Canadian official touts how important Utah trade is, praises progress on new North American accord

(Susan Walsh | AP file photo) President Donald Trump, left, talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they arrive for the G-20 summit session on women's workforce participation, future of work, and aging societies in Osaka, Japan on June 29, 2019.

As the Trump administration hoped aloud Friday that progress will lead Congress to ratify a new North American free trade agreement in September, a top Canadian trade official visiting Salt Lake City said his country’s Parliament aims to pass it in tandem if U.S. lawmakers act.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, “is extremely important to Canada,” said Omar Alghabra, Canada’s parliamentary secretary for international trade diversification — roughly equivalent to a U.S. deputy secretary as a No. 2 official beneath a Cabinet minister.

“Let me give you a number. Trade between our two countries exceeds $2 billion a day. And jobs that depend on that trade on both sides of the border are in the hundreds of thousands,” he said in an interview, adding the trade accord is needed to preserve and expand that.

He said Utah sells Canada $1.8 billion worth of goods annually, and exports $509 million in services there. In return, the Beehive State imports $1.9 billion in goods from Canada. He notes that Canada sells more to Utah than it sells to Norway.

Alghabra spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune shortly after Lawrence Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, said Friday that the White House hopes Congress will ratify the trade deal in September and that progress is being made with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., toward that end.

Mexico already has ratified the deal. Alghabra said the Canadian Parliament has begun that process, but “it makes sense that we do it in tandem [with the U.S. Congress]. So we are certainly following the developments in Congress and with the White House.”

USMCA appeared nearly dead earlier this year when Trump slapped Canada and Mexico with high tariffs on steel and aluminum, alleging in disparaging terms that they were go-betweens for China to sell the metals in America. They retaliated with tariffs of their own, but all sides eventually reached a deal to end them and seek ratification of UMSCA.

Alghabra replied with typical Canadian politeness when he was asked about Trump’s willingness to wage trade wars.

“Trade negotiations are always hard,” with plenty of tension, he said. “Yes, President Trump has his own way of communicating that tension, but it’s not any more difficult than any other negotiation.”

He added, “President Trump has an agenda to represent and to advocate for. But I can tell you that the relationship between Canada and the United States is robust and transcends politics.”

Alghabra said he traveled to Salt Lake City to communicate how important the U.S. is to Canada at the National Governors Association summer meetings here. He said he took advantage of the trip to talk to Utah trade officials, legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert — while stressing the importance of Utah to Canada.

“We value and certainly notice how Utah is one of the fastest growing economies in the states," he said. “It’s one of the most entrepreneurial, one of the easiest to do business in — and that’s been noticed.”

He said his visit also was to raise concerns about “buy American” initiatives by many state and local governments. They seek to require that U.S.-made goods and companies be used in government projects.

Alghabra said he understands the sentiment, but such initiatives “may have some unintended consequences on the relationship between Canada and the U.S.” because their supply chains are tightly integrated.

He said, for example, that to build a car fully “it sometimes crosses the border six or seven times back and forth” for various parts or manufacturing processes.

U.S. companies have won more than $1 billion in Canadian government contracts, he noted, compared to $600 million that Canadian companies gained in America. “But we don’t mind” because U.S. companies still hire Canadians and help the economy there.