WASHINGTON — Canadian cabinet ministers are fanning throughout the U.S. capital this week to meet members of the new Trump administration, laying the groundwork for an anticipated visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Three ministers have meetings in Washington this week: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland landed Tuesday for a two-day visit, just after her colleague Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan left town and before Finance Minister Bill Morneau was to arrive Wednesday.
Those meetings are taking place as the national governments prepare for a first encounter between Trudeau and new President Donald Trump, which could happen as early as next week. The governments are still nailing down details of a meeting agenda before settling on an official date.
Freeland began by visiting Capitol Hill and the highest-ranking member of the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan. Hailing from the dairy-producing state of Wisconsin, Ryan raised oft-stated U.S. concerns about Canadian regulatory practices that limit imports of certain American products, although officials said that conversation did not broach NAFTA and the possibility of dairy supply management becoming an issue in trade negotiations.
"Minister Freeland and I share a common commitment to the U.S.-Canada relationship," Ryan said in a statement.
"We had a productive conversation about how we can enhance these ties, including by strengthening NATO and improving dairy market access," he said. "I appreciate Minister Freeland's friendship and support for our important bilateral partnership."
Freeland will meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday. On her first day in Washington she met several Republican lawmakers at the Capitol, then crossed paths with members of both parties at an evening reception.
Freeland went to the Canadian embassy which was hosting a gathering of women in Congress.
The partisan divide of the moment played out in some lighthearted jokes: two Democrats speaking at the event thanked Canada for not building a wall following Trump's election.
This was after Freeland gave a speech about her own experiences as a woman in politics, including some bumps in the road. She credited her boss, Trudeau, for making gender balance a priority starting when he worked to recruit female candidates.
She told a story about the prime minister surprising an unnamed foreign leader. The leader asked Trudeau about picking so many women for his cabinet — and Trudeau left him speechless by replying that his cabinet would have fewer men if he'd gone on the basis of talent.
"The look on the face of this head of state, who I won't name, I could just see him thinking, 'Oh, my goodness,' Canadians really are bonkers," Freeland said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Freeland also told the story of how she was attacked for tearing up while staging an intentionally dramatic walkout at the stalled Canada-Europe trade talks. She said her intention was to put pressure on some Belgian obstructionists.
The tears, she said, just came out.
"We kind of wanted to make the Walloons feel guilty," she said. "It was kind of more a tone of sorrow than of anger I was aiming for." She said: "When we got back to Canada I was just attacked like crazy for a week — kind of for the crime of being a woman. The opposition said the prime minister needed to bring in adult supervision. Etcetera, etcetera."
But Freeland added, drawing cheers from the congressional guests: "All was forgiven in the end. Because we got the deal signed."
Freeland is expected to speak with media at the end of her Washington visit Wednesday, and shed some light on her chats. The U.S. government has said almost nothing about what it wants in a new NAFTA, other than Trump saying he wants a fair deal and wants negotiations to start soon.
The president has also said he's not aware of how extensive he'd like the NAFTA changes to be.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press