Canada sends ministers to U.S. to boost NAFTA as key talks loom

OTTAWA, Jan 4 (Reuters) - The Canadian government is sending three cabinet ministers to the United States to stress the merits of NAFTA, officials said on Thursday, paving the way for key talks that could either sink or save the trade pact.

Canada and Mexico object to major changes that Washington wants to make to the North American Free Trade Agreement, and time is running out to settle differences before the negotiations are scheduled to wrap up at the end of March.

Officials will hold the sixth and penultimate round of talks in Montreal from Jan. 23-28.

One cabinet minister is already in the United States and two more will travel this weekend.

Canada, which sends 75 percent of its goods exports to the United States, has been reaching out to U.S. politicians and the business community for almost two years to bolster support for free trade.

"We recognize we are heading into an important period. We are certainly preparing for all scenarios, and we're hopeful that we can make progress," a spokesman for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said when asked about the latest visits.

"That's what we're focused on achieving, including in Montreal," Alex Lawrence, the spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

Separate news releases announcing the ministerial trips make clear the cabinet members have been instructed to "promote trade and NAFTA."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale wraps up a two-day trip to Kentucky on Friday while Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay is due to visit Tennessee over the weekend. At the same time, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will be in San Francisco.

Canadian officials are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for the 1994 trade treaty, which U.S. President Donald Trump blames for the loss of hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs and a big trade deficit with Mexico.

In a low-level meeting held in Washington last month between the fifth and sixth rounds, negotiators made some progress on less controversial issues but left untouched the thorniest subjects of the sourcing of auto parts, dispute settlement and an expiry clause.

Trade experts predict that unless Canada and Mexico make some concessions in Montreal, Trump will be more tempted to issue a notice of withdrawal from NAFTA, as he has repeatedly threatened if U.S. demands for change cannot be met. (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)