Sanction China over the two Michaels

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It’s time to sanction Chinese officials for their gross human-rights abuse of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. As pieces in a global geo-strategic chessboard, their freedom depends on democracies standing strong together.

Accused of violating Chinese national security, the two Michaels have been deprived of meaningful legal representation and consular access in violation of diplomatic norms. Their imprisonment continues following their secret trials.

The Trudeau government’s response to China has been timid and temporizing. When the House of Commons voted to condemn the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs, Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet were conspicuously absent. Their rhetoric has escalated, reflecting an increasingly angry Canadian public, but their meaningful actions on the two Michaels have been limited to the declaration on arbitrary detentions, and it lacks enforcement provisions.

While the Michaels await their trials’ verdicts in Chinese jails, we need to act. We need to change the calculus by which China assesses its own best interest regarding Canada. We can start by applying teeth to the arbitrary detention declaration by enlisting first the Five Eyes allies – Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States – and then the rest of the 61 signatories.

Canada should apply the Magnitsky sanctions against those responsible for the human-rights abuses the two Michaels have endured. We apply them against citizens of Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Myanmar and Belarus, and we have just joined the U.S., European Union and Britain in applying them against Chinese officials for human-rights abuses against the Uyghurs.

We should also refuse to let family members of senior Chinese Communist Party members study in our countries. Education, especially in English-speaking countries, is highly valued by the Chinese. President Xi Jinping’s daughter went to Harvard. You can be sure Chinese mothers and grandmothers will similarly be on to their spouses to have their children educated abroad. Publishing the beneficial ownership of assets in Canada held by Chinese Communist Party members would also be a good move. There will be squirming in Beijing.

As for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Chinese athletes are training at Calgary’s excellent facilities. Former ambassador to China Guy St. Jacques has suggested we send them packing. The House of Commons resolution wants the Games out of China. All athletes need to ask themselves: Do we really want to compete in a country that violates the spirit of the Olympic movement daily?

We got into this mess because the U.S. requested the arrest and extradition of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on allegations of bank fraud, as she was flying through Vancouver. China has since claimed that the U.S. leaned on others to detain her while in their countries, but there were no takers. We acted, apparently without a careful evaluation of consequences. It’s too late now, but John Manley got it right when he said we might have shown some “creative incompetence.” It’s a reminder why we need a first-class diplomatic service possessing experience, expertise and a sense of realism so we avoid these traps.

We have entered an era of strategic competition with a systemic rival. Xi Jinping is the most aggressive and dangerous Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Mr. Xi draws his inspiration from Mao rather than the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng and his successors practised Mr. Deng’s dictum “hide your strength, bide your time.” For Mr. Xi, “the East is rising and the West is declining.”

As demonstrated last week in Anchorage, Alaska, relations between the U.S. and China will be a mixture of competition and co-operation. The democracies need to stand together in enforcing freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, combatting cyberintrusions and in enforcing standards on transparency in the digital economy.

Continuing talks at various levels and with different players will be essential to avoid falling into a new cold war. Distinguishing between what is dangerous and what is workable will put a premium on diplomacy. The goal must be to manage confrontations and avoid conflict. We need fail-safe mechanisms to prevent military miscalculations.

The two Michaels are pawns in a bigger geopolitical confrontation between autocracy and democracy. The democracies, especially middle powers such as Canada, need to reassess their foreign policies, going beyond the transactional to ensure that our values are forefront when addressing transnational threats.

It means more attention and investment in security, intelligence and defence. We must continue to engage China in trade and people-to-people contact, but with our eyes wide open, avoiding both wishful thinking and paranoia. Mutual hostility and isolation serve no one’s interests. Just ask the two Michaels.

Two Michaels

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Michael Kovrig’s closed trial in China ends, with verdict due later

WATCH: Michael Kovrig’s trial in China ends without a verdict

The trial of Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians detained in China over spying charges, ended on Monday with the verdict to be announced at an unspecified later date.

Kovrig’s trial, which has been ongoing for more than three hours, comes three days after the trial of Michael Spavor — the other detained Canadian.

Spavor’s trial ended without a verdict after a two-hour deliberation on Friday.

According to state media, as reported by Reuters, the verdict for Kovrig will be announced at a later date. The same is expected for Spavor.

Read more:
Canadian officials not granted permission to attend Michael Kovrig’s trial in China

China has faced a barrage of criticism over their imprisonment of the two as well as on the transparency of their judicial process. Several leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have since called the detention of the two Michaels “arbitrary.”

According to The Associated Press, the charge d’affaires of the Canadian embassy in China said that he was repeatedly denied after requesting access to Kovrig’s hearing due to national security reasons. Canadian officials also mentioned a similar scene on Friday when they were also barred from attending Spavor’s trial.

“Michael Kovrig has been detained for more than two years now. He’s been arbitrarily detained and now we see that the court process itself is not transparent,” Jim Nickel told reporters outside of Beijing’s No. 2 Intermediate Court after Kovrig’s trial began.

“We’re very troubled by this but we thank those who have come out from the embassies here in Beijing and the international support that we’ve had for Michael, for Canada and the call that many of us are making for their immediate release.”

According to Nickel, dozens of diplomats from 26 countries including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and the Netherlands appeared in front of the courthouse on Monday in a show of solidarity.

Colin Robertson, a fellow and vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told Global News on Sunday that both Kovrig and Spavor were pawns “in a bigger geopolitical confrontation” between the world’s two superpowers.

“The timing of the trials are an effort to place pressure on the Americans, by demonstrating they can do this to America’s closest ally — Canada,” said Robertson, who cited the meeting between Chinese and American national security officials in Anchorage over Friday and Saturday.

“So in a sense, the two Michael’s are pawns in a bigger geopolitical confrontation between the rising superpower and the current superpower.”

Kovrig and Spavor were both detained in 2018 in what is widely believed to be retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in B.C. on extradition charges to the United States.

Robertson says that he expects to see is a repeat of Friday’s trial on Monday, and that even though both cases “are different,” they would most likely be handled in the same fashion.

“But we could be surprised, which is why we have to wait and see,” he added.

A statement from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) sent after Robertson’s interview with Global News confirmed that Canadian officials would not be granted permission to attend Kovrig’s trial on Sunday. GAC also confirmed to Global News earlier this week that Canadian officials were not granted access to Spavor’s trial as well.

“According to the terms of our bilateral consular agreement, China is obligated to provide access to Canadian consular officials to the trials of Canadian citizens,” read the statement.

Read more:
Two Michaels face ‘excruciating’ wait for Chinese verdict, says former detained Canadian

GAC said that the agency is “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding these proceedings.”

According to University of Ottawa Senior Fellow Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, the verdict from either of the two cases could take some time should Kovrig’s trial end the same way Spavor’s did.

In either case, McCuaig-Johnston said that she expects both Kovrig and Spavor to be found “100 per cent” guilty by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“I think they might have some hope this is going to result in them leaving and going home, and I doubt that’s going to happen,” she said.

“In fact, normally it’s more than 99 per cent found guilty in the Chinese system but in cases like this that are clearly political — I think we would expect to see 100 per cent found guilty. That is what the Party determined will be the verdict,” she said.

McCuaig-Johnston’s sentiments were also shared by Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc, who spoke with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson on Sunday.

During the interview, LeBlanc criticized the Chinese government’s judicial process, saying that such a trial “doesn’t meet the basic standard of fairness, of respect for the rule of law.”

“It’s the kind of coercive diplomacy that China seeks to engage in and it’s fundamentally opposed by Western democracies, by Canada, by our allies including the United States,” he said.

Read more:
Trials for Canadians Kovrig, Spavor to begin in China this week

“If the conviction rate is almost 100 per cent and there’s no transparency, there’s no access to Canadian consular officials, it obviously doesn’t appear to be in any way a legitimate judicial process.”

Canada and its allies have since repeatedly called on China to release the men, while the federal government sought help directly from the U.S.

Trudeau previously said that the U.S. takes the cases of both Kovrig and Spavor seriously from conversations he’s had with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Last month, Biden pledged to work with Canada until both men were returned.

The espionage charges both Canadians face is a crime punishable in China by life in prison, and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years.

According to McCuaig-Johnston, China would most likely hold their release of the verdict to see what they can get from the U.S. — their number one priority being that of Meng’s release.

There could be “some hope” if the U.S. insists that it wants to reset its relationship with China, she said and, “the best way to show that would be to release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

— With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and Global News’ Hannah Jackson, Emerald Bensadoun, Rachel Gilmore and Sean Boynton.

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The two Michaels are sure to be convicted. After that, their freedom depends on Washington

Meng Wanzhou has been out on bail for 836 days, whiling away her time in a Vancouver mansion, enjoying shopping sprees and such, while proceedings for extradition to the United States grind on.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, targeted Canadians abroad, have been imprisoned in China for 832 days, in austere conditions.

Meng has had countless days in court, represented by top-drawer lawyers, every twist of the legal saga transparent. The chief financial officer of Huawei — largest privately held company in China, founded by her father — is accused of fraud and conspiracy by the U.S., alleged to have misled American banks to get around sanctions on Iran.

The two Michaels, former diplomat Kovrig and businessman Spavor, are charged with espionage against China. In an abrupt development, Spavor was brought to trial on Friday morning in the northeast city of Dandong, where he’s been held. The trial lasted under two hours. Details of the charges have never been disclosed. No verdict was rendered. Kovrig is to be put on trial Monday in Beijing and it will doubtless be more of the same — secrecy, denial of basic rights to mount a defence, and a judicial fait accompli.

Canada was left with a charge d’affaires from the embassy banging on the door of the Dandong court building, fruitlessly demanding entry, while diplomats from 10 other countries stood by in solidarity.

“We are disappointed in the lack of accuracy and the lack of transparency,” Jim Nickel, Canada’s deputy head of mission, told reporters. “The reasoning that has been given is it’s a so-called national security case and their belief is that the domestic law overrides international laws, which in fact is not the case. China does have international obligations to allow consular access.”

As fighting words go, that was scarcely a mumble.

But, of course, there will be no dragooning of the Red Dragon to comply with fundamental human rights. They don’t give a toss.

As Ottawa mewls impotently, the only words of robust disaccord, whilst throwing down the gauntlet, were uttered in Anchorage, venue on Thursday and Friday of the first face-to-face meeting between officials of the Joe Biden administration and senior Chinese diplomats.

It was an astonishingly combative tête-à-tête under-summit, with harsh words exchanged from the get-go against the backdrop of a relations re-set from the dictatorship-mooning era of Donald Trump, although his administration engaged in trade wars, blacklisted some Chinese companies and, on the way out the door, declared Beijing was committing genocide against the Uighurs. China’s top diplomat accused the U.S. of taking a “condescending” approach to the talks and insisted the American delegation had no right to accuse Beijing of human rights abuses or lecture about democracy. Yang Jiechi snippily advised Washington to repair its own “deep-seated” problems, referencing specifically the Black Lives Matter movement against American racism.

“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Yang said through an interpreter. “And those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”

“Grand-standing,” tit-for-tatted Washington.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke sharply in his rebuttal to journalists. “The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all. And that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”

Of course the two Michaels, if they come up at all, would be a small sidebar to the manifest disagreements betwixt Washington and Beijing, clearly headed on a diplomatic collision course that could shake the global community to its core. Yet those are the coattails to which Ottawa must cling if any resolution — forget about justice — can be attained for the captive Canadians.

Freedom for Kovrig and Spavor runs straight through Washington.

“It sounded like there was a bit of wolf-warrior diplomacy on the part of the Chinese,” Colin Robertson, ex-Canadian consul in Hong Kong and now vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says of the Anchorage parlay. “I think the temperatures inside were as cold as they were outside.”

Robertson assesses the problem of the Michaels within the context of a broader geopolitical wrangle between Washington and Beijing. “My sense is that China is sending a message to the neighbourhood that China can do what it likes to U.S. allies with impunity,” he said in an email. “You have to see the Kovrig and Spavor trials as part of a larger Chinese effort to disrupt and discredit the U.S. alliance system, especially in what it sees as its sphere of influence.”

Kovrig and Spavor are pawns in that political game, just as they were rooks when arrested in what was patently — despite China’s disavowal — retaliation for taking Meng into custody, at U.S. behest.

Obviously, Ottawa was limited in what it could do to wrest Kovrig and Spavor from China. The men were in Chinese hands after all, so it was prudent to refrain from verbal huzzing that would make their situation more fraught with peril. At the same time, caving to China’s demands would only be rewarding what amounts to hostage diplomacy. Further, what can’t be overlooked is the fact that China is Canada’s second-biggest trading partner. Poke that bear and it’s Canada which would suffer incalculably.

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“Trade sanctions won’t work with them,” Robertson tells the Star in a phone interview. “The Chinese will apply them to us and that’s only going to hurt Canadian food producers.”


Robertson says an asymmetrical approach by the Five Eyes — an intelligence-sharing alliance of Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — would be more effective. “I would go after the children of senior members of the Communist party and say, you can’t study in English-speaking countries.”

As well, among other options, Robertson encourages Canadian athletes to undertake a grassroots movement for shifting the 2022 Winter Olympics away from Beijing.

Hit ’em where it hurts in a way that Canada can punch above its weight.

Although it appears that China is impervious to shaming, Robertson argues this is an incorrect impression.

“Shaming to an extent works. To the Chinese face is really important. If we try to move the Olympics, that’s going to embarrass them. If we go after the children of Chinese community party members, that’s very embarrassing for the senior elite. Those are the people we’re trying to reach.”

“My view about the trial on Monday is the same that it has been all along,” Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibula, told the Star Friday. “No matter what happens Monday, Michael is innocent and our focus must be on securing his release.”

Though the couple is separated, Nadjibula has remained a strong advocate for her husband throughout the ordeal. If frustrated by the Canadian government’s debility in confronting China, she’s not saying so.

“Since Day 1, our government has said that this is a priority but I also recognize that leverage is limited. It needs to be resolved in a trilateral framework between China, the U.S. and Canada. That’s why the developments of the last couple of months have been encouraging, because we’ve had a strong commitment from the U.S. to help Canada secure their release. And I hope that commitment, stated by President Biden and others, will be translated into action.”

Nadjibula has had letters from Kovrig, who only in November was permitted his first visit by Canadian Ambassador Dominic Barton, onsite virtual consul access. She says of her husband: “He’s doing everything he can to stay resilient. It’s been a long time, two years. That would take a toll on anyone. But he’s doing as well as anyone would hope. He’s staying strong and resolute.”

A 10-year sentence for both Michaels upon conviction is the prediction of many China experts. But a formal rendering could also untie the knot of a diplomatic stalemate. China could then assume a posture of diplomatic beneficence.

“In China’s eyes they would have been validated in their accusations,” says Robertson. “After that, they can exercise clemency in the knowledge that, from their perspective, due process was served and these people are guilty. In a sense, it makes it a bit easier.”


The mantle of mercy.

Canada US Roadmap

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Colin Robertson  March 14, 2021

Are we ready to take our most important relationship to the next level of partnership?

The “Roadmap for a Renewed Canada-US Partnership”, announced during the virtual meeting in February of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden, is the latest iteration in managing neighbourly relations. Beginning with the last century’s trade and security agreements negotiated by Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, this century has included the Smart Border AccordSecurity and Prosperity PartnershipBeyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation.

The seven goals enumerated in the Roadmap spell out current shared objectives:

  • Combating COVID-19 at home and abroad.
  • Building Back Better in sustainable fashion that also addresses new threats like cyber and rebuilds the infrastructure necessary for continental competitiveness.
  • Accelerating Climate Ambitions starting with a common approach between Canada and the US on things like carbon pricing, complementary standards on emissions, sharing R&D and innovation.
  • Advancing Diversity and Inclusion with the focus on disadvantaged groups – women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples – in recognition that the rising tide of globalization did not lift all boats.
  • Bolstering Security and Defence including modernization of NORAD, especially its North Warning System.
  • Building Global Alliances to address the threat posed by authoritarians, recognizing that Canada must do more to share the cost burden with a commitment to reach the NATO defence spending target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024.This also means reforming our multilateral institutions, notably the WTO where Canada is leading reform efforts, and WHO.

For the Biden administration the Roadmap is not only a framework for managing the Canada relationship but a demonstration to its democratic friends that the US is serious about re-invigorating its alliances and reasserting US leadership of the rules-based order that successive presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama had led and sustained. Biden’s pledge that “America is back” begins with Canada.

For Canada, the Roadmap is a remarkable opportunity to re-set the US relationship and take it to a new level in terms of economic, environmental and security cooperation. It will require investment of money, resources and time and to succeed it needs to be a team Canada effort with the active support of the premiers, the Official Opposition, federal and provincial legislators as well as business, labour and civil society.

Progress on the roadmap requires focus, constant engagement and a recognition that we need to get as much done as possible before the US midterms in 2022 and that the clock runs out by the next presidential election in 2024.

This means building cross-party consensus, at least betwee the Liberals and Conservatives to ensure there the approach does not change if there a change in government. This is how we sustained NAFTA in the transition to the Chrétien goverment from the Mulroney-Campbell governments and on CETA and the TPP from the Harper to Trudeau governments. The First Ministers must be involved; issues like infrastructure and resources, involve their authorities.

Getting it done is always the hard part. Derek Burney, who served as Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff and then as our ambassador in Washington from 1989-93, would remind us often as we strategized about high policy that vision was important but what was vital was “Getting It Done” (and he so titled his erudite memoir.)

We need to recognize the asymmetries of our relationship, especially in economics and security. Bluntly, the US matters more to us than we matter to them. For Canada this means focus and continuous engagement. We level the playing field through a network of rules and agreements – at last count well over 20,000 – and institutions, preferably binational like NORAD, and the International Joint Commission, founded in 1909 with a view to managing the water along the world’s longest border.

Most of our diplomacy is conducted either bilaterally or multilaterally; we sit on opposite sides of the table. But binational means, at least in theory, that we operate together – side by side – for mutually beneficial results. It’s the antithesis of Donald Trump’s winner-take-all.

We need to recognize the asymmetries of our relationship, especially in economics and security. Bluntly, the US matters more to us than we matter to them.

We are deeply, deeply integrated economically – a process that began before the Second World Wat and has continued, despite bumps, ever since with the Autopact in 1965,  the Canada-US FTA in 1989, the NAFTA in 1993 and now NAFTA 2.0 including Mexico in 2020. Sixty-four cents of every dollar we generate comes from trade with the US, our main trading partner buying 75 percent of our exports (the European Union takes about 8 percent and China 4 percent). The US makes over half of our imports. Almost half of our foreign investment comes from the US. The US also provides our security blanket. We became allies before WWII, negotiating wartime defence production agreements and then the Atlantic alliance, NATO, in 1949 and the North American Air Defence Command, NORAD, in 1957.

We share the top half of our continent. The third, often forgotten but increasingly important piece in our institutional architecture, is our joint stewardship of the environment. The IJC has successfully managed our waterways for over a century.

Together, these institutions represent a continuous process of constant engagement.

So how do we get it done?

Allan Gotlieb, our longest serving US ambassador from 1981-89 set out a Decalogue of observations on “working Washington” in his 1991 book I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Ambassador: The Education of a Canadian Diplomat in WashingtonStill relevant, these three are especially current:

  1. The particular process by which a decision is reached in Washington is often so complex and mysterious that it defies comprehension.
  2. Since there are so many participants in decision-making, so many special-interest and pressure groups and so many shifting alliances, a diplomat cannot design any grand or overarching strategy to further his nation’s interests. Every issue requires its own micro-strategy and every micro-strategy is unique.
  3. No permanent solutions are within reach of the ambassador or his government, only temporary ones. Instability is the norm, alliances and coalitions are always being forged, forces and counterforces are always mounting.

While posted in Washington I kept a copy of Gotlieb’s book on my desk,  alongside the US Constitution, From my own experience of working on Canada-US relations beginning  with an assignment to New York in 1978, to Los Angeles as Consul General as first head of our Embassy’s Advocacy Secretariat, serving as part of the teams that negotiated the Canada-US FTA and then NAFTA, then working for a decade with both a US-based law firm and what is now the Business Council of Canada,  I’ve come up with these “Ten Rules of the Road” for getting it done when dealing with Uncle Sam:

  1. Get our collective act together because the Americans will always exploit our differences. Know what is our “ask” and what is our “give”. Know our facts, offer solutions not whinging. Public diplomacy is as important as closed-door diplomacy. Be brief, be blunt, be bold.
  2. Americans like big ideas that solve their problems. Go for gold: ask for what we really want rather than what we think they will give us. If we don’t take the initiative, then we take what is on offer.
  3. No surprises, especially in issues of national security. Security trumps all else. Americans expect a reliable ally.
  4. We have three overriding messages: We have your back. We are a trusted trading partner, “making things together” with our goods, services and resources fueling. And “Build Back Better”: As co-tenants of our continent we are joint stewards of our land, water and air.
  5. Make it a US issue and identify American friends, keeping in mind an adversary on one issue can be an ally on another, so never burn bridges. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
  6. Play by American rules, using lobbyists and lawyers. There are always more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians.
  7. The American system is different from ours: read its Constitution to understand its checks and balances and separation of powers. The Administration is our entry point but the battleground is Congress, the states and cities. Beware of congressional noise: most proposed legislation fails.  Save the Oval Office for what is really important.
  8. Protectionism is as American as apple pie and as old as the Republic. For legislators, who must fundraise daily, all trade, like all politics, is local, so Canadians need to know the jobs generated by our trade and investment. Don’t ask for an exemption, ask for reciprocal treatment – that’s the art of the deal. And like politics, if you are not on the offence, you’re playing defence. There’s one trade bullet we can’t repeat often enough—Canada is the largest international customer of 37 US states.
  9. Americans like us more than we like them. But business is business and the business of America is business so don’t ever expect gratitude for what we think we did for them.
  10. It’s a permanent campaign requiring engagement at every level early and often. We need a thousand points of contact: PM to President, premiers & governors, cabinets, legislators, mayors, B2B, L2L, civil society.

Get this right and we not only advance Canadian objectives, we enhance our international standing. Brian Mulroney, the prime minister who best understands the US, has put it this way: “There is a rule of global politics–Canada’s influence in the world is measured to a significant degree by the extent to which we are perceived as having real influence in Washington.”

Know our facts, offer solutions not whinging. Public diplomacy is as important as closed-door diplomacy. Be brief, be blunt, be bold.

Have a thought for Biden. He faces the most formidable set of challenges of any president since FDR took power in 1933, when America was reeling under the Great Depression. For us to achieve progress on our new Roadmap we need to keep always in the situational awareness of the many challenges confronting the Biden-Harris administration. We should be helpful, wherever possible, because a healthy and prosperous Canada depends on a healthy, prosperous and strong America.

In his inaugural address President Biden outlined the crises – health, economic, social, and climate – as well as his determination to re-embrace multilateralism and restore American leadership.

The pandemic is job one. It has claimed over a half million American lives. More Americans have died from COVID than were killed in combat during in the First and Second World Wars as well as Vietnam. Biden is on track with his pledge of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his administration. Indeed, he now promises all Americans will have access to vaccines by summer.

The economic malaise caused by the pandemic is compounded by the larger forces of ongoing technological change and globalization. Jobless claims remain well above the worst levels of the Great Recession. At 100 percent debt-to-GDP US debt is higher than any other time in US history outside of the Second World War. Canada, by comparison, is about 50 percent  debt-to-GDP.

Americans, perhaps more than other nation, believed they were an exceptional people – living in what Ronald Reagan famously called “the city on the hill” – a new world where if you work hard, you too can succeed.  But now polls tell us most Americans think their children will be worse off than themselves. The top 10 percent of Americans now own over 70 percent of the country’s wealth; the top 1 percent controls more national income than the bottom 50 percent. Average income growth of the top 1 percent rose by 226 percent from 1979 to 2016; while working- and middle-class income distribution was comparatively flat.

Economic turmoil contributes to a social crisis complicated and compounded by race, gender, class and culture.  The trial of the Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd casts a beacon on the grievances underlying Black Lives Matter:  if you are black you are twice as likely to die of COVID and three times more likely to be hospitalized. Black unemployment rates are double that of whites.  The net worth for median black households in the United States stands at $20,000 compared to $180,000 for whites.

There is renewed migrant pressure on the southern border from those fleeing crime, corruption and bad government. This movement helped propel Trump to the White House on the promise of building a wall to keep them out.

Then there is climate change, with the attendant complications of biodiversity and pollution – rising temperatures and freak weather, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, freezes, and floods of biblical proportion. According to NASA, 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.

Biden must manage all these crises against a profound political divide that has galvanized partisans on both sides. Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies but they also disagree on “basic facts.”  The 68.7 percent  with over 155 million casting ballots meant that 2020 saw the highest voter turnout since 1900. A switch of only 124,000 votes in just four states would have meant a second Trump administration.

Despite the loss of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Republican Party remains Donald Trump’s partyMost Republicans still believe that the election was stolen. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared Trump was “morally responsible” for the January 6 attack on the Capitol,  but he and all but seven of his Senate caucus still voted against his conviction following his impeachment by the House.

The political challenge for Biden is not only inter-party but intra-party,  pitting the progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others, – against the moderates – Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. As Will Rogers once remarked: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat”.

In his inaugural address, Biden has set himself three overriding priorities: to revive and sustain the middle class; to fix the environment and to restore American leadership of the free world.  He and his team believe that wellbeing – economic, environment, health, social – is the best antidote to populism and the way to defend democracy.

It starts at home. As Biden put it at the Munich Security Conference: “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue, given all the challenges we face— from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic—that autocracy is the best way forward… and those who understand that democracy is essential—essential to meeting those challenges.” To meet these challenges Biden said the US must “put ourselves in a position of strength  to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world,” And that starts at home.

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks America’s democracy behind Japan, Korea and Germany – those it helped to create. According to Pew only a fifth of Americans trust the government all or some of the time.

In his 1862 address to Congress, while waging the Civil War, President Lincoln said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

We want the US to succeed.  We want Joe Biden to succeed.

We want a united and democratic America just like we want a united, democratic Canada.

We all want to see a return to optimism and pragmatism – the can-do spirit that has been the enduring American characteristic and one that we all admire.

We can do a great deal together and with the rules of the road in mind, get it done.

The US, political scientist Ian Bremmer recently observed, is a country of contradictions. It set the global standard on game-changing vaccines while leading the world in COVID deaths and hospitalizations.

Its markets were at record highs while the Capitol Building was stormed by violent insurrectionists on January 6. It landed the new Mars mission while Texas endured third world-like power outages.

For all its innovation and entrepreneurship, the politics of the United States are profoundly dysfunctional and getting worse. At his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Garland Merrick vowed to prioritize domestic terrorism.

Authoritarianism – whether monarchies, dictators or oligarchies – not freedom and democracy, has been the prevailing system  of government for most of recorded history. Once more we have an authoritarian model – Xi Jinping’s China – one where their economy has done better than any democracy each year for 30 years.

We all want to see a return to optimism and pragmatism – the can-do spirit that has been the enduring American characteristic and one that we all admire.

As democracies turn inward, authoritarianism surges,  contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, according to Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties.

Xi Jinping can claim his model preserves order while giving prosperity. And now he is exporting it abroad through Belt and Road Initiative and through reinterpreting and revising the rules in international organizations.

We have enjoyed what the great Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan describes as the “long peace” and the triumph of democracy, or what scholar Frank Fukuyama once called the “end of history”. But as Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan sang, The Times They Are-A-Changin’.

Study history and you realize that neither that long peace nor democracy is guaranteed. Study history and you know that the good guys don’t always come first.  While posted in New York in the late 1970s, I got to know the legendary BBC journalist Alastair Cooke. For half a century he read listeners a weekly Letter from America. He told me: “America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence.”

Say a prayer for Joe Biden.

Colin Robertson is Vice President and Senior Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa. He has served at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and as Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles. Adapted from the 14th annual Canada-US Law Institute Distinguished Lecture at Western University, London Ontario.

Trudeau BIden meeting

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Trudeau, Biden’s first bilateral meeting to lay out future of Canada-U.S. relations


Feb 23, 2021 at 11:17 am MST

FILE – In this Dec. 9, 2016 file photo, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Biden will still host Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday for the first bilateral meeting but will do it virtually. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press via AP)

The prime minister and U.S. president will hold the first official bilateral meeting Tuesday afternoon

The two leaders are expected to lay out a road map for the future of Canada-U.S. relations

OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) – When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden meet virtually Tuesday afternoon, the two leaders will be looking to unveil a plan for Canada and the U.S.

The meeting will be the first official bilateral meeting since Biden took office, and a fact sheet released earlier in the day by the White House says this meeting is to set out a “road map” for Canada-U.S. relations.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who was posted in the U.S., said the map will set out goals in areas of mutual interest, including the COVID-19 response, climate change, economic recovery, and defence.

However, it’s not clear if this plan will include some of Canada’s priorities, such as procuring more COVID-19 vaccine doses made in the U.S., freeing Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from China, or securing an exemption to Biden’s Buy American policy.

NDP Leader Jagemeet Singh said he wants to see Canada get an exemption from the policy.

“Given the fact that our economies are so integrated, products aren’t just made in Canada or America. Often the very same product goes over the border a couple of times,” he said.

Robertson expects Biden to Trudeau support when it comes to China, but he doesn’t think the president will make any promises when it comes to the Buy American approach. The former diplomat believes Biden will likely put off granting an exemption for the time being.

“I think that they’ll probably punt it to study. I think we’re going to have to make the case,” Robertson added.

The two leaders will also likely discuss Keystone XL, the ill-fated cross-border pipeline expansion that has become a lightning rod for political criticism from both sides of the aisle.

The meeting will start with only Trudeau and Biden one-on-one before the meeting expands to include the cabinets of both governments.

US Ambassador to Canada

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One month after restoring regular order in their initial half-hour telephone call, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden will set the scope of that partnership on Tuesday. The two have shared priorities between them: managing COVID-19 and an economic recovery with a focus on growing the middle class, securing the resiliency of supply chains, bolstering defence and security, tackling the issues of climate and energy, and promoting diversity and inclusion.

But what’s missing from that list is the urgent need to name a new U.S. ambassador to Canada.

It has been 18 months since Kelly Knight Craft, Donald Trump’s ambassador to Canada, left for the United Nations; even when she was on the job, as a U.S. Senate inquiry revealed, she spent half of her 22-month Canadian assignment in the United States. Her nominated successor, Dr. Aldona Wos, had a Senate hearing, but she was never confirmed.

The U.S. ambassador matters because he or she holds the sole presidential appointment where the job is to think about Canada 24 hours a day. With their Canadian counterpart in Washington, they are the quarterbacks in the field: identifying and heading off potential problems, trouble-shooting many of them, usually without media attention, while providing advice and expertise to their respective governments.

The ambassador’s responsibilities cut across the various levels of government. Scarcely a week goes by without a conversation with a governor, a premier or a local official. It’s a reflection of the profound interconnectedness of our relationship. It is as much domestic in its scope as international.

While both countries rely on their professional foreign service to staff their embassies and consulates, the politics that inevitably goes with issues such as Mr. Biden’s recent scuttling of the Keystone XL pipeline means that Canada is better served when the U.S. ambassador has highly developed political instincts and the contacts that they can personally call on to fix things.

Recent U.S. ambassadors possessed these qualities and, just as importantly, developed an empathy for Canada. Michigan Democrat Jim Blanchard (Bill Clinton) and Massachusetts Republican Paul Cellucci (George W. Bush) served as governors; Mr. Blanchard had also previously served in Congress. David Wilkins (Mr. Bush) had previously been Speaker of the South Carolina legislature, while Gordon Giffin (Mr. Clinton), David Jacobson (Barack Obama) and Bruce Heyman (Mr. Obama) were lawyers for whom the politicking of fundraising, organizing and campaigning was their second profession. The politically connected Ms. Craft and her coal-magnate husband has donated millions to Republican campaign coffers.

The common denominator for these ambassadors was their personal relationship with their president. Their ability to pick up the phone and get through to the president or his chief of staff is what Canada wants in a U.S. ambassador.

When the U.S. ambassador weighs in, things get done: the Open Skies agreement, Smart Border, pre-clearance at airports and rail stations. As important is what they head off or quietly resolve – everything from ballast-water brouhahas to brawls over bridges. Even if Ms. Craft kept a low profile, she worked effectively with former Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton in keeping NAFTA renegotiations on track. Inevitably, they all became experts on the border.

They also quickly learn that the alternate power in Canada is not just the parliamentary opposition but the premiers, whose constitutional responsibilities give them weight and influence especially on resources, immigration and trade.

Working with the premiers will be a priority for the next ambassador. In the 25th call between the Prime Minister and the premiers on COVID-19, Alberta’s Jason Kenney said rescinding the Keystone XL permit was a “gut punch” and an “insult.” In calling for retaliatory action, he got the backing of Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, Ontario’s Doug Ford (who also raised the issue of Mr. Biden’s “Buy America” executive order) and Quebec’s François Legault.

Mr. Trudeau should encourage the President to name his new ambassador as quickly as possible. Given rigorous scrutiny – financial, political and character – and then the Senate process of a hearing and votes, it will likely be months before anyone moves into the splendid U.S. residence called Lornado.

The ambassador’s to-do list is falling in place. Our leaders prioritized combatting COVID-19, strengthening economic and defence ties, and addressing climate change. We need a shared approach to industrial policy.

Each item comes with a subset of issues: vaccine and PPE distribution; more resilient supply chains; the new North Warning System for air defence and the Arctic; a carbon border-adjustment tax. There are the perennial concerns: “Buy America,” softwood lumber, our pipelines. Then there are the global issues on the table at this year’s G7, G20 and climate summits: China, climate, reform of the rules-based order and reinvigoration of the democracies.

The next U.S. ambassador will not solve our problems. But he or she will be a key player and vital interlocutor in managing our most important and complex relationship.

Canadian Foreign Policy

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Canada’s ‘undeclared’ foreign policy needs more focus: former diplomat

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once confidently declared that Canada’s back on the international stage. Five years later, though, some wonder where the country is exactly.

That is the assessment of foreign policy analysts like Bessma Momani, who says Canada’s foreign policy “is a bit undeclared.”

“People know us as a welcoming country, a tolerant country … so I think the foreign policy is viewed as generally tolerant, if not passive,” Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview with Global News.

But is passive what Canada is going for?

The Trudeau government has proudly promoted its feminist foreign policy to “advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls,” according to a government of Canada website.

READ MORE: Canada’s foreign aid to Afghanistan had some success but many failures, internal review says

There is also an emphasis on female entrepreneurs. In his last foreign trip before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau told an audience in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that when women and girls have access to education, they lift up the communities.

“But all too often, they’re still missing out on those opportunities. Moving forward together towards greater prosperity means ensuring that no one gets left behind,” Trudeau said in February 2020.

While many believe it’s a worthy endeavour, there is concern the Trudeau government isn’t putting its money where its mouth is.

Canada’s international aid budget is only about $6 billion a year, which equalled 0.27 per cent of the country’s gross domestic income (GDI) in 2019. The OECD target for official development assistance (ODA) is 0.7 per cent of donors’ national income.

That subpar level of spending is why Momani is concerned about the direction Canada has chosen.

The West Block: Foreign affairs minister opens up about international diplomacy during a global pandemic

The West Block: Foreign affairs minister opens up about international diplomacy during a global pandemic – Dec 20, 2020

“If you’re looking for a policy that you can achieve your goals with very little financial resources to it, that (feminist foreign policy) is not one that you should put your money into because it is an expensive endeavour and you’re going to face a lot of global resistance to it,” Momani told Global News.


The June 2019 loss of the United Nations Security Council seat vote was widely seen as a blow to Canada’s brand, according to Randolph Mank, who served as Canadian ambassador to Indonesia and the Canadian high commissioner in both Pakistan and Malaysia

Significant resources were spent on lobbying other nations for their votes, and now some believe Canada must refocus its attention on another cause.

Mank led Canada’s last major foreign policy review in 2003 and he thinks it might be time for another one.

COMMENTARY: Canada needs a foreign policy review

“We’ve got the ability to make declarations, but we really need is the ability to pursue our interests. And to do that, you have to define them first of all,” Mank told Global News in a recent interview.

In their 2019 election campaign platform, the Liberals promised to establish the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government, something that seems to fit with our country’s past strengths, according to another foreign diplomat.

“I would point to participation in the group that’s trying to bring democracy to Venezuela, but that’s going to be a long, hard slog. And our efforts through the Ottawa Group to reform the World Trade Organization, to bring the United States back into it,” Colin Robertson, who has served as the Canadian consul general in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and New York, told Global News in an interview.


Robertson’s advice would be for Canada to focus on climate change, democracy and the digital economy. Similar priorities have been announced by U.S. President Joe Biden.

READ MORE: Biden to face difficulties in U.S. foreign policy after Trump’s presidency

“A lot of the success of Canadian foreign policy is aligning ourselves to where U.S. presidents are going and then being helpful because the U.S. is still the leader of the free world,” Robertson said.

With the country still battling the COVID-19 pandemic and setting a course for an economic recovery, the government is likely unwilling to devote resources to a reset on foreign policy. That review might also have to wait until after the next election of a majority government so the department has the confidence it won’t be forced to change direction if there’s a change in government.

George Shultz

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from POLICY: Canadian Politics and Public Policy

Colin Robertson  February 8, 2021

This was not the way I had wanted to meet the venerable George P. Shultz. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, Shultz had served four presidents: secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, Treasury secretary to Gerald Ford, labor secretary to Richard Nixon and on the Council of Economic Advisors under Dwight Eisenhower. A graduate of Princeton – its tiger mascot was allegedly tattooed on his formidable posterior – he’d joined the Marine Corps and seen combat in the Pacific.

My July 23, 2003 call on former Secretary Shultz in his conference room at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus was a fine example of the delicacy of diplomacy. It was prompted by his remark “So my Canadian friends, why has Canada gone so soft?” — provoked by our refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq. As Consul General for Canada in California, it was my responsibility to explain the Canadian position.

George Shultz, who died Sunday at the age of 100, mattered to us. He had played a lead role in getting Canada into the G7 in 1976 when he was at Treasury. He would later tell me it was both strategic and personal: the US wanted another non-European member and he liked his Canadian counterpart, then Finance Minister John Turner. As secretary of state, he instituted quarterly meetings with his Canadian counterpart: first, Allan MacEachen, whom he had taught economics at MIT; and then Joe Clark. Allan Gotlieb, our longest serving ambassador in Washington, used to have Shultz and his late first wife, Obie, over to the residence where they talked high policy while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Shultz was a vital ally in our campaigns for free trade and the acid rain agreement. While George W. Bush was in the White House, Shultz was still a player with influence on key members of the administration, notably Condi Rice, who was national security advisor and later took on his former role of secretary of state.

So, in California, I awaited the great man, surrounded by the pictures and mementos of a long public life. A picture with Senator Ted Kennedy, the “Lion of the Senate” inscribed, “George, A tiger who burned bright in the eyes of Congress and the world.” A sword presented to him by the Commandant of the Marines. “Semper Fidelis” — words that Shultz lived by. The only Canadian in the collection of presidents, prime ministers and foreign leaders was Brian Mulroney. If the intent was to intimidate, it succeeded.

And then the door opened and in trudged George Shultz, looking comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. He nodded and took his place at the head of the table, gestured for me to come closer, looked at me for a moment, and then in the measured tone that personified his diplomatic style said: “You asked to see me?”

I made my case, saying that nothing is more consequential that taking a country to war, noting that for Canada the First World War began in 1914, three years before the US joined in and the Second World War in 1939, two years before Pearl Harbour. I also noted that, unlike his father, George H. W. Bush, who had followed Brian Mulroney’s advice and secured a UN mandate for the first Gulf War, George W. Bush was leading a “coalition of the willing”.  For us, the multilateral endorsement was essential.

My July 23, 2003 call on former Secretary Shultz was a fine example of the delicacy of diplomacy. It was prompted by his remark ‘So my Canadian friends, why has Canada gone so soft?’, provoked by our refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

Shultz responded with one of his favourite maxims: “Good neighbours tend their gardens — they weed them and keep them in good order and don’t let them cause harm to that of their neighbour.” Is Canada ‘tending its garden?’ I responded that the ongoing Canada-bashing, especially from the Fox Network, saying that Canada was ‘weak on terrorism’ was not based on facts. He nodded, although I am not sure it was in agreement. I asked if I could see him again and he nodded again.

He meant it, and during my time in California he was an invaluable source of advice on politics and international affairs.

Mr. Shultz and his second wife, Charlotte, would come to our events and they graciously hosted a brunch for then Foreign Minister Bill Graham and his wife Cathy, at their splendid apartment atop Nob Hill.

While Shultz is being memorialized as a traditionalist — one who balked at the hair-brained Iran-Contra scheme and was viewed as the voice of reason in the Reagan cabinet — he also thought outside the box. In a conversation on California’s water shortage, he asked me if we would consider shipping water through our gas pipelines, telling me that when he was at Bechtel, they’d determined that the water they’d bring down from Canada would return through the atmosphere. I told him that water was a sovereignty issue for Canadians and that bulk water exports were explicitly rejected in legislation.

More recently, we would meet at the annual sessions of the North American Forum that he established with former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and former Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe to promote closer North American collaboration. He would use the occasions to press on his other preoccupations: the threat of nuclear proliferation, the need for a global migration strategy and the urgency of mitigating climate change.

He titled his memoir Turmoil and Triumph: Diplomacy, Power and the Victory of the American Deal (1993). It was the basis for a documentary series in 2010. He wrote or contributed to many books. My favourites are Learning from Experience, (2016) vignettes illustrating his wisdom, and Thinking about the Future (2019) that spans major policy challenges including technology, terrorism, drugs and climate change. A consistent theme in his work is ts that the United States has a vital stake in promoting democratic values and institutions, something that Joe Biden is determined to revive.

I learned many things over the years from George Shultz, especially about the importance of trust — a theme he returned to on his 100th birthday, when he published The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years, in the Washington Post. For Shultz, successful diplomacy depends on trust, empathy, a knowledge of history and cultures, and ideas. “You always start with ideas” he would remind us time and again. “And if you don’t start with ideas, you’ll get lost.”

George Shultz was a good friend to Canada, and a champion of the North American idea. When I think of George Shultz, I think of the words from Ecclesiasticus 44:7, etched into the National War Memorial arch on Ottawa’s Wellington Street: “All these were honoured in their generations and were the glory of their times.”

Buy America

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Canadian companies that bid on American government contracts could be cut out of the procurement process if Joe Biden follows through on his Buy American plan after he becomes U.S. president today, according to business and trade experts.

Manufacturers and exporters in Canada supply a vast range of equipment to public works projects in the U.S. from school buildings to wastewater treatment facilities.

But Biden’s promise to prioritize U.S.-based suppliers and products made on American soil could hurt Canadian companies by blocking them from bidding for work, especially after he unveils an infrastructure plan next month.

The Made-in-America endeavour could disrupt the Canada-U.S. supply chain and lead to significant trade tensions, experts say.

Yet the hardest hit firms will be those directly involved in U.S. government contracts, they say.

“If you’re in the business of supplying government procurement projects like municipal infrastructure, those are the companies most at risk,” said Dennis Darby, president and CEO of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

Stricter Buy American rules for federal procurement could hurt manufacturing on both sides of the border, he said.

“Manufacturers are so integrated across North America,” Darby said, noting that a lot of what Canadian companies make are the “bits and pieces” that go into the continental supply chain.

“When U.S. manufacturers do well, so do Canadian manufacturers. We’re all part of the same supply chain.”

The biggest losers in an era of greater U.S. protectionism are likely to be a broad cross-section of Canadian firms supplying products to American municipalities, rather than specific sectors, experts say.

Companies that supply pumping equipment for municipal water facilities, pipes for new sewage lines, or play structures for new playgrounds could all suffer, they say.

Meanwhile, both Canada the U.S. already have “buy national” provisions carved out of existing trade agreements. Military procurements, for example, exclude foreign suppliers.

Donald Trump pursued his own Buy American policies but it’s unclear how much further Biden can expand these provisions without facing a legal challenge, said trade expert Lawrence Herman.

“The question will be whether the expansion of the Buy American provision is permissible within the scope of the (World Trade Organization) agreement,” said Herman, international trade lawyer at Herman and Associates.

Yet the impact of the Buy American agenda on Canadian businesses could be widespread, he said.

“There are a lot of Canadian companies that supply products to American municipalities,” Herman said. “They could all be affected.”

Colin Robertson, one of the negotiators of the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and North American Free Trade Agreement, said Canada should come to the table with solutions.

“If Biden goes through with this, you’re going to hear from Canadian companies that feel they’re being excluded from U.S. projects,” said Robertson, vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“You’re almost better to deal with it on a one-by-one basis,” said the former Canadian diplomat. “If the guy who builds playsets in Ontario can’t bid on a new playground, what you want to do is try and get the province and state to work something out.”

If Biden’s massive stimulus package is approved, the demand for construction materials – especially steel and aluminum – could be huge, Robertson said.

But if the Buy American plan is ramped up and starts to affect materials from Canada, he said negotiators need to point out that ultimately they’ll get better value including materials produced in Canada.

“If you want maximum value for these dollars, it’s better to open up bidding,” Robertson said. “The challenge with these sorts of Buy American programs is you can get cartels forming within your locality that drive up prices.”


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Varcoe: Canada mounts final plea for Keystone XL, as prospects dim for Alberta’s investment

Experts on both sides of the border point out the long-delayed pipeline faces mighty political obstacles

As Canada mounts an 11th-hour defence of the embattled Keystone XL pipeline, it faces an uphill battle — and legal experts caution Alberta faces long odds to recover its investment if the project is sidelined by the next U.S. president, Joe Biden.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke for a half-hour Tuesday afternoon with Premier Jason Kenney as both the federal and provincial governments continue to reach out to the incoming United States administration to promote the cross-border oil pipeline.Biden is widely expected to revoke the necessary presidential permits for the under-construction energy development as early as Wednesday, his first day in office, over climate concerns surrounding the oilsands.

Speaking Tuesday to reporters, Trudeau said he’s spoken this week with Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, about the issue, and Ottawa is making sure Canada’s views are heard at the highest levels.

“Our officials in Washington have continued to make the case for Keystone XL. We understand, of course, that it’s a commitment that the (incoming) administration made many months ago — or the candidate Joe Biden made — to cancel this pipeline,” said Trudeau.

James Rajotte, Alberta’s senior representative to the United States, has also been busy on the matter in Washington “exhausting all options,” according to the province.

However, the hard reality is the decision appears to have been made, although lobbying continues.

Experts on both sides of the border point out the long-delayed pipeline faces mighty political obstacles, including a promise by Biden last May to revoke permits that Donald Trump had previously issued for TC Energy’s pipeline.

Politics has long surrounded this project. Diplomatic discussions between the two countries over Keystone XL also have a long and prickly history.

In 2011, then-prime minister Stephen Harper called Keystone XL a “no-brainer” for U.S. approval. Yet, then-president Barack Obama rejected it four years later.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat to the United States, said Keystone XL has attained “mythical” status among opponents who want to defeat the project and stymie oilsands growth.

While Canada continues to push for Keystone XL, other bilateral issues are at play that Trudeau needs to make progress on with the new administration, including working together on the global pandemic.

“I just don’t see a silver bullet” for Keystone XL, said Robertson, who is vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“It is never over until it’s over but it may be, in the short term, a rebuff if the permit is rescinded.”


Both the federal and provincial governments have been trying to promote the project’s ability to create jobs and strengthen North American energy security. They also emphasize the progress being made by oilsands producers to lower their emissions per barrel.

During Kenney’s conversation with the prime minister on Tuesday, he urged the federal government to convey to the U.S. that “rescinding the Keystone XL border crossing permit would damage the Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship,” according to a statement from the premier’s office.

For Alberta’s oilpatch, the issue has also attracted an intense focus, reflecting the decade-long odyssey to improve market access and ship more Canadian heavy crude by pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast refining hub.

The project would generate billions of dollars in royalties and taxes for the provincial government.

That’s part of the reason the Kenney government agreed last spring to take on the political risk and make a $1.5-billion equity investment in Keystone XL, as well as extend $6 billion in loan guarantees that began this year.

About $1 billion of taxpayer money would be exposed if the project is blocked, Kenney told reporters Monday. He reiterated Alberta would have “very strong arguments for legal recourse for damages incurred” if the existing permit is vetoed retroactively.


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However, legal experts aren’t quite so certain. In short, it doesn’t look promising.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks in Calgary on March 31, 2020 about the the plan to kick-start construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. PHOTO BY JIM WELLS/POSTMEDIA/FILE

TC Energy could file a lawsuit in the United States federal court or make a claim under the old NAFTA agreement. The Calgary-based pipeline giant made such a claim after the 2015 rejection by Obama, seeking US$15 billion in damages. (The case was dropped after Trump backed the development upon his election.)

The United States has never lost such a case and paid out damages, noted James Coleman, an expert in pipeline law and a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Winning such a battle wouldn’t get the pipeline built, either.

“Suing your way to successful construction against a hostile government, no one would suggest that’s anything but a long shot, even if your arguments are good,” he said.

Alberta could try to recover some of its investment in a separate lawsuit, but it would also face challenges.

“It is long odds, to put it mildly,” said trade lawyer Mark Warner with MAAW Law in Toronto.

“Whether it’s through the U.S. courts or through NAFTA, it would be very long and very contentious and hard to win, but not impossible.”

The 2019 presidential permit for Keystone XL signed by Trump plainly states it can be terminated, revoked or amended at any time at the sole discretion of the U.S. president.

These factors don’t add up to an ironclad case to recover taxpayer money, although Alberta needs to consider all of its alternatives.

“I would say the chances are not good. But given how much public money was put into this, I think there’s a responsibility to seek any compensation you can get, in any way you can,” said University of Calgary law professor Kristen van de Biezenbos.

There will be plenty of time to focus on recouping Alberta’s lost investment if the project is derailed this week.

At this point, Keystone XL still remains a live issue for the federal and provincial governments — at least for now.

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.