With top decision makers taking NAFTA breather, officials chase progress

Canadian and U.S. officials continue to chip away in pursuit of a new North American Free Trade Agreement deal but without the top players at the table.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer stepped away this week after two weeks of talks and it remains to be seen when they will be back.

Freeland is at a women's summit today in Toronto, while Lighthizer is overseas to meet with the European Union trade commissioner.

They oversaw the last two weeks of talks but the sides were unable to resolve their differences over U.S. access to the Canadian dairy market, a cultural exemption for Canada in the original NAFTA and the Chapter 19 dispute resolution mechanism.

On Friday Freeland told reporters the 13-month-old NAFTA talks had entered a ``very intense'' phase of ``continuous negotiations.''

Ottawa and Washington are hoping to strike an agreement that could be submitted to the U.S. Congress by month's end and would see Canada join a preliminary trade deal the Trump administration reached last month with Mexico.