OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer defended his party's suddenly sharp criticism of the Liberal government's performance on the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying the Tories want a deal with the United States as much as anyone.
Canada is still presenting a united front in Washington in its effort to forge a deal in advance of Friday's deadline imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump, Scheer said Thursday.
He added it is the Opposition's job to hold the government to account on Canadian soil for what Scheer called a bad decision to allow Mexico and the U.S. to negotiate a side-deal without Canada at the table.
"I've led trade delegations to the U.S., our members of Parliament have been engaged with U.S. counterparts as well, promoting that sense of unity," Scheer told reporters in Winnipeg.
"But here at home in Canada, we will always communicate with Canadians as to where we think the Trudeau Liberals have gone wrong."
Scheer and other Conservative MPs have also used Twitter to ratchet up attacks on the Liberals this week.
That seemingly marked a break from the so-called Team Canada approach where prominent Conservatives showed support for the Liberal government.
Former Conservative cabinet ministers Rona Ambrose and James Moore are members of the government's NAFTA advisory council while former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney has advised the government on how to deal with Trump, his friend and Florida vacation home neighbour.
Freeland's comments '100 per cent spin': Tory MP
On Wednesday, MP Pierre Poilievre said on Twitter that the U.S.-Mexico deal was negotiated "behind Trudeau's back, without his knowledge, while he was on vacation."
In one of a series of tweets on Thursday, Scheer wrote that, "Canadians I've spoken to are frustrated that Mexico and the U.S. struck this deal behind Trudeau's back. They want to know why Canada is on the outside looking in, while major sectors of the economy and millions of jobs hang in the balance."
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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said earlier this week the government was kept informed of talks between Mexico and the U.S. even though Canada was not at the negotiating table. She also credited Mexico with making necessary concessions that allowed progress on the pivotal auto issue.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole dismissed her comments as "100 per cent spin," saying Canada should have been involved in any discussion about the future of North America's integrated automobile industry.
He said the Tories tried to work with the Liberals on getting a good NAFTA deal, but the party's overtures were rejected — one reason why Conservatives are more critical of the Trudeau government as the talks entered this week's crucial round in Washington.
"We were passing advice. I was praising Minister Freeland. We offered to go down on joint trips," he said in an interview.
"None of that goodwill offering we made was taken up by the government."
The support shown for the Liberals by former Conservative ministers such as John Baird doesn't necessarily reflect the view of the current members of the party's caucus, O'Toole said.
"The U.S. and Mexico had big automotive sector trade issues that did not involve Canada. There was no reason for Canada to be included in those discussions. We were not excluded," Baird wrote in one of a series of supportive tweets earlier this week, one of which wished Freeland good luck.