Canada’s foreign affairs minister this month revealed a secret weapon in trade negotiations with the Trump administration: Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage is a vital conduit for Canada to try to have its concerns heard by President Trump as talks over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement unfold, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a parliamentary committee Aug. 14.

“I have been in close contact with him, I speak on the phone with him often,” Freeland, a former foreign correspondent and newspaper editor, told the members of parliament’s international trade committee. “He is an influential voice in this administration.”

While LePage remains a polarizing figure in Maine, clashing even with legislative leaders of his own party, he is looked on as a potential ally and savior by many in Canada who see him as a member of Trump’s circle who also intimately understands the complex trade relationship with Canada.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is being seeing as a friend to Canada when it comes to trade. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“LePage – who if you like is representative of the kind of people that Trump considers part of his base, who comes from a border state and speaks Trump’s language – if he is in fact on the phone with the president saying that NAFTA matters, I think this would be a powerful thing,” says Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank. “It’s very intelligent of the political authorities in Canada to have identified people like your governor to look to.”

Maine and the neighboring province of New Brunswick have a great deal at stake in the NAFTA negotiations.

Canada is Maine’s largest export market, accounting for 47 percent of 2016 exports, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New Brunswick accounts for much of that – $1 billion a year – mostly in the form of lobsters, farm-raised salmon and natural gas, according to the province’s trade ministry. New Brunswick, for its part, shipped $767 million in goods to Maine, primarily wood pulp, lumber, electricity, lobster and salmon.

CANADA WARY OF PROTECTIONISM

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to do away with NAFTA, the 1994 treaty that liberalized trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and at a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night he said he would “probably” do just that.

The president returned to the subject again on his Twitter feed Sunday morning.

Canadians are hoping to convince him otherwise, not least those in New Brunswick, whose wood products, energy, and fishing and lobster-processing industries are tightly integrated with those in Maine. Many Maine lobsters are shipped to New Brunswick for processing in the summer, while the Saint John-based J.D. Irving conglomerate is the biggest private landholder in Maine and a dominant force in timber harvesting and sawmill operations. The Irving family also owns Irving Oil, whose Saint John refinery provides fuel to gas stations across Maine.

“What’s really important is that we don’t just buy from one another, we actually make things together,” says former New Brunswick Premier David Alward, Canada’s consul-general for New England. “In Madawaska, you have a pulp mill on one side of the border, a paper mill on the other side, and wood chips on both sides to feed the pulp mill.”

If Trump made good on his threat to leave NAFTA, new trade barriers could disrupt these supply chains, an outcome Canadian officials have reached out to LePage to avoid.

Immediately after Trump’s inauguration, Percy Mockler, one of New Brunswick’s representatives in the federal Senate in Ottawa, called on his colleagues to build on their relationship with LePage to counter the threat of protectionism presented by the new administration.

“LePage has been instrumental in working with Canada on many key issues and has been at the forefront of trying to resolve trade issues and improve cross-border issues,” says Mockler, who met with LePage in Limestone on Wednesday to discuss trade and economic issues. “I absolutely believe he is a conduit, and that he has a great relationship with the present administration in Washington, D.C., that we can both benefit from.”

FIGHTING TARIFFS ON CANADIAN LUMBER

When LePage visited the White House on June 28, New Brunswick’s trade minister told journalists he would raise the province’s concerns about anti-dumping tariffs Trump had imposed on Canadian softwood lumber, but the governor’s office later reported that he “didn’t have the chance.”

The governor’s office declined an interview request, instead forwarding excerpts of Minister Freeland’s remarks to parliamentarians and two letters LePage has sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross this summer arguing against the softwood tariffs. The most recent letter, dated Aug. 3, warns of a “devastating ripple effect of job losses” in Maine, including the possible loss of an unspecified cedar picket-fence mill and the announced relocation of a red cedar shingle production line from Ashland to British Columbia. Both facilities process Canadian cedar.

“We expect other companies will soon curtail or cease their operations and lay off Maine workers,” LePage wrote.

LePage knows New Brunswick well, having lived there for a decade while married to his first wife, Sharon Crabbe, whose family owned sawmills along the border with Aroostook County. His two children from that marriage – which ended in divorce in 1980 – are New Brunswickers. The eldest, Lisa LePage, works for the provincial government’s business development agency.

While married to Crabbe, LePage managed one of her family’s sawmills in Arthurette, New Brunswick, 18 miles east of Fort Fairfield. After his divorce LePage continued to work in the forest products sector in central and northern Maine, following a short stint with the Maine Housing Authority.

“Canadians and New Brunswickers have been impressed with the deep knowledge of Mr. LePage, and he has been at the forefront of solving issues,” says Mockler, a member of the Conservative Party of Canada who was appointed to the Canadian Senate by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Freeland, the foreign affairs minister, declined an interview request.

DEGREE OF INFLUENCE UNCLEAR

While there are strong parallels between LePage’s and Trump’s politics, oratory style and combative approach toward governance and the media, it isn’t clear how much influence the governor actually has within the Trump administration.

LePage emerged as a strong supporter of Trump’s campaign, introducing him at Maine rallies and proclaiming himself to have been “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.” But the president isn’t known for reciprocal loyalty, having famously belittled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at joint campaign appearances before shutting him out of the administration entirely. During an official visit to the Vatican, Trump denied then-press secretary Sean Spicer – a devout Catholic – an opportunity to meet Pope Francis, and he has also turned on one of his most stalwart backers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Canadians are hoping LePage has Trump’s ear on the issue.

“The reality is our economies are very closely connected, and I think not only Governor LePage but many governors across the U.S. and within the congressional delegation see and understand how jobs on one side of the border rely on jobs on the other side of the border,” says Alward, the former New Brunswick premier.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 7916317 or at:

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