Stephen Harper: It's 'Unequivocal The U.S. Got A Good Deal' With USMCA

Ryan Maloney
Former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper speaks at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on March 26, 2017.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper says it is "unequivocal" that the United States scored a good deal with the revamped North American trade pact, while Canada tried to mitigate losses.

Harper made the remark during a discussion at the Canadian Club of Toronto Thursday promoting his new book, "Right Here, Right Now," which tackles how conservatives should respond to a rise of global populism.

A livestream captured the former Conservative PM's roughly 40 minute chat with former party president John Walsh. Reporters were initially invited to the event, but the club rescinded the offer this week and stated the invites were sent in error.

Watch the full interview:

Harper was asked about his thoughts on the negotiations that led to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

"Yeah, I had a few thoughts," he said, spurring laughs from the crowd. "That I mostly tried to keep between me and my clients."

The former prime minister made headlines last October after a memo written for clients of his consulting firm, titled "Napping on NAFTA," was obtained by The Canadian Press. Harper expressed concerns at the time about the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations and warned U.S. President Donald Trump wasn't bluffing about terminating the deal.

"Canada's government needs to get its head around this reality: it does not matter whether current American proposals are worse than what we have now," the letter stated. "What matters in evaluating them is whether it is worth having a trade agreement with the Americans or not."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have since charged Harper — and by extension the party he once led — wanted Canada to "capitulate" to U.S. demands. It remains a key talking point for Trudeau's cabinet when fielding USMCA-related questions.

Watch: Scheer says Trudeau 'backed down to Trump' on USMCA

In Toronto Thursday, Harper said he was tempted to change the acronym from USMCA to MUSCA, an apparent reference to how Mexico had earlier moved forward on a deal with the U.S. that did not include Canada. Harper's memo criticized the Liberal government's "unwavering devotion" to cooperating with Mexico during trade talks.

"So look, I think everybody knows I did not think much of the way it was handled on our side, albeit a difficult situation," Harper said. "I think... the case is unequivocal the U.S. got a good deal."

The former prime minister said the U.S. had some "pretty clear wins," but did not spell out examples.

"In the case of our country, we were trying to minimize the losses," he said.

In an interview with Fox News this week, Harper highlighted U.S. gains on the auto sector with new content requirements and wage provisions. He explained it should help tilt production from Mexico to America over time.

'Incentives' to open up Chinese market: Harper

Harper said Thursday that while there are obviously "some losses" for Canada with the USMCA, the deal "gives us comprehensive and largely beneficial access to the American market, so it's essential."

There's been "a lot of commentary" on how the USMCA may affect Canada's relationship with China, he noted.

Some observers say a clause in the deal, which requires countries tell each other if they want to enter trade talks with a "non-market economy," essentially gives the U.S. a veto over a future Canada-China trade deal.

"I actually think... I'll use the word kindly, I actually think there are incentives in the deal for the governments of Canada and Mexico to work with the government of the United States to try to open up the Chinese market," Harper said.

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Though he largely avoided directly criticizing the Liberal government or his successor, Harper made some jokes about his election loss almost three years ago.

He noted that the events covered in his book, from the Trump win to Brexit to the rise of populist figures in Western democracies, have all happened since his defeat.

"Starting in 2016, the year I left office, everything went to hell in a handbasket," he said. "I'm sure it's just coincidence."

Harper said his book explores a period of disruptive political change and backlash that has come as ordinary working people — having lived through a financial crisis, bank bailouts, and mostly stagnant wages — question the pillars of the post-Cold War era, such as free trade and freer immigration.

While the book addresses how conservatives can respond to such grievances, Harper repeatedly said his publication is not about Canada. He said this country is a "kind of outlier" in many of the global trends discussed.

Canada has had changes of government. A couple of them, one in particular, I think was very bad. Just an unbiased view. Stephen Harper

"Canada gets a bit of attention in the fact that you see all this political instability and change in Western democracies. I think most people notice that Canada doesn't have that," he said, before hitting the punch line.

"Now, I qualify that, Canada has had changes of government. A couple of them, one in particular, I think was very bad. Just an unbiased view."

But when asked to comment on the pace of investment capital coming into Canada, Harper suggested the conversation was veering too closely into partisan politics for his liking.

"Everybody knows I remain on the board of the Conservative Fund, assist our leader Andrew Scheer in his fundraising efforts and I try not to comment day-to-day on the current government," he said.

"I leave that to our party. I think he's doing a good job and I look forward to him winning the election in 2019."

With a file from The Canadian Press