OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is shooting down an allegation from his predecessor that he is resisting making a NAFTA deal with the United States in order to reap the political reward of standing up to Donald Trump.

In Markham, Ont., Trudeau responded to the accusation from former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, saying the trade relationship with the U.S. and NAFTA specifically are "much more important than playing politics."

"I think I've been very clear for a long time now that the issue of trade with the United States and our relationship with the United States is far too important to play partisan politics with," Trudeau said, adding that he remains committed to getting a deal and plans to continue to call on people from across party lines as the negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico continue. Next week, a trio of Trudeau ministers are headed to Mexico to meet with the incoming administration.

As CTV News exclusively reported Thursday night, Harper took aim at Trudeau and his office for the current state of the trade relationship, in an audio recording of Harper speaking at a private luncheon hosted by the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Montreal on July 11.

"The reality is that the Government of Canada believes today that it is doing very well, the fight with Trump is good for it politically, it is winning," Harper said.

"So if it can take that fight and continue it, and more importantly paint conservatives as linked to Donald Trump, this is great for them. And so right now that is the strategy they are on," Harper said in the recording of his remarks at a private luncheon hosted by the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum in Montreal on July 11.

Harper called it "foolish" for either side to avoid making a deal for political reasons, something he said he thinks both Canada and the U.S. are guilty of doing.

“The suggestion that the government is dragging its heels on a NAFTA deal for political reasons, I don’t think the evidence bears that out,” said former Canadian diplomat and vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute Colin Robertson in an interview with CTV News.

The NAFTA talks are currently stalled, following the recent Mexican election and upcoming U.S. midterms. The break in active negotiations comes after considerable intense periods of meetings and talk of some progress, and proceeded the recent acrimonious exchange of tariffs.

It was when the U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum were announced, that Trudeau told reporters the two countries had been quite close to a deal, but a meeting between Trump and Trudeau was contingent on Canada agreeing to a sunset clause, something the prime minister considered unacceptable. Formal negotiations have not resumed since.

Robertson also cautioned that the appearance that the NAFTA negotiations have become a partisan issue in Canada could be leverage for the Americans, and Trump specifically, to try to divide Canadians as a bargaining tactic.

On Friday, Trudeau pointed to other high-profile Conservatives, such as former prime minister Brian Mulroney, saying they have been “extraordinarily helpful” with communicating Canada’s interests throughout the continuing trade tensions.

"I will continue to work with people right across the country to demonstrate that Canada is strong, and united, and focused on getting the right deal for Canada as we move forward on renegotiating NAFTA, and I won’t be playing politics with it," Trudeau said.

At the Montreal event, Harper also alleged the Liberal PMO leaked his planned trip to D.C. to the media; offered new details on what he was doing in Washington; and said he told the current government that he could be "very helpful to them," but the Trudeau government didn't want his help; rather they wanted to "use" him in another way.

Senior government officials told CTV News that they were shocked by Harper's July 11 remarks, and the PMO rejected Harper’s characterization of his offer to help.

In June, after the acrimonious G7 meetings, Trudeau contacted Harper by telephone to talk about possible co-operation on the NAFTA file, around the time Harper appeared on FOX News to argue in favour of Canada's position.

However, a day after Canada put in place retaliatory tariffs on imports of U.S. goods and American-made steel and aluminum, Harper visited the White House and met with senior U.S. officials, without giving the current Canadian administration a head’s up.

Trudeau said Friday that he has had conversations with almost all of Canada’s former prime ministers, including Harper, to convey that he believes Canadians expect all sides to work together, political affiliation aside.

A spokeswoman for Harper's consulting firm told CTV News that Harper was pleased to speak at the business luncheon but that Harper doesn't comment on "leaked reports" from off-the-record events.

Speaking to Harper’s claim that Trudeau is intentionally resisting a NAFTA deal for political gain, pollster Nik Nanos told CTV News that in reality, a deal as soon as possible is what would be best politically for the prime minister, and more impactful than any positive impact of opposing Trump.

“In the polling that we’ve done there’s a significant amount of uncertainty and anxiety about the future strength of the Canadian economy. And that big dark cloud is called NAFTA,” Nanos said. “For Justin Trudeau, there’s really no benefit in him dragging out that anxiety and concern. Ideally, he’d put it to rest so that he can focus on a prosperity agenda.”

Nanos said there is a narrow political gain to be made by linking Canadian conservatives to Trump, particularly among progressive voters. Though, he said there is a broad political advantage for Trudeau to evoke Stephen Harper’s name to overshadow current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

Scheer’s office declined to comment Friday.


With files from Evan Solomon, host of CTV's Question Period, and CTV News' Senior Political Correspondent Glen McGregor, and a report from CTV News’ Omar Sachedina