PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – Speaking before a ballroom packed to capacity at the National Governors Association meeting Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the "modernization" of the North American Free Trade Agreement while underscoring how much the United States stands to lose if trade with Canada is hindered as President Donald Trump seeks to renegotiate the deal.
"Given the imminent modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement – which we welcome, of course – we felt compelled to tell you Canada's story, specifically as it relates to the United States," he said. "It's a great story. Not just for the 9 million American workers whose jobs depend directly on trade and investment with Canada, but for all Americans."
With two-thirds of the U.S. states counting Canada as their top exporter, "Canada is the U.S.'s biggest, best customer by far," Trudeau said. "Canada buys more from the U.S. than China, Japan and the U.K. combined."
"This is the most successful economic partnership in the history of the world," he continued. "It's worth about a trillion dollars each year and, most importantly, it's well balanced."
"Free trade has worked," he added. "It's working now."
It was the first time that a foreign head of state had addressed the conference, and in introducing Trudeau, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe praised the Canadian prime minister for being a leader on climate change, fighting extremism, championing LGBT rights and women's rights, and "for his leadership on the economy."
"I want to thank the prime minister for making sure that Canada is open and welcoming to everyone," McAuliffe said. "He understands that if you're open and welcoming, good things happen, your economies grow."
Much of Trudeau's speech seemed to rebuke the Trump administration's populist rhetoric. Where Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke just before Trudeau took the podium, focused on an "America First" message, Trudeau emphasized the growing global economy and the impact NAFTA has on the U.S., Canada and Mexico, repeatedly referencing "our shared North American home."
Donald Trump needs to rethink his priorities in order to get a better trade deal.
"Canadians pay more than $500 million annually in property tax in Florida alone," Trudeau said to laughs from the crowd. He offered examples of Canadian manufacturers and auto-parts suppliers whose facilities and supply chains span the borders.
"There are literally too many examples of this to name," he said. "Canadian energy, ingenuity and capital are there helping you build America just as American energy, ingenuity and capital are in Canada helping us build our country. And this, ultimately, is why I have such confidence in our shared future."
NAFTA isn't perfect, Trudeau acknowledged, and is in need of updating, as it has been in the past. Thanking the governors and the Trump administration for the "serious and respectful" response Canada's outreach has received, Trudeau added: "We must get this right. Sometimes getting it right means refusing to take the politically tempting shortcuts. More trade barriers, more local content provisions, more preferential access for homegrown players and government procurement, for example, does not help working families over the long-term or even the mid-term. Such policies kill growth, and that hurts the very workers these measures are nominally intended to protect."
"And once we travel down that road, it can quickly become a cycle of tit-for-tat, a race to the bottom, where all sides lose," he warned. "Canada doesn't want to go that route."