Canada’s close geographic proximity and long-standing preferential trading relationship with the U.S. can no longer be taken for granted.

With the new U.S. administration’s “America First” trade agenda and its intention to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it is more crucial now than ever for both Ottawa and the provinces to advance Canadian interests in the U.S.

Maintaining and building relationships between provincial elected officials and their state counterparts is an effective but often underused tool. That’s why Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s trip to Iowa today to meet the governor and address the state House and Senate is so important.

Last year, nearly half (47 per cent) of Saskatchewan’s exports were sent to the U.S. Seventy per cent of those exports went to 10 states, of which Iowa is one.

Of all the provinces and territories, Alberta is the third most reliant on trade with the U.S., sending more than 85 per cent of its exports south of the border in 2016. Only the Yukon and New Brunswick export more to the U.S. than Alberta. Last month, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was the first premier to have meetings in Washington, D.C. since the Trump administration took office. Her trip was timed to coincide with a concurrent meeting of U.S. state governors, enabling her to meet with both federal administration officials and state governors.

Making connections and building relations with U.S. legislators can prevent and mitigate trade irritants.

We’ve seen this happen in the past on issues like country of origin labelling (COOL) and Buy America, where strong provincial relationships at the state level impacted U.S. policy to resolve conflicts that were hurting Canadian exporters.

Building provincial-state connections occurs through bilateral meetings, such as Wall’s Iowa trip, and by participating in regional organizations. For example, the western provinces are members of the Pacific North West Economic Region (PNWER), the Council of U.S. State Governments – of which Saskatchewan was the first Canadian member – and the Western Governors’ Association, to name just a few. These forums give Canada a leg up over our global competitors; no other country is engaged with the U.S. at the sub-national level in the way that we are. Particularly after disinvestment over the last decade such as a decline in official visits to the U.S. and premiers not always attending western governor’s meetings, ramping up this activity is crucial under the current U.S. administration.

Hosting U.S. delegations and meetings in western Canada is just as important as making trips south of the border. It is encouraging that Winnipeg will host the Council of State Governments Midwestern meeting in 2018, and that last year, Calgary hosted PNWER’s annual summit.

At the same time, the effectiveness of provincial engagement activities could be increased through greater co-ordination and information sharing among provinces, and between provinces and the federal government. A co-ordinated strategy, particularly during the anticipated NAFTA renegotiations, could go a long way to advancing western Canada’s interests with our most important trading partner.

Naomi Christensen is senior policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation