Canada biz weak on NAFTA

For all of Canada's efforts to promote the North American Free Trade Agreement on U.S. soil, there are concerns one important voice from the north has been a little quieter than the rest: Canadian business.

The heads of two key business groups, one on each side of the border, think corporate Canada could be doing more to drum up U.S. support for NAFTA — especially as the embattled deal's renegotiation enters its most critical phase.

Canadian politicians from different levels of government have joined forces with members of the Canadian business community to boost NAFTA with Americans as part of the so-called charm offensive.

But the Business Council of Canada says that despite this push, too many corporate leaders have "kept their powder dry" out of fear of highlighting their status as non-American entities.

"The most-powerful thing that we can do is, —and I know that government is doing this, which businesses, generally, have not done — is actually bang on the doors out in the countryside," council president and CEO John Manley, a former Liberal finance minister in the Chretien government, said in an interview.

"I think it's because they feel there's an increasing tide of protectionism in the United States and they'd rather not draw attention to themselves as a foreign owner or a foreign-controlled company."

It's no surprise some companies want to lie low, says Maryscott Greenwood, the CEO of Canadian American Business Council in Washington.

Participating in the pro-NAFTA mission in the U.S. poses challenges due to the anti-trade sentiment, which is fuelled by President Donald Trump and his threats to significantly transform or terminate the trade pact.

Greenwood said she thinks it's time for Canadian companies to become more engaged and leverage whatever influence they have in terms of relationships and as job creators in the U.S.

Canadian business isn't alone — she said the reluctance to speak up in the current climate is also common among American firms.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Since his election win, multinationals like automakers have made major investment decisions that appear designed to avoid drawing Trump's ire.

For example, Fiat Chrysler announced this month it would shift production of its Ram pickup to the U.S. from Mexico in 2020. Shortly before Trump's inauguration a year ago, Ford cancelled its plans to build a US$1.6 billion auto plant in Mexico.

"The general idea of an individual company being willing to be the javelin catcher? I think that's true — I think there's some unwillingness there," Greenwood said.

"The president relishes being unpredictable and people are worried about, perhaps, attracting attention to themselves."

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