Scott, Quebec premier convene for talks on trade, immigration issues

Phil Scott, Phillipe Couillard

Gov. Phil Scott, left, and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard met Wednesday to talk about trade and other issues. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

QUEBEC CITY — Gov. Phil Scott and the premier of Quebec talked openly Wednesday of Vermont likely purchasing more Canadian hydroelectric power and shared concerns the Trump administration might hinder cross-border trade between the two countries.

Scott and Premier Philippe Couillard also focused on security and immigration issues including Canadians being reportedly turned back at the U.S. border as well as people fleeing into Canada from Vermont because of fears of being deported as President Donald Trump lays down a strong immigration policy.

The primary purpose of the two-day trip, Scott said, was to build on the “already strong” relationship between the province and Vermont. State businesses sell $5 billion worth of goods in Quebec each year; the province is Vermont’s largest trading partner. The trip to Quebec was Scott’s first official business outside the country since he was sworn in last month.

Scott will be giving the keynote at a renewable energy conference on Thursday. He also met Wednesday with the president of Gaz Metro, which owns Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas. Scott was scheduled over the two days to meet with six business owners in hopes of wooing them to Vermont. Aides said the businesses are in the energy and manufacturing fields and that some are good prospects.

In an interview with VTDigger, following a 30-minute press conference he held with Couillard, Scott explained why he believes that it’s important, as a new governor, to forge a relationship with the Quebec premier.

“You come here to Quebec City and here’s an international, European-style city that’s within three or four hours of our border and I think there’s opportunity for trade that we’re not fully taking advantage of,” Scott said. “And I believe the more time you spend here, I think relationships mean a lot to those in Quebec. It’s something I learned on the racetrack a long time ago, 25 years of racing up here” on the American-Canadian Tour. Scott was a popular and winning stock car driver before being elected governor last year.

“You build those relationships and it means something to them as it does to us, and I think the more we communicate, the more time we spend up here, the better off Vermont will be,” Scott said.

The state of Vermont and the province of Quebec share interests in energy, tourism, trade, border safety and the health of Lake Champlain.

During the press conference — mostly in French, which Scott said he barely understood, with the questions largely for the premier — Couillard said he hoped to sell Vermont more hydroelectric power in the future. Scott said more purchases would be likely if Vermont is to derive 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, a goal Scott said he was committed to.

“We have all the energy you need,” Couillard told Scott with a laugh.

“That’s good to know,” Scott replied with a smile.

Afterward, the governor said he saw “opportunities to do so in the future, but obviously, we’ll have to leave that to the Green Mountain Powers of the world,” Scott said. Typically, the governor and the utilities have forged the agreements together with Hydro-Quebec. Green Mountain Power is a subsidiary of the Montreal-based corporation, Gaz Metro.

In addition to possibly purchasing more power, Scott and Couillard both spoke favorably about a large-scale transmission line that has won federal and state approved to go under Lake Champlain. Quebec could potentially feed power to the lower New England states through the New England Clean Power Link. Payments to Vermont will be used to pay for the cleanup of Lake Champlain and could cover more than half of the estimated $25 million the state must come up to comply with the EPA order to reduce phosphorus levels in the lake, Scott said.

The two leaders also share an interest in seeing more electric vehicles as well. Scott noted he added a tax holiday for the purchase of e-vehicles as part of his budget proposal.

Joining the governor were several key staff and cabinet members, including Public Safety Director Tom Anderson, Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling.

In a private meeting earlier in the day, the two leaders also discussed the opiate addiction crisis — Scott said the problem was increasing in Quebec but was not as profound as in Vermont. They also discussed efforts to pre-approve passengers for border crossings for train service between the United States and Montreal. They also outlined a plan to have a student exchange program between the province and Vermont.

But the biggest focus of talks between Scott and Couillard was on energy and trade policy, particularly if there would be any changes made by U.S. President Donald Trump that could crimp trade.

“Our concern here north of the border is what impact may or may not be present following the new administration’s integration of trade, the openness of markets,” Couillard said. “I am, we are, strong believers in open markets. We believe it creates prosperity and jobs and should be maintained.”

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau met with Trump, who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement during his campaign for president. On Monday, Trump said the focus on changes to NAFTA are primarily with Mexico, but that he will “tweak” the 20-year-old trade deal with Canada.

“We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We’ll be tweaking it,” Mr. Trump said Monday. “It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taking place on the southern border.”

Scott said in an interview with VTDigger that he didn’t think Trump would radically alter trade with Canada because there were so many states on the northern border that depend on Canada as a trading partner. Scott, however, told Canadian reporters he was concerned about reports of Quebec residents being turned back at the U.S. border and that the incidents were being investigated “so we can get to the bottom of what happened.” He noted the importance of free-flowing tourism for both parties.

On energy sales to Vermont and New England, Couillard said, “there’s a lot of openness to grow, possibilities to grow. What must be kept at all costs is an open mind and I think both of us are on that side of the story.” At one point, Couillard referred to Vermont as a “conduit” for power going to other New England states.

Relationships between the province and Vermont have been largely productive with a few hiccups over the years, including after the 1998 ice storm in Vermont when transmission towers in Canada toppled over and Vermont officials sought to cancel some contracts they were already complaining were too expensive.

Scott noted he traveled to Quebec in 2011 soon after he was elected lieutenant governor when he joined incoming Gov. Peter Shumlin and outgoing Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on a trip to enhance the relationship between Vermont and Quebec.

Long-term contracts were renewed between state utilities and Hydro-Quebec in 2009, the final year of the administration of Gov. Jim Douglas, according to Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, who also worked for Douglas.

Scott expressed with Canadian press his sympathies over the death of six people during a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque two weeks ago.

Couillard used strong language to condemn the killings. A Canadian reporter, Louis LaCroix, said before the press conference that Couillard, a former professor and neurosurgeon, had won high marks for how he responded to the mass shooting. Since the shooting, Couillard has spoken against imposing a ban on religious headwear for police and other authority figures.

The two leaders planned to have dinner together Wednesday and Couillard joked they would argue about whether the province or Vermont produced the best maple syrup.

Mark Johnson

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