Canada-U.S. Trade: Inside Ottawa’s Efforts To Fight ‘Buy American’

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Excerpted from Rachel Mendleson ‘Canada-US Trade’ in Huffington Post October 20, 2011

As Washington continues to defend the contentious Buy American provisions outlined in the U.S. jobs bill, it has become abundantly clear that, for policymakers south of the border, Canada is not top of mind.

But according to a former Canadian diplomat who has been on the inside of major trade policy negotiations with the U.S., this reality, however harsh, simply reinforces a stubborn fact of life: No matter how friendly relations with our biggest trading partner may seem, Canadians must wage a permanent campaign to protect our interests south of the border.

“For the U.S., we’re not a problem, and therefore we’re not on the immediate agenda,” Colin Robertson told The Huffington Post. “We Canadians have to constantly be making the case to our American market, reminding them … that we’re also their biggest market.”

It’s an effort that Robertson — who helped negotiate and implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — says is comprehensive, despite the fact that it may not always seem that way.

“Are we talking to all the various parties? We are, but stuff happens, and will continue to happen,” he says. “It’s like Whac-A-Mole. You’ve got to constantly be on guard, because [these kinds of protectionist provisions] are popping up in all kinds of places.”

Officials at the Canadian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions from HuffPost pertaining to specific lobbying efforts, or how Ottawa first learned that Buy American was part of Obama’s jobs bill.

But according to Robertson, who was the embassy’s first Head of the Advocacy Secretary in the mid-2000s, Ottawa launched an active congressional relations program in Washington after the defeat of the East Coast Fisheries Agreement in 1979 — a decision he says “changed how we did business.”

The sheer volume of the legislation that is introduced in Congress is a perennial challenge for those seeking to detect and fight problematic clauses and provisions. So, in the mid-1990s, Robertson says the embassy subscribed to a professional tracking system that scans bills for key terms like “Canada” and “Buy American.”

“That’s how often we’ll discover this stuff,” he says…

For his part, Robertson, who is involved in current lobbying efforts through his work as a senior strategic advisor for the law firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge, says the chances that Canada will feel the brunt of these provisions are slim.

“It is doubtful the clause will survive as drafted by the president in his proposed jobs package that may or may not see light of day,” he says. “If it does, we may be exempted because of U.S. NAFTA and procurement obligations.”

But the spectre of continued protectionism south of the border is prompting some to advocate for a more long-term solution…