Time running short as intensive NAFTA effort nears U.S.-imposed deadline

The fall finale to Canada's long-running NAFTA drama may, or may not, finally be at hand.

Despite encouraging signs, it's still far from clear whether the federal government will end the day as part of a trilateral free trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico on the eve of a key congressional deadline.

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Ambassador David MacNaughton have been taking part in an aggressive, long-distance, last-minute push to get a deal done over the weekend.

Central to the discussions Sunday has been an effort to secure some sort of assurances that will allow Canada to avoid the dreaded Section 232 tariffs on steel, aluminum and auto exports, which U.S. President Donald Trump has either imposed or threatened on national security grounds.

"Talks are ongoing, and there's been quite a bit of progress,'' said Hassan Yussuff, the head of the Canadian Labour Congress and a member of the federal government's NAFTA advisory council.

Yussuff was summoned to Washington on Sunday to be briefed on the progress to date.

"232 is where the focus is,'' he said. "They've been spending quite a lot of time trying to figure that out.''

Even Justin Trudeau has been reportedly pulled into the fray: on what's usually a personal day for the prime minister, his itinerary said he'd be spending Sunday in "private meetings.''

Canada has been insisting on preserving the Chapter 19 dispute-resolution mechanism and securing some measure of protection from punitive tariff measures. 

And the clock is ticking: the U.S. Congress imposed a Sunday deadline in an effort to get a deal voted on before Mexico swears in a new government.

"A persistent threat of tariffs is ''highly unusual in a trading relationship," Yussuff said.

"People are working hard on the Canadian side, and I'm optimistic we'll get there, but as you know, these things are complicated. The deadline might get extended, who knows?''

Government officials in Ottawa, meanwhile, are playing down reports that a deal is imminent.

The government "is still having constructive discussions'' with U.S. counterparts, and "some'' progress has been made, said one insider, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the talks.

"Our focus remains on the substance of the issues, not on timelines, and of course on getting a good deal for Canadians.''