11/23/2017 16:21 EST | Updated 11/23/2017 16:44 EST

Chrystia Freeland To Erin O'Toole: Tell Harper 'Capitulation' Won't Work In NAFTA Talks

Her critic says it's time to change Canada's negotiation strategy.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks in the House of Commons on March 21, 2017.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has delivered a rebuke to former prime minister Stephen Harper over his criticism of the government's approach to NAFTA negotiations.

Freeland made her views known in the House of Commons Thursday while facing questions from her Conservative critic, Erin O'Toole, about the deadlock that remains between Canada, the United States, and Mexico after five rounds of talks.

O'Toole charged that NAFTA is in crisis and urged Freeland to admit it was time to change course and fight for jobs instead of her "ideology." Tories have long said that they will support the Liberal government's attempts to protect the agreement as long as the focus is kept squarely on job creation.

Freeland shot back that one of Canada's biggest strengths in the talks has been its ability to rise above "petty partisan politics."

"Having said that, Stephen Harper has recently proposed a different approach," she said. "And so I would like to take this opportunity to ask my honourable colleague to let his former boss know that this government's view is that capitulation is not a negotiating strategy."

Freeland was referencing a memo Harper sent to clients of his consulting company that was leaked last month. The letter — titled "Napping on NAFTA" — blasted the Liberals for, among other things, promoting progressive trade priorities such as labour, gender, and environmental issues.

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The former PM's memo also argued the Liberal government needed to recognize U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to tear up NAFTA isn't a bluff.

"It does not matter whether current American proposals are worse than what we have now," Harper wrote. "What matters in evaluating them is whether it is worth having a trade agreement with the Americans or not."

O'Toole accused Freeland of telling stakeholders in Washington that the progressive elements Canada wants to see in a revamped NAFTA will not be enforceable.

"So, why is Canada putting non-binding priorities forward when they should be fighting for softwood, for autos, for agriculture, for the jobs that we need right now?" he asked.

Freeland said she will continue to fight for Canada's interests in good faith and added that a "winner-takes-all attitude" is not the sign of a good partner.

"I want Canadians to know that we will always defend the national interest and stand up for our values," she said.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Former prime minister Stephen Harper speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington on March 26, 2017.

Tory MP Garnett Genuis then said that Freeland's answers were more about "attacking a former prime minister" than charting a course to success.

Liberals have said their priorities for the revamped trade pact include greater commitments to environmental protection, as well as chapters on gender and Indigenous rights.

In a speech to Mexico's Senate last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the chance to add a gender chapter to NAFTA was a "progressive step forward that we can't afford not to take."

Yet trade experts have suggested such a move could end up being largely symbolic.

The Canadian Press reported that such a chapter would likely be modelled after Canada's trade deal with Chile, which reaffirmed each nation's commitment to international agreements on gender rights and set up a committee to oversee that work.

However, the pact also made clear that nothing in the gender chapter would be subject to the dispute resolution mechanisms that apply to the rest of the deal.

With files from The Canadian Press, earlier files