Brian Mulroney to address key Canada-U.S. cabinet committee

Members of the cabinet committee that oversees Canada-U.S. relations are set to hear from someone who has plenty of experience negotiating with the United States: Brian Mulroney.

The former Progressive Conservative prime minister, who served from 1984-1993, has been advising Justin Trudeau's Liberal government since the election of Donald Trump last year. 

He will continue his unofficial adviser role on Thursday when he meets with the members of the powerful cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations.

Mulroney's role is unlikely to be formalized. 

He will instead continue to share his insights as an elder statesman who knows the new U.S. president and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross personally.

Andrew Leslie, the parliamentary secretary with "special responsibilities" for Canada-U.S. affairs, said Mulroney brings excellent contacts, business acumen and the nuanced understanding of a former prime minister.

"I think it's a brilliant idea," Leslie said prior to Wednesday's cabinet meeting. "He's a well-respected elder statesman. He's been a great friend of all of us as we work to develop our friendship and lines of communications down in the United States.

​Waiting for negotiations to start

The former prime minister's advice could be particularly relevant to the Liberal government as it tries to figure out how far the U.S. administration wants to go in the NAFTA renegotiation Trump promised. 

"Tweaking is in the eye of the beholder," Leslie said.

"The Mexicans know, the Canadians know, everybody knows, times are different. We are going to have new trade relations with people," Commerce Secretary Ross recently told Bloomberg News.

Canada has been in regular contact with the U.S. administration, including Ross, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

"The situation remains as it was. As the U.S. has explained, negotiations can only begin after there has been a formal 90-day consultation in the United States," Freeland said.

"That consultation has not yet been formally triggered. That's the place where we are right now."

Mulcair questions Mulroney's mandate

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said that turning to Mulroney shows the Liberals aren't serious about improving the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Mulroney negotiated the original NAFTA between Canada, the United States and Mexico in the 1990s.

"Go to the communities in southwestern Ontario that have been hard-hit by NAFTA, and ask them whether they want the guy who wrote NAFTA talking to the Americans now," Mulcair said Wednesday morning. 

"What's [Mulroney's] position going to be other than to defend the deal that he put in place in the first place? It goes back to Justin Trudeau again. What is his position on NAFTA? He hasn't articulated one."

Mulcair also raised the question of whether Mulroney is being paid by the government. The Prime Minister's Office later said Mulroney is not being paid.

Mulroney's former chief of staff — who then served as Canada's ambassador to the U.S. — Derek Burney, also will attend the meeting to offer his insight at the request of the committee's chair, Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

Burney, a diplomat prior to joining Mulroney's office, played a central role in negotiating both Canada's bilateral free trade agreement with the United States and the NAFTA talks that followed.