver a keynote address at either our winter or summer meeting,” Waskey said.
Trudeau signalled his intention to work with states on climate change in his June statement responding to Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.