10/20/2011 08:05 EDT | Updated 12/20/2011 05:12 EST

Canada-U.S. Trade: Inside Ottawa's Efforts To Fight 'Buy American'


As Washington continues to defend the contentious Buy American provisions outlined in the U.S. jobs bill, it has become abundantly clear that, for policymakers south of the border, Canada is not top of mind.

But according to a former Canadian diplomat who has been on the inside of major trade policy negotiations with the U.S., this reality, however harsh, simply reinforces a stubborn fact of life: No matter how friendly relations with our biggest trading partner may seem, Canadians must wage a permanent campaign to protect our interests south of the border.

"For the U.S., we're not a problem, and therefore we're not on the immediate agenda," Colin Robertson told The Huffington Post. "We Canadians have to constantly be making the case to our American market, reminding them ... that we’re also their biggest market."

It's an effort that Robertson -- who helped negotiate and implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- says is comprehensive, despite the fact that it may not always seem that way.

"Are we talking to all the various parties? We are, but stuff happens, and will continue to happen," he says. "It's like Whac-A-Mole. You've got to constantly be on guard, because [these kinds of protectionist provisions] are popping up in all kinds of places."

Officials at the Canadian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions from HuffPost pertaining to specific lobbying efforts, or how Ottawa first learned that Buy American was part of Obama's jobs bill.

But according to Robertson, who was the embassy's first Head of the Advocacy Secretary in the mid-2000s, Ottawa launched an active congressional relations program in Washington after the defeat of the East Coast Fisheries Agreement in 1979 -- a decision he says "changed how we did business."

The sheer volume of the legislation that is introduced in Congress is a perennial challenge for those seeking to detect and fight problematic clauses and provisions. So, in the mid-1990s, Robertson says the embassy subscribed to a professional tracking system that scans bills for key terms like "Canada" and "Buy American."

"That's how often we'll discover this stuff," he says.

To make the case to specific policymakers, Robertson says that when he was at the embassy, they began tracking Canadian contributions by congressional district.

"Then we could go in … and say, 'OK, here are the Canadians that are investing in your district and creating jobs, and here is the trade that you produce in your district thanks to Canada," he says.

At the same time, he says industry groups and premiers have also been "very effective" in making the case to mayors and business leaders south of the border.

"There's a saying you've probably heard: 'All politics is local.' That's how we have to play the game in the United States."

None of which, however, has so far been enough to exempt Canada from the Buy American provisions currently on the table, even though the country was exempted from a similar clause in the 2009 U.S. stimulus bill.

Proposed as part of Obama's plan to get the U.S. economy back on track, the "Buy American" clause mandates that government money won't fund infrastructure projects "unless all of the iron, steel and manufactured goods used in the project are produced in the United States."

The $447-billion U.S. American Jobs Act was recently defeated in the Senate, but Obama is now attempting to pass it through Congress bit by bit.

When U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson justified the provisions in an address in Ottawa on Tuesday, saying they were actually good for Canada's economy, Trade Minister Ed Fast was quick to issue his discontent.

"In these challenging times, there is simply no better American job-creator than trade with Canada. And vice versa. And the best way to do that is through free and open trade," he said in a press release.

For his part, Robertson, who is involved in current lobbying efforts through his work as a senior strategic advisor for the law firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge, says the chances that Canada will feel the brunt of these provisions are slim.

"It is doubtful the clause will survive as drafted by the president in his proposed jobs package that may or may not see light of day," he says. "If it does, we may be exempted because of U.S. NAFTA and procurement obligations."

But the spectre of continued protectionism south of the border is prompting some to advocate for a more long-term solution.

"We should be lobbying to develop a reciprocal procurement agreement so Canada is not included in any future [Buy American] legislation," says Jayson Myers, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. "That agreement should be based on a more North American definition."