OTTAWA — The Liberal government is prepared to recall Parliament this summer to ratify the new North American trade agreement, The Canadian Press has learned.
As much as the government wants to move "in tandem" with the United States toward final legal approval of the new agreement, it doesn't want to get too far ahead, said a senior government official who wasn't authorized to speak for attribution because of the sensitivity of the process.
The source says it is not clear obstacles in the U.S. Congress can be overcome before the current session of the House of Commons expires next week, and characterized the situation in the U.S. as "difficult" and "complicated."
The Canadian government's options including bringing back the House in the summer to vote on the trade treaty, but it is still too early to tell whether that will be necessary, the source added.
The government expected to have a better sense of the way forward after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met Wednesday in Washington with U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
That meeting had a packed agenda that included the strained relations between Canada and China and the efforts to win the release of the two imprisoned Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Kovrig received his eighth visit by Canadian consular officials since he was detained in December, the government said Wednesday. Visits for Spavor, whom Chinese authorities detained at the same time, have typically come within a day or two of Kovrig's.
Freeland and Pompeo discussed the plight of the Canadian detainees, as well the coercive use of exit bans that prevent Americans travellers from leaving China, said Pompeo's spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. The U.S. government warned travellers earlier this year about the exit bans, saying they could be used by Chinese authorities to compel co-operation of U.S. citizens in investigations, among other things.
"They agreed China's actions are damaging. Both leaders welcome results-oriented engagement with China that addresses Chinese behaviours of concern to both countries and emphasizes the importance of its respect for rule of law, human rights, and fair and reciprocal trade," said Ortagus.
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has said President Donald Trump will raise Kovrig and Spavor as part of his broader trade discussion with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this month's G20 leaders' summit in Japan.
During a recent visit to Ottawa, Pence said he hoped his country's Congress would ratify the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement by the end of the summer; the Mexican ambassador to Canada has said his country's Senate will give final approval at its own extended legislative session this coming Monday or Tuesday.
In the meantime, Canada is moving cautiously ahead in the Commons with the ratification process. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally introduced Bill C-100 two weeks ago and MPs debated the ratification bill on Tuesday in second reading.
In her speech to Parliament on it, Freeland reiterated that the final hurdle to ratification was cleared last month when the U.S. lifted its punitive U.S. tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel imports.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Erin O'Toole said he wants to know whether Trudeau made a private deal with Trump to ratify the new pact first.
"The Conservatives worked directly on the tariff-removal portion — but we are not privy to the direct promises made by Trudeau to Trump," O'Toole said in an emailed response to questions.
O'Toole said if Canada ratifies first Trump could still open the deal later to seek changes advantageous to the U.S.
Asked how that could be possible, given all sides consider the negotiations closed, O'Toole said: "The same way they did when they opened the deal up in the first place — by using their size and threats of disruption of cancelling the deal to force the other sides to accommodate."
In Tuesday's debate, Freeland noted the united front that Canadian politicians, business and union leaders in the often tense and acrimonious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has called NAFTA the worst trade deal in U.S. history and repeatedly threatened to rip it up.
"Throughout the negotiation, we kept our cool in the face of uncertainty and worked on getting a new agreement that would preserve jobs and market access, and in turn, support the middle class and economic growth," Freeland said.
During the debate, opposition MPs urged the government not to rush to ratification because of uncertainty in the U.S.
New Democrat MP Tracey Ramsey said the new deal would raise drug prices for Canadians, which she called a "regressive provision."
Ramsey said the pact should be renegotiated but Freeland held firm to the government's position that the deal was done, and that starting new negotiations would be opening a "Pandora's Box."
"There is no rush to ratify this agreement. The U.S. has not even put this on the floor of its Congress," Ramsey said.