OTTAWA – When he was prime minister, Jean Chretien never got the chance to play host to the North American Leaders’ Summit, the trilateral talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico taking place Wednesday in Ottawa.
But he does claim responsibility for the meeting’s nickname: the “Three Amigos.”
It was 2001 when Chretien first used the term — borrowed, presumably, from the slapstick 1986 comedy of the same name starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short — to describe the relationship between the three countries.
Fifteen years later, it seems to have stuck.
This year, relationships between the three world leaders seem to be in an equally good place, Chretien said Tuesday during a telephone briefing on the summit hosted by the law firm Dentons.
And that’s crucial coming amid all the turmoil in the European Union over the United Kingdom’s decision to abandon the EU, he said.
“It is a good example that these multilateral agreements are positive, and we need more of them,” Chretien said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“In the last 20 years, the growth in the world has increased enormously because free trade exists virtually everywhere. I hope we will not go back and get back into a very narrow protectionist period; that would be disastrous for a lot of people.”
Chretien said he wonders about the anti-trade rhetoric currently coming from Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president.
Coincidentally, Trump on Tuesday called NAFTA a disaster and promised to either renegotiate it or withdraw the US from it if elected. He said the same about the Trans Pacific Partnership, the 12-country trade deal awaiting ratification.
But the former Liberal prime minister noted it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are usually more in favour of free trade and wondered how Trump will win others in his party over to his point of view.
Even if he can’t, Chretien said, presidents often talk more than they can deliver.
“When you’re prime minister of Canada, one of the frustrations is (when) you talk with the president, half the time he tells you, ‘I can’t do a damn thing because of Congress or the senators.'”
But Chretien says candid talks between world leaders at summits are always important and can go a long way towards removing irritants between the countries.
On Tuesday, Mexico and Canada resolved two of their own problems during a visit by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Restrictions on Canadian beef will be lifted by Mexico in October, while Canada will remove a long-standing visa requirement for Mexicans coming to Canada before the end of the year.
Chretien told the call he had his own experience with resolving those kind of trade disputes.
A U.S. ban on potatoes from P.E.I. had been an irritant for months leading into the 2001 Summit of the Americas. The issue was a viral fungus that had infected a Canadian crop of spuds and the U.S. was worried about the dangers it posed.
To prove a point, Chretien served then-U.S. president George W. Bush potatoes from P.E.I. every day of the summit.
At the end of the last meal, he turned to Bush, who had been made aware of the source of the dish.
“You’re not dead,” Chretien told the president. “So why don’t you lift the ban?”
It was lifted days later.
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