Canadian Consul General Stephane Lessard, left, offers a gift of Canadian cufflinks to Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney

Canadian Consul General Stéphane Lessard, left, offers a gift of Canadian flag cufflinks to Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney Wednesday morning before a meeting between the two in the governor's reception room in the State Capitol. Lessard is in Montana discussing NAFTA and trade between the state and Canada.

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney's new Canadian flag cufflinks say it all. 

The accessories were a gift from Canada's consul general for Montana, who is working to strengthen ties with political and business leaders in the state amid Canada's growing concern that U.S. President Donald Trump will pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Based in Denver, Canadian Consul General Stéphane Lessard works with Montana, Colorado, Kansas, Utah and Wyoming. He is in Helena this week for the Montana Chamber of Commerce Business Days at the Capitol, which brings together business leaders and government officials to learn from one another.

Consuls are like mini-embassies. The actual Canadian Embassy is in Washington, D.C., but there are multiple consuls scattered throughout the United States. 

It’s Lessard’s job to connect business leaders, politicians and citizens to promote trade and relationships with Canada. This week's trip to Montana includes meetings with Cooney, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, professors at Montana State University in Bozeman, and other political and business leaders in the state.

Lessard sees the United States and Canada as inextricably linked economically.

“Since the 1980s, the United States and Canada have had a free trade agreement,” Lessard said. “NAFTA brought Mexico into the agreement. ... It supercharged economic activity.”

More than 26,000 Montana jobs are linked directly to Canadian trade and investment, according to statistics from the Canadian government. More than $3.5 billion in trade goes between Montana and Canada annually, making Canada Montana’s No. 1 customer.

“We want a more integrated economy to out-compete the rest of the world,” Lessard said. “We want to make sure trade benefits not just the 1 percent. It’s for all society, more jobs for the middle class. ... We think it’s the priority of the American government to make new jobs ... for the middle class.”

NAFTA, the free-trade agreement that encompasses Canada, the United States and Mexico, is an important part of that growth, Lessard said.

“We have data to prove (NAFTA)’s been beneficial to America," not just the other partners, he said. 

Lessard also understands NAFTA is a 24-year-old agreement that needs change, especially as digital trade has exploded in the past decade. But he said agreement comes from a shared understanding of economic ideas.

“If someone believes trade is a zero-sum game, we miss an opportunity to bring NAFTA into the 21st century,” Lessard said. “We are stronger together.”

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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