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Ottawa looks to Kushner, other U.S. trade officials to resolve medical equipment dispute

The Trudeau government is looking to the relationships it established during NAFTA negotiations to resolve the urgent dispute over personal protective equipment with the United States.

According to senior sources with direct knowledge of the situation, Canadian politicians at different levels, and of different political stripes, will and have been reaching out to contacts in the U.S. to make Canada’s case to keep the flow of essential goods moving.

At the core of this push, sources say, is the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, who is trying to leverage her relationship with the president’s son-in-law and special advisor Jared Kushner. 

The overtures come after U.S. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force Minnesota-based 3M to prioritize orders from the U.S. government for N95 respirators, at the expense of foreign orders. The protective masks are used by front-line health care workers battling the novel coronavirus.

When Canadian officials reach out to their American counterparts or contacts, they will highlight the fact that the Canada-U.S. medical supply chain is highly integrated, one source said. For example, the pulp used to make gowns and masks by 3M comes from Nanaimo, B.C.

Also, there are 1,200 medical workers who travel from Windsor, Ont., to Detroit,  Mich., nearly every day. And Canada supplies a significant amount of medical isotopes to the United States.

Kushner connection could benefit Ottawa

This is a similar approach to what happened during NAFTA negotiations, when Canadian politicians at all levels reached out to Americans, to remind their contacts of just how integrated the supply chain is between both countries.

During NAFTA negotiations, Telford developed a close working relationship with Kushner, to the point that they often exchange text messages.

The Canadians see the Kushner connection as one that can be used to Ottawa’s advantage, one source told CBC News. 

Kushner played a key role in finalizing NAFTA negotiations with both Mexico and Canada, as he is reported to have influence with Trump in ways that other members of the administration do not.

Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arrives at a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Other influential members of Trump’s inner circle who may be sympathetic to Canada’s plight include Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the source said.

Meadows is new to the role, but during his previous stint as a member of Congress, it was well known he was close to the president. Canada’s former ambassador to Washington, David MacNaughton, often spoke with Meadows about Canadian priorities during NAFTA talks, as he had Trump’s ear. 

A second source says this is about the health and safety of Canadians, so all key relationships that have been developed over the years to resolve this are being utilized.

That second source says Canada’s new ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, is a main point of contact right now with the Trump administration, as is Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford reached out to Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, to express his frustration with the White House over its request that medical equipment manufactured in the U.S. not be exported to Canada. 

Ford played a similar role during NAFTA negotiations, developing relationships with key members of the Trump administration, including former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft. 

Kushner under fire at home

In Washington, Kushner has been criticized after he was assigned key responsibilities within the White House coronavirus task force. 

The White House is standing by Kushner, after he questioned how some U.S. governors and mayors are handling the crisis, and claimed that the national stockpile of emergency medical equipment is not for use by states.

During Thursday’s coronavirus task force briefing in Washington, Kushner said “the notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile.”

“It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”

However, a U.S. federal government website clearly stated that in fact, the equipment is meant to supplement supplies for individual states. 

Within 24 hours, the language on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website was changed to reflect what Kushner had said. 

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