‘You’re our best customer’: Top Canadian diplomat talks trade, NBA finals during Pa. visit

Canadian Consul General Phyllis Yaffe talks trade and the NBA finals with The Capital-Star (photo by John L. Micek)

[Editor’s Note: Since original publication, the Trump administration announced it has reached a resolution to the trade crisis it fomented with the Mexican government and will not impose 5 percent tariffs on goods coming across the southern border.]

The last time Phyllis Yaffe was in Pennsylvania, she had a pretty direct message to deliver to Keystone State residents: The Trump White House’s tough talk on trade with Canada was doing more harm than good.

The Keystone State, which exports $12.4 billion in goods and services a year, is one of Canada’s best trading partners. And anything that puts a crimp in that relationship causes pain on both sides of the border.

What a difference a year makes.

Chatting with the Capital-Star on Wednesday, Yaffe, a Canadian consul general to the United States — whose mandate includes Pennsylvania, three other states, and Bermuda — says her government welcomes the looming ratification of the rechristened North American Free Trade Agreement.  That’s the rather more clunkily titled “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement,” since it’ll mean the likely end of simmering economic tensions on either side of the 49th parallel.

Yaffe said the state and federal officials she met with in 2018 “weren’t used to Canadians being as blunt as we were,” about the adverse impact of the Trump White House’s saber-rattling on trade.

This week, as she meets with business leaders, elected officials, and others, Yaffe said it’s been a relief to deliver a more positive message.

“The biggest message this year is that the tariffs on [Canadian] steel and aluminum” have been lifted, she said.

In May, Canadian and U.S. trade negotiators reached an agreement to eliminate a 25 percent levy on Canadian steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum, which the Trump administration said had been imposed for national security reasons. The lifting of the tariffs also removed a key hurdle to Canadian ratification of the USMCA trade pact, according to published reports.

A bill that would implement the agreement is now before the Canadian Parliament. And Canadian elected leaders “hope to see it done very soon,” Yaffe said.

Meanwhile, Canadian officials are keeping a watchful eye on the White House’s recent threat to impose punitive tariffs on Mexico if the United States’ southern neighbor fails to halt unlawful migration. Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials were scheduled to meet with Mexico’s top diplomat Wednesday to avert such a scenario, the New York Times reported.

“We want to see [the USMCA] come to fruition,” Yaffe said, adding she’s “optimistic” that the United States and Mexico will be able to resolve their differences.

And while the White House has been hailing the agreement as a win for American dairy farmers, including those in Pennsylvania, who will gain increased access to Canadian markets, Yaffe warned against considering that a cure-all to the legitimate challenges the dairy industry now faces.

“Access to our markets is not the solution,” she said. “We have the same population in Canada as California.”

Agriculture constitutes about 10 percent of the $10.8 billion in goods that Pennsylvania annually exports to Canada. But Canadian agricultural products make up 15 percent of the $11.7 billion a year in goods that Pennsylvania imports from Canada, according to data provided by Yaffe’s office.

“You’re our best customer,” she quipped.

With the summer travel season approaching, Yaffe said Canadian officials are concerned about the redeployment of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents from the northern to the southern border, and hopes that won’t adversely impact the flow of Canadian tourists and commerce.

While in the United States, Yaffe met with members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, including Republican U.S. Reps. Scott Perry, R-10th District, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District. Both are veterans and framed their questions from a national security perspective.

Yaffe pronounced herself impressed with Pennsylvania’s newly elected congressional women: U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District; Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District; and Susan Wild, D-7th District.

“These were four very bright women who had a lot of life experience to bring” to their jobs, she said. During Yaffe’s last trip to Pennsylvania in 2018, there were no women members of Congress from the Keystone State.

With more women in office, “Congress has a different feel from before,” she said. “It’s a big change.”

In one departure from her generally sunny tone, Yaffe did have some words that might make American ears burn: It’s Raptors in seven. But she did apologize for the buzzer-beater that eliminated the ‘Sixers.

She is a diplomat, after all.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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