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As podcasts continue to soar both in number and in popularity, podcasters are playing an increasingly important role in political debates around the world. It’s no different here in Canada, with a number of Canadian political podcasts, such as CBC’s Party Lines and Kevin Newman’s Attention Control, created specifically for election coverage.

Others, such as The Herle Burly, modified their format specifically for the election, and  The Herle Burly has multiple journalists, bureau chiefs, high-level communications experts—and even Pamela Anderson—voicing their enthusiasm for the show on social media.

The Hill Times spoke with some podcast hosts taking a deeper dive into the political nitty-gritty, within a medium that only continues to grow in popularity.

In an interview with The Hill Times, David Herle said he started The Herle Burly to contribute to an informed dialogue about the future.

“I really think there are so many enormous issues that are facing us as people, and I had been, through my time, active in politics, and getting increasingly disturbed about how low [in] information the dialogue was, and how talking points were back and forth, and I thought things were more complex than that,” said Mr. Herle.

Currently a principal partner at the PR firm The Gandalf Group, Mr. Herle, a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan who hails from the province, was the federal Liberal campaign co-chair in 2004 and 2006, and worked on former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s campaigns in 2014 and 2018.

Mr. Herle said he’s been privileged to have “stunningly interesting” and “directly political” people on his podcast so far, most recently including Jenni Byrne, who ran former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2015 campaign, and former Liberal adviser Scott Reid, a group he brought together specifically for the 2019 election.

“You’ve got three people who’ve worked on countless campaigns, right at the centre of them,” said Mr. Herle. “As my friend Bill Fox said, three people who are in the room after the meeting is over.”

Traditional media commentary simply can’t go into the same kind of detail around policy developments and election campaign developments as podcasts, said Mr. Herle.

“Yesterday, we talked for an hour, and that’s not possible on media. I’m not blaming the media for not doing it, I just thought it was a gap,” said Mr. Herle.

His thoughts on the 2019 election? “It feels to me, at the end of the day, it’s coming down to the leadership question, which it often is.”

“Maybe the first question for people is, am I for Trudeau or am I not for Trudeau? And if you’re not, you might go to Singh or Scheer or Blanchet, and if you can’t go to Scheer, it’s likely also because there’s something about him that’s not sitting square with you,” said Mr. Herle.

“As people are getting to know him, and I don’t mean to say this in a partisan way, just look at the data, but as people are getting to know him, they are not liking him,” said Mr. Herle of Mr. Scheer. “People are struggling with their leadership choices, I think.”

Justin Ling and Jen Gerson are co-hosts of Canadaland’s OPPO. Mr. Ling, a freelancer with bylines in almost every Canadian paper, and Ms. Gerson, a National Post correspondent turned freelancer, are both fiery personalities. Both independently reached out to Canadaland about doing a show, and Jesse Brown suggested they team up, according to Mr. Ling. Then, on Feb. 5, 2018, OPPO appeared on the airwaves.

Despite hosting a Canadian political podcast, Mr. Ling isn’t a big fan of the ways the medium is used in Canada. That criticism even extends to his own podcast.

“I think Canada, on the politics and current affairs side, hasn’t done a very good job of innovating or changing the format,” he said. “A lot of Canadian podcasts are just adaptations of what we’ve seen Americans do, and I think OPPO is included in that.”

He said he would like to see outlets with larger budgets to “do something different.” He cited another Canadaland podcast, COMMONS,  doing “longform pieces on something you don’t understand about politics” as an example. Mr. Ling, however, said he understands that a lot of “people see it as a risk” especially considering the failure of other large-scale digital media launches in Canada.

“I just don’t see the huge public interest in having two people chat about politics for 45 minutes. We have enough people chatting about politics on CBC News Network for two hours a day,” he said. “I would just challenge everyone in the space to do something slightly different.”

OPPO typically also features Ms. Gerson and Mr. Ling debating the political issues of the day, but since Ms. Gerson’s departure in early September, Mr. Ling has brought on more guests to dive deep into different issues.

Erica Ifill, who writes a regular column for The Hill Times and is one of three hosts on the Bad + Bitchy podcast, which analyses politics, current events, and pop culture through an intersectional feminist perspective, said that what makes her podcast unique is that “we know our audience, we know who we’re trying to pull in.”

“Pop culture features a lot in our writing and what we do,” said Ms. Ifill. “If you can put those digital and pop culture references in, you get to anchor people in your writing, and you keep people engaged, because it’s always a point of familiarity.”

Ms. Ifill said podcasts appeal to her because the medium provides more leeway to the hosts, and is less filtered than traditional media.

“You know when they say dance like nobody’s watching? That’s literally how I talk,” said Ms. Ifill. “Once you start self-censoring, it’s over. I mean, for me, because I’m coming from a certain perspective.”

Canadian think tanks are entering the podcasting sphere for many of the same reasons as regular media companies. Young people are more digitally inclined, are constantly on the move, and want access to free content on demand. Podcasting checks all of those boxes.

American think tanks have flooded the podcast market, something Canadian think tanks have yet to do. Most of the top American think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution or the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, have multiple podcasts released on a regular schedule. Most are slickly produced with an appealing logo to greet you on your feed.

The Global Exchange host Colin Robertson, left, with EU Ambassador Peteris Ustubs, right, talking about the CETA trade deal. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and host of The Global Exchange, said a big part of the reason why American think tanks are so far ahead of their Canadian counterparts in producing digital media products is money.

“American think tanks have their own studios, and we do it pretty simply,” Mr. Robertson said. At first, Mr. Robertson said, The Global Exchange was done “on a shoestring, basically. Mac computer and a couple of headphones.” Mr. Robertson didn’t see lower-quality recording as an impediment to releasing the podcast.

“Don’t worry if the quality is not great, we will improve it over time, it’s better to get it out there,” he said. Mr. Robertson said that approach has worked, because The Global Exchange listenership has been steadily growing, now sitting at around 2,000 listens per episode, and bringing more people to CGAI’s work.

According to CGAI’s 2018 annual report, the institution had just over $1.28-million in revenue, drawn from donations, events, and grants, and just over $1.33-million in expenses. The total shortfall was $49,981, a marked improvement from the 2017 shortfall of $311,447.

The Brookings Institution’s 2018 annual report, on the other hand, shows an operating revenue of just over $87-million. In fiscal year 2017-18 alone, their four podcasts had over two million downloads. That number reaches above five million downloads when Lawfare podcasts, a Brookings-affiliated online publication focusing on national security and foreign policy, are included.

Brett Byers-Lane, communications director at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who also produces and occasionally hosts Pod Bless Canada, said despite the obvious challenges Canadian think tanks face when compared to their American counterparts, there is reason for optimism.

“Canadians are among the more Internet literate people in the developed world. So it makes it would make sense that podcasts [have] a good potential market in Canada and I think that will see them expand over time,” Mr. Byers-Lane said. “So it’s not to say that we’re doing poorly. But I think that once we start getting more organizations and individuals doing regular interesting podcasts on a on a wider range of subjects, we’ll see, I hope, a renaissance in this media form.”

Here are some of the podcasts you can tune into:

The Global Exchange

Screenshot courtesy of Twitter

CGAI’s vice-president Colin Robertson has hosted the Global Exchange since its creation in June 2016. The first episode was on the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, a topic the podcast has returned to numerous times. The Global Exchange focuses strictly on foreign policy, but CGAI has Defence Deconstructed, focusing on Canadian defence policy, and Battle Rhythm, looking at international security issues.

Foreign Policy in the Election

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Trapped in the ‘bubble’: Why has the 2019 campaign ignored foreign policy?

The morning after he led the Liberals to a stunning victory in 2015, Justin Trudeau had a clear message for those who believed Canada had relinquished its role on the world stage: “We’re back.”

But four years later, the world beyond Canada’s borders hasn’t received much attention during this 40-day election campaign, according to a leading expert on international relations.

“It’s stunning that this election campaign has really not dealt with foreign policy, has not dealt with the world,” said Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

“I call this the bubble election. We’re living in a bubble, we Canadians. We talk about ourselves as if the world isn’t impinging on us but it’s impinging on us on every single issue that matters to us — the environment, energy, exports, trade, security,” Stein told The House.

It’s not like the world is a particularly stable place right now. Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria is sowing chaos, tensions are still simmering with China over trade and the detention of three Canadians, and the Brexit project has profound implications for the future unity and stability of Great Britain — and that’s just the short list of major foreign policy concerns likely to land on the desk of the person Canadians choose to be their next prime minister.

“It’s a messier world and it’s a meaner world,” former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson told The House.

“Under (U.S. President) Donald Trump, we don’t have the friend we thought we had, that reliable partner both on security and trade. And so, we are having to manage on our own.”

When the campaign kicked off last month, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer attacked Trudeau’s record on foreign affairs.

NAFTA Election 2019

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NDP says position unchanged on renegotiation for new NAFTA, despite saying improvements ‘can and should be made to this deal’

By NEIL MOSS      
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the Democrats are ‘making progress’ in negotiations with the White House over the new trade pact.

The NDP will wait to see what changes are made by U.S. House Democrats to the new NAFTA before deciding whether they will vote to implement it in the next Parliament, says its most recent international trade critic.

“We will have a full debate in the next Parliament and a vote based on whatever the results are out of the U.S.,” NDP MP Tracey Ramsey (Essex, Ont.) told The Hill Times in a phone interview last week. She was the her party’s international trade critic in the 42nd Parliament.

Speaking to CBC on Sept. 30, Ms. Ramsey, who won her riding in the last election with 41.4 per cent of the vote, questioned the decision to agree to the trade pact in the first place.

“We should have never signed the deal,” said Ms. Ramsey. “There are improvements that can and should be made to this deal and we would make every effort to ensure that we do so.”

In response to the a CBC tweet that the NDP would renegotiate the new NAFTA, Ms. Ramsey told The Hill Times there was a “misunderstanding” of her comments.

“I never said that we would renegotiate,” she said. “Our position on the new NAFTA has not changed at all.”

After a gruelling renegotiation of NATFA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—also called the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA)—was signed by the three North American nations on the margins of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Nov. 30, 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, then-Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump signed the USMCA on Nov. 30, 2018, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Behind the leaders are former Mexican economy secretary Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Photograph by Shealah Craighead/White House

The trade deal was ratified by the Mexican Senate in June. While in the United States, the negotiations continue between the White House and House of Representative Democrats before Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will bring it to the floor for a vote.

Ms. Pelosi told reporters last week that Democrats are “making progress” and are “on a path to yes.”

She said the outstanding issue remains the enforceability of provisions in the agreement.

“We are quite keen,” Ms. Ramsey said in a phone interview last week with The Hill Times, “to see what improvements they will make in the United States. And then I imagine they will bring that to us in Canada, and we will be able to have that full debate in the next Parliament.”

Asked what improvements would need to be made for the NDP to vote in favour of implementation, Ms. Ramsey said she didn’t want to “pre-judge” the work on Capitol Hill.

“We know they have a history of opening up agreements and improving them,” she said, pointing out the House Democrats concerns over the enforceability of labour and environmental provisions.

But Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who sat on the trade deputy minister’s NAFTA advisory council, said the NDP position is “irrelevant” no matter if the Liberals or Conservatives form a minority or majority government because the Tories and Grits will be voting to implement the pact.

“Any amendments [added by the United States] are only likely to work to our benefit,” Mr. Robertson said, who was part of the original Canadian negotiation team during Canada-U.S. free trade talks in the late 1980s.

He said because the changes are likely to involve environmental and labour provision enforcement on Mexico, it is something Canada would want.

“It’s exactly the kind of things we argued for in the negotiations themselves,” Mr. Robertson said, adding if there is change to reduce the patent protection on biologics it would work in Canada’s favour as it was a concession that Canada had to give the U.S. during the talks.

The Liberal government has said they will proceed “in tandem” with the United States on ratification. Before the House of Commons was adjourned in June, Bill C-100—a bill to implement USMCA—was read a second time on division and referred to the House Committee on International Trade.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.) told reporters in Toronto on Oct. 3 that an NDP government would be in “no rush” to implement the USMCA.

“What’s the point of having provisions on labour rights, having provisions on the environment, if there’s no enforceability? That’s—to me—meaningless,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) countered in a tweet directed at Mr. Singh that the government “negotiated and secured enforceable, standalone chapters on labour and the environment,” and said “facts matter.”

Eric Miller, a former diplomat and president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said the NDP doesn’t have a strong track record supporting Canada’s trade agreements.

Mr. Miller said the challenge for the NDP on saying they will wait on the House Democrats is what if the agreement reached in D.C., isn’t one they agree with.

“What happens if the House Democrats deliver something much less than they would like on the environment? Are they looking for their ideal agreement? Are they willing to accept something less?”

Mr. Miller, who also sits on the trade deputy minister’s NAFTA advisory council, said of the Canadian government’s position of saying they will not go back to the negotiation table is that if the deal gets renegotiated, the U.S. could ask for more concessions, such as even more access to Canada’s supply managed dairy sector.

“There’s a very good reason why the outward view that Canada has taken is to not be willing to accept changes,” he said, adding that if House Democrats wanted to change some conditions of the agreement back to what Canada was asking for at the negotiation table then Canada will gladly agree.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association Canada, questioned why would Canada want to risk the gains Canada got in the USMCA by re-opening the agreement.

“Why would you risk the gains we got in automotive, for example, against a belligerent counter party who—by the way—is increasingly unhinged in an impeachment inquiry?” Mr. Volpe said, adding especially for the NDP who are disproportionately representing a lot of automotive ridings.

Mr. Volpe, a former Liberal staffer in the the provincial government of former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and whose father is former Liberal MP Joe Volpe, said the trade pact is a good one.

“We got a net-positive deal negotiating with a madman. I’m very satisfied with where we went and the way … Canada conducted itself with coordination with industry. I don’t think I’d like to try again. I’d like to take what we got,” he said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Que.) has said that Mr. Trudeau agreed to a weaker North American trade agreement. But he said earlier in the election campaign that if the Conservatives form government, they will vote to implement the pact.

Green Party MP Paul Manly (Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C.), his party’s international trade critic in the 42nd Parliament, said the Greens will have an open vote on the implementation in the next Parliament.

“When we were looking at this, [Green Party Leader] Elizabeth [May] and I were actually of two different views on it. So probably if the vote came up in Parliament, I would have voted against the new NAFTA and she may have voted for it.”

Mr. Manly said that Ms. May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) doesn’t think that Canada can get a better deal. But he said the Canadian government could.

He said the caucus would try to reach consensus, but it would not be a whipped vote.

Trump remains ‘great unknown’ in USMCA ratification; concern over NAFTA withdrawal: former diplomat

Mr. Miller said U.S. President Donald Trump remains “the great unknown” if the USMCA will be implemented.

“If he continues to put out these points of disruption, you could end up seeing them snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said.

Mr. Miller added that he is “concerned” over if Mr. Trump would decide to withdraw from NAFTA and it is something that needs to be “actively” worried about.

“If you’re Trump, what better thing to do than to reframe the debate about your signature trade deal. Not from new NAFTA versus old NAFTA, you reframe as new NAFTA versus no NAFTA,” he said.

In the past, Mr. Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if Congress didn’t ratify the USMCA. But he said among Canadian business leaders, that threat has receded.

“If USMCA looks like it is struggling … then why would Donald Trump who is willing to do many things, not use that tool to push things forward,” Mr. Miller added.

“The USMCA is a victory for the president,” Mr. Volpe said, adding if Mr. Trump decided to withdraw from the original NAFTA he will “reset the standard on reckless behaviour.”

Mr. Volpe said it’s hard to see the upside for throwing away one of the few achievements that Mr. Trump has.

Mr. Miller said the current impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives could give House Democrats coverage to vote in favour of USMCA while not be seen supporting a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump.

“The whole idea of not wanting to give Trump a win is not something they have to worry about because if you are saying you are voting for the Trump trade deal, but you are in the process of impeaching him, how can someone say that you’re soft on Trump?” Mr. Miller said.

Election 2019 and Foreign Policy

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Scheer, Trudeau face foreign policy criticism

NEWS Oct 06, 2019 The Canadian Press


OTTAWA — Monday’s English-language debate may open a window on how the major party leaders would try to steer Canada through a world of economic and political turbulence.

Not a moment too soon, say foreign policy experts, who accuse federal leaders of largely drawing the blinds during their campaigning on how they’d cope with the forces beyond Canada’s borders that will shape the country they are vying to lead.

Canada’s role in the world is almost never a dominant theme in federal elections, but experts argue there’s never been a more important time in recent memory for party leaders to get a grip on how they would steer the country.

They cite no end of obstacles: the rising influence of authoritarian leaders; the drumbeats of war in the Middle East; the extended drama of Britain’s Brexit divorce from Europe; and the instability of the Trump impeachment saga swamping Canada’s top trading partner and ally, the United States.

“That’s just totally absent from this campaign. Instead the discussion is about how we need to put money back in the pockets of Canadians, focusing on us as individual chequing accounts instead of as a nation that’s facing threats on the world stage,” said Ben Rowswell, who witnessed the implosion of Venezuela as Canada’s last ambassador there, and now heads the Canadian International Council think-tank.

Monday’s debate is divided into five themes and two of them — “leadership, in Canada and on the world stage” and “polarization, human rights and immigration” — might provide an opportunity for the leaders to expound on foreign policy.

Six party leaders will be on stage on Monday, but the focus will be on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, the two frontrunners. Canadians were deprived of a separate debate on foreign policy after the Toronto-based Munk Debates cancelled its event, set for last week, because Trudeau declined an invitation.

So far during the campaign, Trudeau and Scheer have marked their differences on climate change, but have offered few specifics on moving forward with the U.S., including on a new North American trade agreement, as well as mending fences with China and India, and the possibility of building new alliances to cope with waning global leadership from the U.S.

Instead, Scheer and Trudeau are attacking what they see as each other’s vulnerabilities: Among other things, Scheer says he would have done better than Trudeau in renegotiating NAFTA, and that the prime minister has been a global embarrassment, especially on his heavily-wardrobed 2018 trip to India; Trudeau says Scheer is showing bad judgement by promising to cut foreign aid by 25 per cent, and for initially supporting Brexit, which has since become a debacle.

Managing relations with the U.S. is the most important job of any prime minister and President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to rip up NAFTA were the paramount foreign policy concern for Trudeau.

Meredith Lilly, an international trade expert at Carleton University, said the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is inferior to the old NAFTA because it is “more cumbersome and complicated and actually reflects less free trade.” But Trudeau had no choice but to accept the compromised deal to maintain Canada’s market access to the U.S., she said.

“The new NAFTA is worse than the old NAFTA, but it’s better than no NAFTA.”

Ratification of the new NAFTA hangs in the balance in the U.S. because Trump’s Democratic opponents control the House of Representatives and are negotiating changes with Republicans on labour, the environment, drug prices and enforcement provisions.

Canada is waiting to see what happens in the U.S. before it moves to ratify, but Trudeau and Scheer haven’t answered a key question for Canadians, said Fen Hampson, an international affairs expert at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“What’s Plan B? It may be the status quo, but I don’t think we should assume that because Pandora’s Box has been opened and we’re hearing that the Democrats want to look at the agreement and make changes to it,” said Hampson.

“At a time when there is such turbulence internationally, including political turbulence south of the border that looks like it’s only going to get worse, not better … Canadians have a right to know from their parties what their plans are.”

Sarah Goldfeder, a former U.S. diplomat turned consultant who advised two American ambassadors to Canada, said the campaign is an appropriate time for Trudeau and Scheer to explain how they would try to build new alliances for Canada “with the United States and China focused on each other, and the international rules-based order disintegrating around everybody.”

That means forging stronger bonds with countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and France, she said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for Canada to be part of this re-orientation of global power that favours middle powers — at least if not giving them a balance of power, giving them an opportunity to determine where their destiny takes them.”

Scheer says he would better represent Canada abroad and has frequently cited Trudeau’s India trip, with its elaborate photo-ops and the invitation of a man convicted of attempted murder to an official function.

Fair enough, but Scheer is woefully short on specifics of how he’d repair relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said Colin Robertson, a retired diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“The India trip was indeed a debacle. These were unforced errors. Forget the costumes — the real harm we did was to the Modi relationship. He’s there for the next four years.”

Robertson said it’s essentially a wash on whether Scheer or Trudeau would better represent Canada on future forays abroad. If Scheer succeeds, he will grow into the job and likely modify some of his thinking, especially his campaign promise to slash foreign aid by 25 per cent.

“I think the discipline of power would mean some of the sillier things that I observe in their platform would be modified,” he said. “When you get in, you realize, ‘hmm, that’s not really going to work out so well for us.'”

But Bessma Momani, a foreign policy expert at the University of Waterloo, said too much of the language behind Scheer’s aid-cut announcement had overtones of populism. She referred to Scheer’s contention that Trudeau was using Canadians’ “hard-earned tax dollars to support anti-Semitic organizations and prop up foreign dictatorships.”

“When you look at the trend among all of these populist leaders, mostly right wing, there is an ‘othering,'” she said, including calls that political elites are siphoning tax dollars towards “refugees and attempts to undermine our national culture.”

But don’t expect Trudeau to throw any punches at Scheer over foreign aid on Monday.

Under Trudeau, Canada overseas development spending has declined, but the Liberals have tried to mask that by repackaging existing funds through high-profile initiatives, said Momani.

“When people hear about all these great programs — we’re doing all this with all this Canadian feminist foreign policy, our foreign aid — you would think we were one of the top donors. We’re not even close.”

Foreign Aid

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Canadians think of this country as having a big heart. After all, we now accept more refugees than Donald Trump’s America. But when it comes to foreign aid – which largely helps the poor, the sick and the destitute, most of whom are women and children – we are downright miserly.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) currently places Canada’s official development assistance commitment at 0.28 per cent of gross national income, representing about 25 cents for every $100. To put that in historical context, from 1970 to 1995, Canada committed about 46 cents for every $100 of national income – 75 per cent more than we do today. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government embraced a feminist development policy, but that mostly reallocated rather than added new monies. Canadian aid is not growing in real terms.

Our UN Security Council seat competitors are outdoing us. Norway stands at 0.94 per cent and Ireland at 0.31 per cent, which is the OECD average. The organization has already told Canada that our words need to be matched by “concrete action to increase aid flows.”

And now, according to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a Tory government would cut even that by 25 per cent.

Fifty years ago, Lester Pearson got it right when he argued the case for aid: “The simplest answer is the moral one, that it is only right for those who have to share with those who do not.”

Mr. Pearson identified aid as part of “enlightened and constructive self-interest” in an increasingly interdependent world. He recommended a goal of 0.7 per cent of GDP for foreign aid, and that remains the benchmark for the OECD, Group of Seven and United Nations. Canada has never achieved the target, although it came close under prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau.

No doubt, foreign aid can be a hard sell to domestic voters. The idea of giving away money to other countries is one that suffers from compassion fatigue, and there are certainly problems around transparency and accountability.

But foreign aid works. In the wake of a disaster, it provides immediate relief, in the form of food, medicine and relief workers such as Doctors without Borders. It also offers a hand-up – teaching how to fish, farm and, increasingly, digital skills – that feeds aid recipients for life.

There are benefits to lending a hand, too. The United States’ aid-driven Marshall Plan resurrected Western Europe after the Second World War and boosted our economy when it allowed loan money to be directed to Canadian goods. Since then, our trade and investment with the European Union only grows. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is just the latest dividend generated in no small measure by Canada’s historic generosity through the multinational Colombo Plan, which took aim at poverty in Asia.

When the UN set out its millennium goals in 1990, there was lots of talk about whether its grasp exceeded reach. But by 2015, it turned out that those living in extreme poverty had declined by half. So, too, had the mortality rate for kids under 5. The working middle class – living on more than US$4 a day – nearly tripled.

Now, we have a new set of sustainable development goals for 2030 that includes ending poverty and hunger, as well as establishing gender equality. They’re ambitious aims, but they’re doable – as long as countries such as Canada continue to give.

Whichever party forms our next government needs a passionate advocate as Canada’s next international development minister. That person needs to clearly tell the public why Canadian foreign aid is vital. Every speech should answer three questions: Does aid work? Where can Canadian aid make the greatest difference? And what results should Canadians expect over the next decade?

With democracy under threat, good governance matters again. The Liberals have promised a new centre for peace, order and good government, but rather than create anew, why not make better use of existing institutions such as the Parliamentary Centre? And beyond money, we can share our competence and capability in harnessing energy, growing food and water stewardship.

Other OECD members are also reforming aid delivery by working with the private sector. We could learn from Australia’s Innovation Xchange experience.

Working with various organizations, the Canadian Council for International Co-operation will co-host a conference this November to look at development assistance. Their recommendations should serve as reference points for our next government.

Meanwhile, Andrew Scheer should talk to fellow conservatives Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. They understood the value of foreign aid in advancing Canadian interests. They understood that foreign aid is not yesterday’s cause.

What Diplomats need to know about Canadian elections

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What Diplomats Need to Know about Canadian Elections


Image credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld, Andrew Vaughan, Cole Burston, Patrick Doyle


by Maureen Boyd, CGAI Fellow and Colin Robertson, CGAI Vice-President
September 2019

In response to increasing requests by foreign diplomats to explain our election process, we have written this primer. We are not partisans, although we consulted stakeholders from the different parties as well as experts on Canadian politics, polling and our elections in putting this piece together.


Table of Contents

The Mechanics of Elections

On Wednesday September 11, 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, launching the campaign for Canada’s 43rd general election to take place on Monday October 21, 2019. Since May 2007, the Canada Elections Act provides for a general election to be held on a fixed  date: on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. As the last election took place on Oct. 19, 2015, the next fixed election date for Canada’s 43rd general election is Oct. 21, 2019. However, the act does not prevent a general election from being called at another date. Unlike the UK ‘Mother of Parliaments’ there is no need for a vote in parliament before it can be dissolved, prior to the four years, for an election.  General elections can be called when the Governor General dissolves Parliament on the advice of the prime minister. Subsequently, the Governor in Council (i.e., the Governor General acting on the advice of cabinet) has to set the date for the election and the Prime Minister presents an Order in Council addressed to the Chief Electoral Officer requesting the issuance of writs of election. The Governor General issues a Proclamation for the issuance of writs of election. The writs are issued to the returning officers for each of the 338 constituencies. Three weeks before the election each candidate must file with the returning officer several documents, including the nomination paper.

The  Elections Modernization Act (2018) specifies that the election period must last a minimum of 36 days and a maximum of 50 days (the 2015 election was 78  days). Elections in Canada’s 338 electoral districts (or constituencies) are decided by the first-past-the-post system, i.e., whoever gets the most votes wins the election, even though “most votes” rarely translates into the majority of votes.

The first-past-the-post system means that, based on previous elections, a party can win the majority of the seats in the House of Commons with approximately 38 per cent of the votes. Only two governments in recent history have won more than 50 per cent of the vote:  John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives in 1958 and Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in 1984.

The smaller New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party (the Greens) favour proportional representation, but it has not happened at either the national or provincial level. The proportional representation concept used by many European nations in its various forms has been defeated in provincial referendums in British Columbia (B.C.), Ontario and Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.).

The Constitution Act defines how many seats are accorded to each province. The formula is adjusted based on population after census by an independent non-partisan process, but because the Constitution guarantees provinces a minimum number of seats, there are major discrepancies. For example, there are an average of 36,500 voters in each of the four constituencies in P.E.I., Canada’s smallest province, while each of Alberta’s 34 constituencies has 111,000 voters. The current 338 electoral districts break down by province as follows: Ontario 121; Quebec 78; B.C. 42; Alberta 34; Manitoba 14; Saskatchewan 14; Nova Scotia 11; New Brunswick 10; Newfoundland and Labrador 7, P.E.I. 4, Northwest Territories 1, Yukon 1 and Nunavut 1.

Unlike Australia, Canada does not have mandatory voting. Usually, voter turnout in national elections is around  60 per cent of eligible voters – it was 68.5 per cent in 2015 and 61 per cent in 2011.



Election Spending

By U.S. standards, Canadian elections are not simply shorter, but also much cheaper to administer. The price tag for the 2015 federal election was $443 million, up 53 per cent from the $290 million spent on the 2011 election. This increase was due to the addition of 30 new ridings and an unusually long campaign period of 78 days, almost double the length of the previous election.

The recent Election Modernization Act (2018) defines the length of federal election campaigns, restricts the amount of spending allowed in the period before a campaign, works to prevent foreign interference and introduces new rules to regulate third-party political activity. Political parties can now spend up to $2,046,800 on advertising in the pre-writ period. With a fixed election date of October 21, that timeline starts June 30. After the writs are issued those spending limits are raised significantly. Interest groups can spend up to $1,023, 400 in the pre-election period and then $511,700 during the election period with a maximum of $10,234 in each constituency in the pre-election period and $4,386 in each constituency during the election.  Canadians can give up to $1600 annually in total to all the registered associations, nomination contestants and candidates of each registered party. Election expenses for each candidate in a constituency are fixed and they vary between $21,000 (Labrador and Nunavut) and $114,000 (Calgary Shepherd) with the average around $85,000. Depending on their vote, there is a degree of reimbursement from public funds.



Foreign Interference

Foreign interference in democratic elections is a reality. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the RCMP are monitoring foreign threat activity in Canada. A Cabinet Directive on the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol sets out general directions and the principles to guide the process for informing the public during the writ period of an incident that threatens Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.


Volatile and Unpredictable

Elections in Canada are volatile and unpredictable in outcome. Unlike the U.S., where most voters are already committed, almost half of the Canadian electorate is prepared to change its mind based on the campaigns. The Conservatives have the most solid base – around 25 per cent. The Liberal base is lower, around 22 per cent, but they also have a higher potential ceiling. The NDP can count on around 13 per cent and the Greens, who won their first seat in Parliament in 2011, hold about six per cent – although this may be increasing, mostly at the expense of the NDP. The Liberals, NDP and Greens are centre/centre-left, while the NDP and the Greens potentially can coalesce around the Liberals if it looks like the Conservatives are going to win.


The separatist Bloc Québécois was founded in 1991 following the failed Meech Lake constitutional arrangements. For seven straight federal elections from 1993 to 2011, the Bloc was the largest party from Quebec, and either the second or third largest party in the House of Commons. The Bloc was reduced to four seats in 2011 and has failed to achieve official party status since.

Elections are usually fought on who can best lead the country to prosperity. Foreign policy was an issue in the 1988 election around freer trade with the U.S., with Mulroney’s pro-free trade Progressive Conservatives winning re-election. In contrast, then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion ran on climate and carbon pricing – the “Green Shift” – in 2008, but lost.

The 2015 election was different. Two-thirds of Canadians going to the polls were comfortable with the country’s direction and optimistic about the economy, but two-thirds also wanted change. As a result, Justin Trudeau, who went into the election in third place, captured the zeitgeist. However, the fact that Stephen Harper, after a decade in office, could still win 31.9 per cent of the vote to 39.5 per cent for the Liberals and 19.7 per cent for the NDP is a testament to the strength of the Conservatives’ base.

After dumping its leader and initial front-runner Thomas Mulcair following the 2015 election, the NDP moved left by selecting Jagmeet Singh, a former Ontario legislator who now represents a B.C. riding. He has not impressed either his caucus or the public so far. As a result, the NDP risks losing its third place to the Green Party led by Elizabeth May, whose relentless cheeriness for the Green cause makes her an appealingly authentic personality.

Election 2015 results summary



Voters’ Considerations in 2019

Going into the election, voters will consider:

Referendum on leadership, i.e., who do they want to spend the next few years listening to and watching on their screens?

Consciously or unconsciously, most voters, especially the large group who are still making up their minds, assess the party leaders, and more so the incumbent. A prime minister may be unpopular, but when compared to the alternative, voters are inclined to go with the “devil they know”, unless they strongly want change. Therefore, polling that assesses voters’ desire for change and voter satisfaction with the direction of the country is important.

Management of the economy, i.e., who can keep the country prosperous or at least out of a recession?

Deficits are part of the equation: since 1993, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) almost had to intervene to prop up the economy, Canadians have been chary of running deficits. This attitude seems to be changing, as long as voters believe the investments that a deficit is funding to be worthwhile – e.g., public infrastructure (roads, subways, airports, sewers), health care and education. 

Response to world events 

Among the electorate, there is a growing sense that the world is a messier and meaner place, and concerns such as climate change and the large-scale movement of peoples require global action.

The U.S.

The U.S.’s 2020 presidential election campaign is under way, and it is a popular spectator sport for the Canadian media and political cognoscenti. Some issues such as climate and abortion inevitably seep across the border. Most Canadians detest Donald Trump, and to many Canadians, Trudeau continues to be an attractive leader, compared to what is happening in the U.S.


Support – real or perceived – from influencers, who include financial and industrial elite, media, premiers, mayors and the thinking class does have an impact on the election. And this is despite the current populist times during which elites are increasingly derided and deference has given way to defiance. Strict election spending laws also mean that money is not a deciding factor in elections, unlike in the U.S.

Public Mood

It is an axiom that governments defeat themselves, particularly when there is an overwhelming desire for change. Leaders who misgauge the country’s mood risk alienation from their party and the public.

The Debates 

Debates play a role. We saw this with Mulroney’s 1984 line: “You had an option, sir”, on Liberal John Turner’s appointment of Liberal warhorses to patronage posts. We also saw it when Jack Layton mocked then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s attendance record in 2011.

The Trudeau government has established a Debates Commission in order to ensure debates are a “predictable, reliable and stable element(s) of future election campaigns”. This has created a new partnership of news organizations that will produce two leaders’ debates on Monday, October 7 (English) and Thursday, October 10 (French) broadcast from the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau. They will be free to broadcast, stream or share, as the goal is to get the debate out to as many people as possible. The new group includes the TV broadcasters CBC News/Radio-Canada, Global and CTV; the newspapers Toronto Star, Le Devoir and the magazine L’actualité; and the online outlets La Presse, HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Québec.

The new media partnership will determine the themes and questions of the official debates. Parties must meet at least two of three criteria for their leaders to participate in the debates: the party must have at least one Member of Parliament (MP) who was elected under the party banner; it must have candidates in at least 90 per cent of ridings; and it must have obtained at least four per cent of the vote in the previous election or have a “legitimate chance” of winning seats. Green Party Leader May and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet will likely meet the first two criteria and be allowed to participate. It seems unlikely that People’s Party (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier will meet the standard of having a “legitimate chance” of winning seats to fulfil the requirements for the debate.

There will be other debates:

  • September 12 in Toronto: Maclean’s will host Andrew Scheer, Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh
  • October 1 in Toronto: The Munk Debates will focus on foreign policy with Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May but Justin Trudeau has declined to participate.
  • October 2 in Montreal: TVA will host leaders but for now without Elizabeth May and Maxime Bernier).


Voting is not compulsory so turnout is critical. Canadians abroad can vote as can those in jail.  Increasingly, parties are encouraging their supporters to take advantage of advance polling. The Conservatives are generally acknowledged to be best at getting out their vote. Voter turnout is usually around 60 per cent although it was 68 per cent in the 2015 election, a tribute to Trudeau and the enthusiasm he generated. It likely made the difference in the Liberals securing a majority. Will there be the same enthusiasm for any leader this election?

The Issues 

The attention is usually focused on the economy, but there are regionally specific issues – like gun control in Toronto. Other concerns, such as the environment, can assume national importance as well.


Project, But Be Careful about Predicting

There will be lots of polling during the election campaign. Take it all with a grain of salt. Voters do shift. There are now many different polling firms, each using a different methodology; yet some media report them as if they are equal in terms of quality, when they are clearly not. So, when asked for a forecast, you can project based on current polling. But to predict or confidently forecast is always treacherous.

Pay particular attention to polls:

  • After Labour Day (the first Monday in September) for a sense of where the electorate is at. This is a good baseline of initial voter sentiment. Most will have paid no attention during the summer but this will give you a sense of where their leanings are going into the campaign.
  • After Thanksgiving (the second Monday in October) as families and friends will have gathered over the weekend and there will likely be some discussion of the election. This will give you a sense of how opinions are developing as the campaign heads into the final stretch. The most influential voices are families and friends – people you trust – and this set of polls will give you a sense of how voters are assessing the now lively campaign.
  • The weekend before the election: the last polls before the Monday election. Look for a trend – is one party moving ahead? Voters can still change their minds (and a significant minority do).

The national polls are interesting and may indicate a trend but they do not usually accurately reflect what is happening regionally. Canada is a country of regions: B.C.; the Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; Ontario; Quebec; the Atlantic Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador; and the North, consisting of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

There are national issues, but there are also important local and regional issues. There are also splits between rural and urban/suburban voters on a range of issues. Regions have their own breakdowns: the Toronto suburbs – also known as the 905 after their area code; Quebec-outside-Montreal (meaning Quebec usually divides between Montreal and the rest); and B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Canadians are also quite ready to vote one way provincially and then balance it by voting for a different party federally. The Trudeau Liberals will be using unpopular Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford as a surrogate for what an Andrew Scheer government would do if elected.

When Trudeau took office after the Liberals had spent a decade in the wilderness, most provincial governments were Liberal. Today, the provinces are mostly led by conservative-leaning governments. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is centre-right. The Liberals govern provincially in Nova Scotia and lead a minority government in Newfoundland and Labrador. The NDP, supported by the Greens, governs in our third largest province, B.C., and this has had nation-wide implications for energy and environmental policy discussions.

While provincial and federal parties may bear the same name, they are distinct and different entities. It would be wrong to assume close support and collaboration during elections, although this time the Tory premiers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick will either actively campaign or tacitly support their federal counterparts.

Only four times since Confederation (1867) has a government been defeated after one term: Joe Clark in 1980; R.B. Bennett in 1935 after five years of the Depression; the Union government in 1921 after the end of the First World War; and Alexander Mackenzie in 1878 by Sir John A. Macdonald.

Even more interesting, the only Liberal defeated after one term was Alexander Mackenzie, who won in 1873 thanks to the Pacific Scandal.1 In recent times, majority governments have gone to minorities in three instances: Diefenbaker in 1962, Pierre Trudeau in 1972 and Paul Martin (who succeeded Jean Chrétien) in 2004.


The 2019 Election

This election will be a nasty affair with the focus on the Justin Trudeau-led Liberals and the Andrew Scheer-led Conservatives. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh is struggling to stay alive, while May’s Greens want to achieve official party status (12 members in the House of Commons). Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party is not currently seen as viable.


The Liberals are trying to portray Mr. Scheer as the protégé of former prime minster Stephen Harper, who would govern like the unpopular Doug Ford in Ontario. The Liberals say ‘Stay the Course’ and continue to trust their management of the economy on behalf of the middle class. The Conservatives want to portray Mr. Trudeau as exotic and out of touch with mainstream Canadian values.


Positioning for the Monday, Oct. 21 election started early. Commercials during the Toronto Raptors’ National Basketball Association finals in June aired Conservative messages arguing that Trudeau is incompetent.  The Tories and their provincial allies condemn the Trudeau government’s carbon tax. Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have launched court challenges to have it repealed.  The federal court in Ontario ruled against Premier Ford in June saying the federal government’s carbon pricing scheme is constitutionally sound and is designed to combat climate change.

The Liberals believe they are strong on the environment and the economy while the Tories will put more emphasis on law and order, which includes increasing regulations on immigration. The NDP will run on extending social benefits, e.g., pharmacare, while the Greens will focus on climate change. The Liberals will push climate change very hard to try to drive Green and NDP backers of government action on climate change to the Liberals, in order to prevent a Conservative government.

In a country of regions, there will be regional issues – language and culture in Quebec; economic support in the Atlantic; pipelines in B.C.; resource policy in the Prairies. Climate may become an overriding national issue along with who is best able to lead Canada.


As a new prime minister in 2015, Trudeau promised “sunny ways”, and he started governing with broad support. His cabinet was half women (“it’s 2015”, as he told reporters) and it looked like the contemporary face of Canada in its diversity. He caught international attention. In Astana, Kazakhstan shortly after his election, a clerk said: “Canadian … ahh Trudeau … he looks like Canada!” You could not do better for international branding, and Trudeau made use of it. One thing he did not do was to become the anti-Trump, despite considerable pressure to do so from within his cabinet, caucus and from then-vice-president Joe Biden. Instead, he has managed the relationship with the U.S. president as well as possible, given Trump’s unpredictability and provocations, especially after the Charlevoix G7 summit.

Until earlier this year, polls indicated that Trudeau would easily win a second term. But the past six months have seen his popularity plummet from self-inflicted, internecine party squabbles that have cost him two cabinet ministers (damaging his feminist and Indigenous credentials), his principal secretary and alter ego, and the head of the public service.

However, Trudeau is a formidable campaigner. Some would argue that he has never stopped campaigning since his election. In the 2015 election, about 11 million votes were cast for centre-left parties and only about six million for those on the right. Turnout, particularly among young people, and the Liberals’ ability to scare the voters into thinking the Conservatives might win, are potentially key determinants of the outcome.


To get a sense of Trudeau’s 2015 vision, read first the throne speech and then the mandate letters that spell out in detail the deliverables for each minister. He has made climate, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, women’s empowerment and gender equality his signature issues at home and abroad.

Scheer has given a series of policy speeches outlining his vision on foreign policy, the economy, immigration and the environment.


A recent ABACUS survey assessed voters’ top issues as follows:

What_Diplomats_Need10.jpgTOP OF PAGE

Foreign Policy

On foreign policy, watch Trudeau’s Montreal speech (August 2019). While marred by partisan shots at the Conservatives, it is the most thorough self-examination of his foreign policy as prime minister. Unabashedly internationalist, he re-commits to multilateralism – UN, NATO, G7, G20 – but acknowledges that we operate in a “more unpredictable and unstable world, where some have chosen to step away from the mantle of global leadership, even as others challenge the institutions and principles that have shaped the international order.” He reaffirms the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with Canada: “To say that the U.S. is our closest ally is an understatement. Canada has long benefited from this relationship, and from American leadership in the world. We are friends and partners more than mere allies. We share more than just a border – we share culture, food, music, business. We share a rich history, and we share many of the same core values.”

Without explicitly identifying Trump, Trudeau places responsibility for the current conditions on Trump’s decision to embrace America First. Trudeau points out that “protectionism is on the rise, and trade has become weaponized. Authoritarian leaders have been emboldened, leading to new forms of oppression. Calls for democratic reform, from Moscow to Caracas, are being supressed. Crises that were once met with a firm international response are festering, becoming regional emergencies with global implications. And all of this is making it more difficult to solve the problems that demand urgent global action. Climate change is an existential threat to humanity, with science telling us we have just over a decade to find a solution for our planet. And technological change is happening at an unprecedented rate, transcending borders, re-shaping our societies, and leaving many people more anxious than ever.”

He makes the case for “free and fair trade” pointing to the renegotiated NAFTA, CPTPP and CETA. He argues for responsible reform of the WTO. He argues that in our “more unstable world, Canada must also be prepared to both defend ourselves and step up when called upon” and points to investment in defence and security, especially sea power and new fighter jets saying “we make the greatest contribution to global stability when we match what Canada does best to what the world needs most.” He recognizes the growing power of China, “but make no mistake: we will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests. We have a long history of dealing directly and successfully with larger partners. We do not escalate, but we also don’t back down.”

Acknowledging other challenges, he says: “White supremacy, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are an increasing scourge around the world and at home. Gender equality is backsliding. Human rights are increasingly under threat. This is the world we’re in. And so we cannot lose sight of our core values. That means being prepared to speak up, and knowing that sometimes, doing so comes at a cost. But when the courage of our convictions demands it, so be it.” Looking forward, he says: “Canada should place democracy, human rights, international law and environmental protection at the very heart of foreign policy … As some step back from global leadership, we should work with others to mobilize international efforts, particularly by ensuring the most vulnerable and marginalized have access to the health and education they need. Canadians have found strength in diversity and benefited from openness. Financial strain should never hold Canadians back from exploring the world or building positive connections abroad …”

Look also at Trudeau’s earlier Davos Speech on Canadian resourcefulness (January 2016) and his speech while he was still in opposition on North American relations (June 2015). Trudeau embraces multilateralism and a progressive agenda on trade and the environment. His signature themes are climate, feminism and gender equality, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. His UN General Assembly speeches were essentially one-plate affairs addressing migration (2016), then reconciliation (2017), with climate as a side dish for both. The Charlevoix G7 summit (2018) reflected his signature issues with specific focus on issues like plastics in the ocean. He embraced the Christchurch Call to Action (May 2019) to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Read also Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s elegant speech to the House of Commons in June 2017. Erudite in her defence of liberal internationalism, the rules-based system and robust collective security, Freeland pulled no punches. Describing the United States as the indispensable nation, she recognized that it was tired of carrying the burden. Canada and its allies had to step up to deter aggressors like Russia. The speech sparkled, but Canada has yet to deliver on defence and development promises. Freeland’s speech set the stage for the release the next day of the government’s new defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged and its feminist international assistance policy.

Despite the explicit commitment to multilateralism, Canada still falls short (1.23 per cent of GDP) of the NATO target of two per cent of GDP on defence spending. Our international development assistance of 0.26 per cent GDP remains well short of the 0.7 per cent endorsed by the G7.

Scheer’s un-costed foreign policy promises include new jets, new submarines, ballistic missile defence and a robust cyber-command. There will be work for all of our shipyards and more attention to the Arctic. He pledges that all-party involvement will take the politics out of procurement. He gave a Churchillian defence of democracies. He would establish closer relations with India and Japan, do a reset with China, stand up to terrorists and Russian aggression, do more for Arctic security, and move our Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Green Party policy on global affairs is thin, but would have consequences. It proposes to withdraw from NATO and turn our military into peacekeepers and relief workers. The NDP policies are similar to those of the Greens and, like their leadership, still in development.


Speech from the Throne 2015


Forming a Government and Governing

The leader of the government, prior to the dissolution of Parliament, has the right to try to form a new government. But if they cannot or they fail to win a confidence motion when they meet the new legislature, they must tender their resignation to the Governor General or, in the case of the provinces, the Lieutenant-Governor. The vice-regal representative almost always asks the party with the most seats to form government. In the event of a minority, the vice-regal representative will usually ask the party with the most seats to meet the House and present its Speech from the Throne outlining its plans and policy priorities. The vote on the Speech from the Throne is considered a vote of confidence. If it passes, the new government will then present a budget. Past minority governments have usually lasted 18 to 24 months, based on an understanding with the third party and on a vote-to-vote basis. Coalitions are not the norm in minority situations, as they are in Europe.

Once elected, the first job of the prime minister or provincial premier is to form a cabinet. Unlike the U.S. where cabinet ministers are not members of the legislature (and must resign if they join the administration), forming a cabinet is a Canadian balancing act of geography, gender, ethnicity and ideology. However, compared to elsewhere, the principal parties are not terribly riven by ideological splits.

Cabinet ministers are relatively independent as long as they follow their mandate letters and do not cross the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The PMO and the Privy Council Office (PCO) – the control system for the public service and government – have most of the power. Lobbyists in Canada know that it is the bureaucrats, especially the senior mandarins, who make the recommendations upon which most ministers will act. In comparison to the U.S. system where power resides in Congress, power in Canada is concentrated among the senior bureaucrats and cabinet ministers.

In recent years, there have been efforts to give more power to Parliament through, for example, the creation of the Parliamentary Budget Office to give independent assessments of financial issues, including spending.


Source House of Commons. There are 338 MPs but this reflects vacancies at end of session.

In the House of Commons, retiring private backbench member Bill Casey described our system this way:

I do not know if Canadians know this, but this place works. It really works well. We have a government, which could be one party or another, and we have opposition parties. The opposition parties have a job to do and the government has a job to do. Between them, they keep Canada between the rails of a highway, as I like to think of it. If the government goes too far to the left and hits the guardrail, the opposition brings it back. If it goes too far to the right and hits the guardrail, it will come back. This keeps Canada on the straight and narrow, and we never vary too much. We are very fortunate to have this system.

We are also really fortunate to have this system because, as a backbencher, I know that every single day the ministers are going to be here. I can walk across the floor and talk to them if I have an urgent issue from a constituent. I actually do this. The same thing goes for opposition members. I do not know of another system on the planet that has that availability of ministers to backbenchers and other members of Parliament. It is a good system and it works.


The Senate is going through an evolution as well as a change in venue (as is the House of Commons) while Centre Bloc is renovated. Mr. Trudeau divorced himself from this unelected body and has stuck to his promise to make appointments based not on party loyalty but on the stature of the individuals recommended by an independent commission. Prior to the 2015 election, then-prime minister Harper refused to make any new Senate appointments and was considering its abolition. This means that Trudeau has now appointed half of the current 105-member Senate. Though they now sit as independents, the new senators mostly support the Trudeau government. Critics suggest that the people appointed to the Senate are actually in many ways a lot like the Liberals – few farmers, fishermen or evangelical Christians. Most appointments tend to look like members of the Order of Canada – virtuous high-achievers – who just conveniently seem to think along the same lines as Liberals.

Is it working? The jury is still out. The unelected “virtuous” new senators do not always appreciate that, while they are the chamber of “sober second thought”, their second thoughts are not appreciated nor acted on by the elected House of Commons. Opposition Leader Scheer has said he would revert to the old system of making his own appointments.


Further Reading

On the election, look to CBC Canada Votes for a weekly breakdown of analysis and polling. All of the major media outlets will have ongoing coverage. Both the Hill Times and iPolitics will also have in-depth reporting.

On polling: Nik Nanos does a weekly running tracking poll. Abacus’s David Coletto and Bruce Anderson have regular surveys. Other pollsters of note include Darrell Bricker of IPSOS and Frank Graves of EKOS, as well as Mainstreet and Angus Reid and, for Quebec, Leger.

On contemporary politics:  Read National Post columnist John Ivison’s Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister as well as Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power by the CBC’s Aaron Wherry.

Nik Nanos looks at populism in his The Age of Voter Rage: Trump, Trudeau, Farage, Corbyn & Macron – The Tyranny of Small Numbers. Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote in The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future that Canadian politics, once dominated by the liberal Laurentian elite, is shifting to a conservative Western base. Their analysis is good, although not a convincing conclusion. Their new book, Empty Planet, argues that Canada will rise as global population declines.

The leaders also have autobiographical tomes: Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground, Jagmeet Singh’s Love and Courage: My Story of Family, Resilience, and Overcoming the Unexpected; and Elizabeth May’s Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada (she has also co-authored the very readable Global Warming for Dummies).

For a critical look at Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy by a Liberal insider, read Jocelyn Coulon’s Canada is Not Back: How Justin Trudeau is in Over His Head on Foreign Policy. For a counterpart, see Doug Saunders’ very good essay in the Globe and Mail on Trudeau’s foreign policy: Justin Trudeau vs. the World.  For a view of global issues, read Stephen Harper’s Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.

Terry Fallis has written a clever novel, The Best Laid Plans, on a Canadian election, that is informative and funny.


End Notes

1 Political scandal involving allegations that the prime minister of the time, Sir John A. Macdonald, and members of his government had accepted election funds from Sir Hugh Allan in exchange for the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The scandal led to Macdonald’s resignation in 1873. See https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pacific-scandal


About the Authors

Maureen Boyd is the founding Director of Carleton University’s Initiative for Parliamentary and Diplomatic Engagement and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. She provides outreach and policy orientation to parliamentarians and diplomats, including orientation for newly elected Members of Parliament and annually for newly arrived diplomats to Canada. She is chair of the Parliamentary Centre, a non-profit organization that has worked for the past half century in more than 70 countries supporting legislatures to better serve their citizens.


A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Vice-President and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and hosts its regular Global Exchange podcast.  He is an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.  Robertson sits on the advisory councils of  the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy,  North  American Research Partnership, the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa and the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.  He is an Honorary Captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate. During his foreign service career, he served as first head of the Advocacy Secretariat and minister at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, consul general in Los Angeles, consul and counsellor in Hong Kong and in New York at the UN and Consulate General. A member of the teams that negotiated the Canada-U.S. FTA and then NAFTA, he is a member of the Deputy Minister of International Trade’s NAFTA Advisory Council and the North American Forum.  He writes on foreign affairs for  the Globe and Mail and he is a frequent contributor to other media. The Hill Times has named him as one of those who influence Canadian foreign policy, most recently in their 2018 “top 40”.



Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

Carleton to host election primer for diplomats on Oct. 7

Maureen Boyd, right, pictured in 2018 with former Malaysian high commissioner to Canada Dato’ Aminahtun, left, will moderate a panel prepping diplomats for the Oct. 21 election. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Two weeks before election day on Oct. 21, Carleton University will be hosting a workshop to prepare diplomats Canada’s national vote.

The Oct. 7 event will include a presentation by Abacus Data pollster David Coletto, as well as a panel discussion with La Presse‘s Joël-Denis BellavanceThe Toronto Star‘s Heather Scoffield, and Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell, who was previously a parliamentary bureau chief at CBC and national editor of The Globe and Mail. The panel will be moderated by Maureen Boyd, director of Carleton University’s Initiative for Parliamentary and Diplomatic Engagement.

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute has published an election primer for diplomats written by Ms. Boyd and Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who was on the negotiation team during the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement talks in the late 1980s.

Ms. Boyd said in an email that she expects there to be about 100 ambassadors, high commissioners, and senior diplomats at the primer.

The event will start at 4:15 p.m., with opening remarks by Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon, which will be followed by the presentation and panel. A reception will take place at 5:30 p.m. Registration with the university is required to attend.

Pompeo Visit

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Trudeau and Pompeo urged to speak with one voice on China’s response to Hong Kong protest U.S. Secretary of State meets PM, Freeland today in Ottawa

As U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sits down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today, geopolitics watchers and at least one Hong Kong national are urging both leaders to speak with one voice in response to China’s actions regarding the democratic protest movement in Hong Kong.

“The global protests are top of mind for virtually every country in the world,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council think tank. “And with a real risk of major bloodshed right now, we don’t know what is going to happen, but at least one of the potential scenarios is that the Chinese army will suppress those protests.”

Today’s visit is Pompeo’s first to Canada since taking on his current role. Pompeo will meet with both Trudeau and his Canadian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

At a news briefing Wednesday, the U.S. State Department told reporters in Washington the leaders are expected to discuss a range of issues, including the ongoing strife in Venezuela, the ratification of the new North American trade agreement and the detention of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in China.

Rowswell said he expects Canada will continue to pressure the U.S. to urge China to release those detainees. But given Canada’s strong interest in keeping the situation in Hong Kong from getting any worse — 300,000 Canadian citizens live there — Rowswell said he also predicts Canada will encourage the U.S. to speak with it in “a single voice” on the situation in the former British colony.

The protests in Hong Kong have mainly been peaceful, although there have been some violent episodes. As the protests have dragged on, Chinese troops have assembled at a stadium in Shenzhen, the city that links Hong Kong to China’s mainland — raising fears of an armed intervention by Beijing.

Critics have highlighted U.S. President Donald Trump’s weak stance on the pro-democracy protests and Beijing’s potential show of force.

Freeland, along with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, has expressed support for the rights of Hong Kong’s citizens to peaceful assembly. Both also have called for dialogue among all stakeholders.

That prompted a backlash from the Chinese Embassy, which said in an online statement that Canada should “immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.”

“Under the current situation, the Canadian side should be cautious on its words and deeds regarding the Hong Kong related issue,” said the statement from an unnamed spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canada.

Cherie Wong, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Canada, said she’ll be watching the bilateral meeting closely.

“Both (in) Canada and the U.S. there are large amounts of Hong Kongers who are watching the news and hoping our government will use the power that it has to advocate,” Wong said. “Especially in these countries where freedom and democracy are core values.”

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson is also calling for a unified Canadian-American stance on Hong Kong ahead of the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France this weekend. Robertson said Canada, the U.S. and its allies should not be afraid of upsetting China.

“China takes umbrage in anything,” Robertson said. “Anything that we do that mentions China they are not going to like. But we have to let them know. If we don’t speak out, we are not true to our values.”

Hong Kong and the G7

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The joint statement on Hong Kong by the Canadian and European Union foreign ministers calling for restraint, engagement and preservation of fundamental freedoms is a start. As a next step, why not create an eminent persons’ group to keep tabs on Hong Kong and make regular, public reports to G7 leaders?

Their terms of reference would be to monitor adherence to the two international covenants that transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreed in 1984 by Deng Xiaoping guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy – “one country, two systems”– and basic liberties for 50 years. The Basic Law of 1990 defined the nuts and bolts of those liberties, including the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press.

Canada could appoint someone like Lloyd Axworthy, who has just done excellent service for Canada monitoring the Ukrainian elections, or former UN ambassador and justice minister Allan Rock, or former prime minister and foreign minister Joe Clark. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice would be excellent United States representatives.

As chair, why not the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten? Mr. Patten worked strenuously to advance liberty in Hong Kong despite opposition from Beijing, business interests in Hong Kong and in London. For them, as with some in the British Foreign Office, the relationship with China eclipsed any obligation to Hong Kong. Lord Patten knows the lay of the land.

What happens to Hong Kong matters to Canada.

Canadian links to Hong Kong date back to the founding of the colony. Where once Canadian Pacific ships sailed into its harbour, there are now daily flights into its splendid island airport. Nearly 2000 Canadians fought in defence of Hong Kong in 1941, with the graves of 283 buried at Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery.

We probably have the largest Hong Kong Chinese diaspora, many of whom migrated to Canada after Tiananmen Square. They bring entrepreneurship and strengthen our trade and investment ties throughout Asia. With at least 300,000 Canadians living and working in Hong Kong, ours is likely the largest expatriate group. Many people from Hong Kong are alumni of Canadian schools and colleges. Hong Kong is still the easiest place for a Canadian to enter the Asian market and its Canadian Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest outside of Canada.

Hong Kong is an international city and it draws its vitality from its internationalization. It is a member of the World Trade Organization and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In the next enlargement of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, Canada should encourage Hong Kong’s membership. Bringing Hong Kong (and Taiwan) into the World Health Organization would also make sense as it lies near the epicenter of flu-like pandemics emerging from China.

China opposes any outside efforts to support Hong Kong as foreign interference. They have already declared the Joint Declaration to be an “historical document” without practical significance. They claim that foreign agitation is behind the current demonstrations. But keeping the spotlight on what is happening is the best way to check rash Chinese intervention and to preserve liberty in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is the only example of a decolonization deliberately accompanied by less democracy and weaker protection of civil liberties. “This,” wrote Mr. Patten in his elegant memoir East and West, “was a cause for profound regret.”

What motivates the millions of Hong Kongers participating in the mostly peaceful demonstrations is their belief that they should be able to run their affairs, as they were promised. This includes choosing those who govern them in free and fair elections. It means not being extradited to China where the rule of law does not apply.

As the guardians of international covenants and the rules-based order, G7 leaders have a duty to Hong Kong. As the champions of democracy they have an obligation to tell Chinese leadership that we value not just economic liberties but political ones as well.

Ambassador David MacNaiughton’s legacy

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‘In-depth’ understanding of Congress, Capitol Hill outreach to be part of MacNaughton’s D.C. legacy, say experts

By Neil Moss      
David MacNaughton ‘made it a priority’ to understand who the key U.S. influencers were and which Canadian would be best to deliver the message, says former PMO Canada-U.S. war room staffer Diamond Isinger.
Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate played a key role in advocating that Donald Trump abandon steel and aluminum tariffs he had placed on Canada. The Hill Times file photograph

When David MacNaughton departs his post as Canada’s ambassador to the United States at the end of the month, he will be remembered for the important links he made with Congress, say trade experts and politicos.

In the midst of the precarious renegotiation of NAFTA with the volatile Trump administration, Canada shifted its eyes towards Capitol Hill, under encouragement from Mr. MacNaughton that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and his cabinet ought to engage with U.S. legislators directly.

“I do think that will be part of MacNaughton’s legacy,” said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat.

“While others appreciated it, he realized it was the only way we’re going to succeed in saving the NAFTA, we had to work around the administration,” said Mr. Robertson, who sits on the international trade deputy minister’s NAFTA advisory council.

David MacNaughton formed a ‘very positive’ relationship with his American counterpart, Kelly Craft, who had connections to key U.S. lawmakers. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Mr. MacNaughton took his post at the Canadian Embassy on Washington, D.C.’s iconic Pennsylvania Avenue—a stone’s throw away from Capitol Hill—in March 2016, during the closing days of the Obama administration, but the incoming Trump administration would complicate his job.

As Canada renegotiated NAFTA and implored the U.S. to remove tariffs on steel and aluminum, cabinet ministers, like Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), met with influential American lawmakers including Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate’s second highest-ranking official as president pro tempore, and Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer, chair of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee.

When Mr. Trudeau was in Washington in June meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the progress towards implementing the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), he also met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was scheduled to meet with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but the meeting was cancelled after Mr. McConnell was called to the White House to be briefed on rising tensions with Iran. He later talked to the Kentucky Senator on the phone. During the NAFTA renegotiations in 2017, Mr. Trudeau met with Mr. McConnell and then-Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Following the removal of tariffs, Ms. Freeland took to Twitter to note Mr. Grassley’s contribution in advocating for the removal of tariffs. In April, Mr. Grassley wrote an op-ed arguing that Mr. Trump had to end the tariffs or else the USMCA could not pass through Congress, which has the authority over implementing trade deals.

Mr. Robertson said a “signal change” was made by Mr. MacNaughton with increased Congressional outreach, where prior the majority of meetings Canadian cabinet members took in Washington would be with their administration counterparts.

“That is how the game is played in the United States and that gives us an advantage because we understand the system now,” he said, adding that he thinks it will continue after Mr. MacNaughton leaves.

Diamond Isinger, a former staffer in the PMO’s Canada-U.S. war room, said Mr. MacNaughton made it a priority to understand Americans.

“Ambassador MacNaughton really made it a priority to understand U.S. influencers, to try to identify who the best interlocutors or relationship holders in Canada would be for those individuals and make sure they were hearing Canadian messages,” she said, adding he had an “in-depth” understanding of Congress and the U.S. government, as well as the Canadian government, helping him to sync U.S. and Canadian priorities.

“MacNaughton spent a lot of time with a lot of members of Congress, with a lot of Senators,” Ms. Isinger said. He would meet personally with members of Congress, as well as set up meetings with between them and cabinet ministers.

Eric Miller, current president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group and a former senior policy adviser at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said before Mr. MacNaughton assumed his post, Congressional outreach would be performed by embassy staff and not the ambassador.

“It wasn’t just the guy responsible for Congressional relations going to see [Congressional] staff, you had MacNaughton building really close relationships with U.S. lawmakers and leadership in both Houses,” Mr. Miller said, who also sits on the international trade deputy minister’s advisory council.

Along with Mr. MacNaughton, the embassy still has a group of staffers working on Congressional outreach. As of early this year, The Hill Times understands that there were nine staffers in that group, which has grown over time as the government has recognized the importance of Congress. They track Congressional priorities and understand the dynamics of the current U.S. political climate. They also give strategic advice on how Canada can best deliver its message to members of Congress.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in June. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

Within government, credit for the outreach strategy is up for debate. One government official told The Hill Times in April that it was a “whole of government approach” that stretched from the PMO to Global Affairs to the embassy, which had “new significance” after the creation of the PMO’s Canada-U.S. war room in early 2017. The official said Global Affairs played a leading role in it “to some extent.”

But Mr. Miller said he thinks Congressional outreach is a part of Mr. MacNaughton’s legacy in D.C., though he said more impactful than that was the role Mr. MacNaughton played maintaining Canada’s relationship with its southern neighbour at a time of “incredible uncertainty.”

During the renegotiations, talks had broken down and personal attacks were lobbed by the White House at Mr. Trudeau.

Following a testy G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in 2018, Mr. Trump, angered by statements Mr. Trudeau made at his concluding press conference—saying Canadians will not be “pushed around” and that U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum were “kind of insulting”—called Mr. Trudeau “meek and mild” and “very dishonest and weak.” Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Mr. Trudeau “betrayed” Mr. Trump and “should have known better,” and his trade adviser Peter Navarro took to U.S. cable news to say there was a “special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out of the door.”

Along with USMCA negotiator Steve Verheul, Mr. MacNaughton is credited with being the most important figure in the successful renegotiation of NAFTA, according to another government official, operating behind the scenes instead of in public for all to see, and helping reduce heightened emotions.

In short order, he was able to understand the dynamic of the Trump White House and who held influence, the official remarked.

MacNaughton and Craft had ‘very positive’ relationship

Mr. Miller called the relationship between Mr. MacNaughton and now-former U.S. ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft “very positive,” which is “absolutely essential” to have between the two countries’ ambassadors.

The way in which Ms. Craft’s connections were leveraged will be the legacy of the MacNaughton-Craft partnership, said Sarah Goldfeder in an email, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former special assistant to two U.S. ambassador to Canada.

In a statement Aug. 9, Ms. Craft said Mr. McNaughton is “an admirable counterpart, a fierce negotiator, and above all, a cherished friend.”

Ms. Craft has been confirmed by the Senate to become the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Miller suggested that relationship was most important when dealing with Mr. McConnell, as Ms. Craft’s husband, coal baron Joe Craft, is a top donor to the Senator. Both Ms. Craft and Mr. McConnell are Kentucky natives.

“[Ms. Craft] no doubt reassured [Mr. McConnell] that MacNaughton was a straight shooter and some one you could work with,” Mr. Miller said, “who fought for the interests of his country, but ultimately was pragmatic and could make a deal.”

Mr. Robertson said he couldn’t think of another recent U.S. ambassador with such connections in both the administration and Congress.

“[Craft] played in a different league,” he said, taking issue with those who criticized her attendance record in Ottawa.

“What you want in an American ambassador is somebody to pick up the call and get through to the White House,” Mr. Robertson said. “Given the relationship we are in, it’s much more important that we have a [U.S.] ambassador [in Ottawa] that can get through to the key players and have their confidence.”

Sharpie Diplomacy

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Trudeau’s response to Trump’s Sharpie diplomacy ‘gave as good as it got’: US-Canada expert
By Abigail Bimman
Global National Ottawa Correspondent Global News

WATCH ABOVE: It’s being called “Sharpie diplomacy.” U.S. President Donald Trump has apparently sent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handwritten notes more than once. As Abigail Bimman explains, the Canadian embassy thought one message was a prank.In an act of non-traditional “Sharpie diplomacy”, U.S. president Donald Trump sent at least two handwritten notes to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in 2017, according to Axios.

A Canadian government official tells Global News the reports in Axios are “not inaccurate.”

The president ripped off the cover of a May 2017 Bloomberg Businessweek featuring Trudeau that asked whether he was “the Anti-Trump,” according to Axios. Trump took a silver Sharpie to it and wrote something like “Looking good! Hope it’s not true!” and mailed it to the Canadian embassy in Washington.

Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton apparently thought it was a prank at first — but was told by the White House it was indeed a message from the president.

WATCH: David MacNaughton talks ‘mixed emotions’ leaving U.S. ambassador role

In December of that year, when relations had become more tense over the negotiation of the new NAFTA trade deal, Axios reports Trump sent Trudeau a document showing the U.S. had a trade deficit with Canada, and writing something on the document like “not good” — again with a Sharpie.

Trump’s numbers only included the United States’ deficit in goods trade, and ignored the surplus in services, which, overall, created a surplus for the U.S. This was outlined by the United States’ own numbers, from the United States Trade Representative. Around the same time, Trump told a rally in Florida the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. Trudeau wrote back, telling Trump his numbers were off.

Trudeau included one of the USTR’s documents that backed him up, circled a number showing a surplus, and drew a smiley face beside it.

One Canadian government official speaking on background tells Global News there wasn’t a second Sharpie volley from Trump as reported by Axios, but confirms the prime minister did send a note in response to the rally, adding it was handwritten on card stock with official letterhead. That source says the Bloomberg cover note was seen as classic Trump in written form, and says, if anything, the Canadian government saw it as amusing.

A second government source said the overall reports in Axios “are not inaccurate.” A third, meanwhile, also speaking on background, sent Global News the same statement that ran in the Axios story.

“We’re not going to comment on whether or what paper was exchanged between our two countries. There was a lot of back and forth. That said, it is certainly true that there were disagreements between our two countries about the figures, and we repeatedly pointed to USTR and US Commerce’s own figures. On the Bloomberg cover, no comment, but we don’t deny it.”

WATCH: Trudeau says U.S. already enjoys massive trade surplus with Canada on steel

The White House did not respond to a Global News request for comment.

“Presidents do from time to time go off script — Obama and his famous trip through the Ottawa market to buy cookies — all of these things are things that throw us off,” U.S.-Canada expert Laura Dawson told Global News. The head of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute says writing a handwritten note on its own is not reinventing the wheel — former US President Bill Clinton, for example, was known for his handwritten letters.

“They also reflect the fact that the president is a human being. Not highly scripted, not highly predictable and in the case of this president, extremely unpredictable. And I think Canada’s probably getting it about right in terms of how to respond,” Dawson said.

“I think what they decided to do was probably best of both worlds. It was more formal than a Sharpie marker response, but it was still friendly, it still had an emoji, and most importantly it gave as good as it got. So it stayed friendly in tone, but it did remind the president that hey, the U.S. has a trade surplus with Canada.”

Former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson, tells Global News he had previously heard of Trump communicating in an “unconventional fashion,” and says it underlines the fact that Canada, and the rest of the world, has had to adjust to this president.

But in the face of “huge challenge,” Robertson says he thinks the Trudeau government has done well with the U.S. relationship overall, referencing NAFTA negotiations and threats to cars, steel, aluminum and uranium.

“I think Trudeau and his team worked very hard to create relationships with those around Trump and to go around Trump through his base by using our networks of consuls-general, working with premiers, provincial legislators and, in D.C., having minsters and MPs work their congressional counterparts.

“I think that is a permanent change in how we do business and I credit David MacNaughton with quietly steering this effort as our quarterback in the field.”

Canadian Ambassador MacNaughton, meanwhile, just announced he is resigning at the end of August.

While Trump was critical of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in public during NAFTA negotiations, Axios reports his comments went much further behind closed doors.

In September 2018, Trump told a news conference, “We’re very unhappy with the negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”

But Axios reports Trump called Freeland a “nasty woman” in private.

When asked about this, Freeland’s spokesperson sent Global News a statement that didn’t directly address the allegation.

“It is our duty as a government to stand up for the national interest and for our values. What matters is the results we achieve for Canadians,” wrote Adam Austen.

“In the NAFTA negotiations, we resisted onerous U.S. demands and succeeded in getting a good new deal, which retains privileged access for Canadians to the US market.”

Austen points out that Canada was successful in having the US tariffs on steel and aluminum lifted, “while these tariffs remain in place for most other countries.”

— With files from Mike Le Couteur