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Canada’s NAFTA team: four key personalities who will shape our renegotiation effort

Written by

Dan Mader

Senior Vice-President

The first round of the NAFTA renegotiations kicks off August 16 in Washington. In advance of these crucial talks, NATIONAL’s GR Practice Leader Dan Mader provides an inside look at Canada’s four-member dream team – the people key to Canada’s renegotiation. Having worked with two of the principals, in government and in the private sector, Dan provides good insight into how their personalities will drive a successful outcome.


With the Canadian economy so dependent on trade with the United States, the renegotiation of NAFTA is the key challenge facing the federal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized this and deployed some of the strongest members of his team in strategic roles where their talents, experience, and U.S. connections should serve them well.

As talks get started, these are the people to watch:

Team leader: Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Prime Minister Trudeau promoted Minister Freeland from her previous role of Minister of International Trade shortly after the election of President Trump. A former journalist, Chrystia Freeland has worked in the United States and has a well-developed network there, including both journalists and politicians. She brings to the role an understanding of U.S. politics that is rare for a Canadian. This understanding, and the importance of these talks, explain why she has been given responsibility for the renegotiation, something that would traditionally have been the role of the Trade Minister. Freeland will oversee the negotiating team, serving as Canada’s senior political representative.

Point person on the ground: David MacNaughton, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.

One of Prime Minister Trudeau’s first appointments after the 2015 election, David MacNaughton is a universally-respected former business executive who also possesses significant experience in the United States. MacNaughton’s experience in politics and foreign policy goes back to the government of Pierre Trudeau, when he worked as an advisor to the Foreign Minister. He later worked as a public affairs executive, including a stint as North American president of Hill and Knowlton. He has a direct line to both Trudeau and PMO Chief of Staff Katie Telford (who used to work for him in the consulting business), which gives him credibility and gravitas in Washington. MacNaughton’s jovial personality is disarming. While working with him, I saw him build relationships and trust, something that he is being called upon to do regularly in his current role.

Recruiter of supporters: Andrew Leslie, Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister

While the American side of negotiations is led by the U.S. federal government, the states will play a pivotal role. Governors and state legislatures will advocate forcefully for the interests of their states, both directly and through their Members of Congress. Recognizing this, Trudeau moved Andrew Leslie from Chief Whip to his current role, one that makes far better use of his talents. As a retired general, who served with distinction in Afghanistan, Leslie has significant credibility with U.S. leadership. He now spends his days criss-crossing America, meeting with Governors and other leaders at the state level, building support on key issues, particularly in states that benefit from Canada-U.S. trade. As a military leader, Leslie was respected for his intelligence and decisiveness. He was also innovative, something I saw firsthand when I worked at the Department of National Defence as Leslie was completing his recommendations for transforming that organization and the Canadian Forces. He will be able to quickly grasp the complex issues involved in the renegotiation, and his military reputation will help break the ice with American leaders.

Trade expert: Steve Verheul, Canada’s Chief NAFTA Negotiator

A career public servant, Steve Verheul bring years of trade negotiating experience to the role of Chief Negotiator. He also has a strong relationship with Minister Freeland, having worked closely with her as they concluded the Canada-EU trade deal. Verheul will lead the team of experts working out details with their American and Mexican counterparts.