Lobby Congress as well as Obama

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The Calgary Herald (Canada), January 31, 2009
by Mike Blanchfield

Some say it’s misguided for Canada to be focusing on Obama when it should be concentrating on Congress.”Even though Obama is still in that honeymoon phase and at the peak of his power, this is not one he can fix,’ said Colin Robertson, a Canada-U. S. trade expert at Carleton University.

“It underlines the requirement for us to be constantly lobbying Congress — the source of the problem,’ said Robertson, a former senior diplomat in Washington. ‘It’s another lesson in the difference between our systems, and a reminder of checks and balances and the separation of powers in the U. S. A.’

Robertson said the incident shows how Canada needs to mount a ‘permanent campaign’ at Congress that goes far beyond the offices of the prime minister and the president.

President Listener

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From Maclean’s President Listener by Luiza Ch. Savage on Friday, January 23, 2009 3:30pm – 2 Comments

Colin Robertson, who used to be an advocate for the Canadian embassy  on Capitol Hill, has written a report about Canada’s prospects for dealing with the new administration. He includes this personal impression of dealing with Obama when he was still senator:.

“After making several hundred calls on Capitol Hill, I divided politicians into two camps: talkers and listeners. I reckon that 80% are talkers. Obama was a listener. I would pitch him on an issue – beef, lumber, or Devil’s Lake. He would listen politely, thank me and I would depart. I thought him ‘fit, elegant, comfortable in his skin.’ I also wrote that he appeared ‘deliberative, disciplined, and determined.’ In the months and years ahead, he will need all of those qualities.”

Comments Kelly Johnston: Colin, whom I respect greatly, should also know that many “listeners” on the Hill discriminate among those whose advice they heed and those who they ignore. I commend him for being able to get an audience — the fact that a Canadian representative was able to do so bodes well.

Setting the Stage for the Obama Administration

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Excerpted from CDFAI policy update January 2009

The Anglo-American chronicler of America and American life, Alistair Cooke, observed that a presidential performance is a trilogy of plays. The first play is the election campaign. Cooke called it ‘Promises, Promises.’ Long and exhausting, the candidate criss-crosses the country, telling each and every group, what they wanted or expected to hear.
The second play begins on election night and lasts until the inauguration. Cooke called it ‘The Honeymoon,’ that time in the life of the president-elect when, while he is powerless, he is very popular. Not a day goes by without another flattering profile of him, his family and the team that he is assembling about him. A new president always suggests the prospect of change and movement, the rebirth of the American promise, and into him Americans invest their hopes and aspirations for the future. Three out of four Americans, including a majority of Republicans, approve of how Obama has handled the transition.
This happy state of affairs will reach a crescendo shortly before noon on Tuesday, January 20th, on the West Front of the Capitol Building – “democracy’s front porch,” as President George H.W. Bush called it. With one hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his 1861 inaugural, Barack Hussein Obama will raise his right hand before Chief Justice John Roberts, and take the oath of office making him the 44th president of the United States.
Obama’s inaugural address is expected to be relatively short, about fifteen minutes. His speechwriter says it will reflect “this moment that we’re in, and the idea that America was founded on certain ideals that we need to take back.” Expect references to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose January 19th birthdate is now celebrated with a national holiday, and to Abraham Lincoln, whom Obama venerates. This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. After the afternoon parade and evening balls, the new Administration will get down to work and the third and longest play in Cooke’s presidential cycle, ‘Facts of Life,’ begins in earnest…

The curtain on what Alistair Cooke called the third play in the life of a president, the ‘Facts of Life,’ is about to be raised. Americans invest in their new president their hopes and their aspirations. In Obama the circumstances are magnified because of his compelling, extraordinary life story, the drama of the presidential campaign, the unpopularity of his predecessor and the circumstances under which he will take the oath of office – the economic crisis and the wars. Americans, and many others around the world, look to him for leadership
Obama is about to bring ‘yes we can’ into rooms accustomed to saying ‘no we can’t’.Presidents- elect, warned presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, “are almost bound to overestimate the power that will soon be theirs.” Government and the regulatory power of the state will expand. Yet to be determined is whether these institutions will be up to the job. Obama has set forth a big, daunting agenda and is moving forward on many fronts. Expectations are high. So is the risk of overload. These are the ‘facts of life’ that will feed into the reviews, especially after the first hundred days.
In the confirmation hearings, the Obama team is already getting a taste of the inevitable bumps in the road. Every bump will wear some of the shine off the mantle of the extraordinary expectations invested in them. Before the bubble of expectation begins to deflate, President Obama must give not just voice to, but the appearance of, movement and change at home. Even then ‘success’ will be incomplete and tinged, at least to the purists, by compromise. To effect the changes that he promises, Obama will need all the tools off his presidency: his team,
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his bully pulpit, and the extraordinary network that he developed during the campaign. Success will depend on his relationship with the Congress.
Intervening in his domestic agenda will be the unexpected international ‘events’, that phone call at 3 AM in the morning that, in one of history’s ironies, will now be answered by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Americans and the international community will confirm or revise their assessments of the new president on how he handles them. Such is the burden of primacy borne by every American president.
My own encounters with the new president were brief: shortly before he gave his epic speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and then, on a couple of occasions, outside the Senate office buildings, where he could smoke (a habit he is apparently still trying to shake). After making several hundred calls on Capitol Hill, I divided politicians into two camps: talkers and listeners. I reckon that 80% are talkers. Obama was a listener. I would pitch him on an issue – beef, lumber, or Devil’s Lake. He would listen politely, thank me and I would depart. I thought him ‘fit, elegant, comfortable in his skin.’ I also wrote that he appeared ‘deliberative, disciplined, and determined.’ In the months and years ahead, he will need all of those qualities.

Dealing with Obama or McCain: think big and keep it simple

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Excerpted from Policy Options Dealing with Obama or McCain: think big and keep it simple October 2008

1. Think Big: Understand the American agenda and the ‘burden of primacy’. American leadership likes to talk ‘big picture’ geo-politics and, when we apply ourselves, we have both capacity and capability to bring to the table.

2. Play Smart: Playing smart means bringing the intelligence of our own global networks and the uniquely Canadian advantages created by migration (Asians making up half of our new immigrants) and commerce to the table. Sure we’ve got issues – usually inspired by sectional interests who’ve found the ear of Congress. But to demand the administration fix it betrays an ignorance of the American constitution and the relative power and responsibility of the legislative and executive branch. The temptation to put “the condominium” issues at the top of the Canadian agenda may satisfy the immediate appetites of the media entourage and certain domestic constituencies but the effect of the laundry list on the Administration is to make them wonder about our interest in the Big Picture and, by consequence, our capacity to play in the Big League. A more effective approach is to offer constructive advice and solution-minded initiatives on those issues at the top of the American agenda and then to get to the “small ball” stuff. At the same time, the better approach to the condominium issues is to continue to improve our advocacy effort at the state level and with Congress, while seeking the advice and enlisting the support of the Administration.

3.  Keep it Simple: Go first for that which is easy to achieve and that will visibly show a change for the better. Faster passage at border points, for example. Change always exacerbates public anxiety especially around health and safety standards and perceptions of sovereignty. Like a hockey game you need rules and penalties but administered with a light touch. Canadians, like the rest of the world, should be mindful that the US occasionally will exercise their right to the trap door. One approach does not fit every situation. History tells us that most enduring and successful arrangements are bi-national –  NORAD is a good example, then bilateral, like the International Joint Commission.

4.  Remember former  Secretary Jim Baker’s advice – “prepare, prepare, prepare” : This has particular relevance to Canadians when negotiating with Americans. The United States usually doesn’t pay attention until the third period when they put their A-team on the field and change their play-book. That’s when preparation pays off. We should plan for NAFTA being brought to the table with the next administration. With the challenge comes the opportunity for discussion of the energy security of Canadian oil sands development and increased supply and the related issues of continental carbon management and labour mobility.

5.  Success is more likely when we take a “Team Canada Inc” approach recognizing that our relationship with the United States is neither classically international nor domestic  but falls somewhere in between – “intermestic” for want of a better word.  The strength lies in what I call our  hidden wiring, that network of connections below the headlines – governors and premiers, mayors, legislators, business and labor associations, sports teams and the web of family. Mindful of the regional nature of North America, I argue for a series of annual ‘State of the Relationship’ conferences in partnership with business and labour.

6.  To paraphrase James Carville, “its security stupid”: When America is at war and fearful of things that go bang at 3 AM, we need to remind Americans that ‘We have their back’. In comparative terms, we pay relatively little rent to defend ourselves in North America thanks to NATO and NORAD and NORTHCOM. We have to take every occasion to point out explicitly the ongoing investments that we are making to secure our perimeter and especially, in the North where the Pentagon has geo-political considerations. This is a currency that Americans understand. Arguably, the interoperability with American forces that characterizes our air and naval cooperation should be applied to our land forces as well, as we are doing in Afghanistan and through relief missions as in East Timor. There is also a practical dimension. The Pentagon is also the source of significant contracting opportunities and Canada has long been the single largest foreign source of these contracts.

What Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex of the United States includes players like the National Security Council, Congress, the Pentagon as well as the defence industries.  In the  “long, twilight” war on terror campaign, the Pentagon trumps the State Department. And it has considerable weight in Congress – largest committee membership in both House and Senate. And we should never forget that almost a quarter of those in Congress have experience in uniform. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because traditional diplomacy requires the State Department to be the primary interlocutor on foreign policy and relations with the administration it is, therefore, the principal player in the determination of American national security policy. They fail to understand that making national security policy is a bit like playing Star Trek chess – it occurs at various tables on different levels.

7.  Being There: In the smorgasbord of American politics, you can always identify like-minded groups or individuals and develop allies, regardless of party. On almost any issue there will be more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians. But you have to be there. I recommend that we expand our presence to include every state of the union. Start by hiring expatriates working out of their homes with the mandate to market and promote Canada and, by targeting legislators, to create a strong positive image of Canada as friend, ally and partner. It’s diplomacy but done differently – using the Internet and telephone drawing on local chambers of commerce

In the American system, local and state governments play a critical role in the progress of legislators. Unlike Canadians, Americans seem to expect their leadership to do their apprenticeship at the local/state level. Four of the last six presidents were governors, and Senator MCain chose the governor of a Northern Exposure state, Sarah Palin of Alaska, as his running mate. Ten former governors now sit in the Senate. McCain served in Congress before his election to the Senate and Obama served in the state legislature in Illinois.

  1. Bring ‘em up here: Inviting American legislators to visit Canada should be an ongoing project. And, as members of Congress often remarked when I was on the Hill, make time for building camaraderie on the golf course, or for what Americans particularly enjoy in Canada –  fishing and hunting.

9.  Enhance the “Canadian Brand” in the United States: For a model, look to the “Upper North Side” campaign waged in New York City. A ‘Think Big’ strategy is needed.

10.  Political will: It starts at the top. Relationships matter but, as former Secretary of State George Shultz would remind us, they are like gardens. They need constant cultivation. The asymmetry of the relationship means that prime ministers must prod presidents to achieve action and results. And initiative involves risk and challenge.  In Parliament, there are those in each party whose natural instinct is to oppose anything involving the United States. Parts of the cultural literati sound the alarm whenever they feel our sovereignty is at risk. The Afghan campaign, for example, is often interpreted by the Canadian left through the prism of Iraq; yet in the U.S. the Democrats, beginning with Barack Obama, understand the difference between the two theatres.

The American Revolution, or War of Independence (perspective is everything), created two nations. For too long, selective interpretations of Canadian-American relations have portrayed Canada as unequal or subjugated. This mindset has held us back from engaging the Americans as partners and mutual beneficiaries in the bounty of our shared geography.

It took nearly three quarters of a century for us to exorcise the ghosts of Laurier’s 1911 defeat on free trade. Brian Mulroney’s courage and boldness rewarded Canada with prosperity and security. Now we need to slay the insecurities around our identity by defining ourselves, not by what we are not, but by what we are and what we have achieved. There is much to celebrate: a pluralism where diversity can flourish; accommodation, through innovation in transportation and communication, to a vast land and harsh climate; a flourishing cultural literacy and a sense of humour; and a record of standing up to be counted whether the threat come from fascism, communism or terrorism, tempered by a commitment to diplomacy and building institutions that make for a better world.

‘Place, standing and perspective,’ coupled with Canadian sensitivity and sensibility, mean that when we’re on game, we have the privilege, observed John Holmes, that most astute practitioner and observer of Canadian foreign policy – “to tell our best friends when their breath is bad”. Geographic propinquity gives us ‘place,’ especially given the American preoccupation with national security. The diversity of our population and especially the networks that we gain through immigration gives us ‘standing’  and an ability to ‘Think Big’ on the major developments of our time, like the rise of China and India and climate change. Our global diplomatic service also gives us a different perspective, especially on places like Cuba and the quiet work we are doing on governance. Played effectively, our global relationships have immense value. And our relationship with the United States gives us a unique influence as interpreter of America to the world and to America on the world.

The true white north: reflections on being Canadian

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Excerpted from Policy Options The true white north: reflections on being Canadian February 2008

What is it to “be Canadian”?

More than any other nationality, the question of who we are and what defines our identity has preoccupied Canadians since Confederation. It has created a cottage industry in the groves of academe, in the theatre of politics and media, and has been a perennial source of inspiration and income for Canadian book publishers.

If our national sport is hockey than our national preoccupation is our identity. The American experience relies on shared history (Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”), common ancestry (“consanguinity”’), and pride in being American. In America, the civic tradition was to depoliticize the past in order to assuage, with success, the wounds of Revolution and the scars of Civil War. Resolution of the struggle over Civil Rights remains an act in progress. With pride, Americans put their hand on their heart and recite the pledge of allegiance.

The Canadian experience, like the Canadian identity, is less straightforward. There has always been more division and ambiguity about “shared” history and less exuberance to our nationalism. It was not as if our ‘founding nations’ set out to create Canada. The Loyalists fought for a united British America while the French had spent much of the previous hundred and fifty years fighting for the opposite. The confederation of British North America was as much an unintended consequence of the Civil War and the recognition that ‘manifest destiny’ could well result if Reconstructionists decided to send their battle-seasoned veterans across the 49th parallel.

The emphasis on diversity means we celebrate multiple memories rather than a monolithic collective memory. And thus the eternal question about identity.  The irony is that the rest of the world knows who we are and what we stand for. The problem is not with the brand abroad but the brand at home.

An instructive way to explore the notion of the “Canadian identity” is through through our history and the people, places, and events that shape us and it is this exercise that is perhaps the most Canadian of all….

The Un-America

Canada exists because Sir John A. Macdonald was resolutely anti-American argues Richard Gwyn in his excellent new biography of the “man who made us”. Macdonald, who viewed America as both ‘godless’ and ‘radically progressive’ was determined, says Gwyn, that Canada would remain the ‘un America’ and this conviction would manifest itself in the construction of the coast-to-coast railway and the formulation of the National Policy….

Our ‘Frenchness’

For Michaëlle Jean, speaking at the Supreme Court in the ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Canadian citizenship in April, our “Frenchness” is integral to our being Canadian and certainly the place, or lack thereof, of Quebec in Confederation, has been a constant theme in our identity crisis. For now it’s a nation within a nation, a subject on which Pierre Trudeau would surely have had something to say.

Too often forgotten is that our “Frenchness” is pan-Canadian and not, as the separatists would prefer, the exclusive preserve of “pur laine” in Québec….

The Immigrant Experience

We remain a country ‘under construction’ and successive waves of newcomers continue the building process. Our open door (relatively speaking) approach to immigration means that one in five Canadians was born outside of Canada. Successive waves reinforce Canadian pluralism. After French and English, Arabic is now the most common language in Ottawa-Gatineau. ‘Little Mosque on the Prairies’ can  move to the Capital; within a decade Ottawa will have 8 major mosques.

This past summer I revisited Pier 21, one of the seven wonders of Canada and the creation of the incomparable Ruth Goldbloom. Every Canadian should visit Pier 21 and reflect on our ‘immigrant experience’. Peter C. Newman is one of those who came through Pier 21. Written on the wall at Pier 21 is his observation that, “this country was put together not only by bloodlines, kin and tradition, but by tides of newcomers of every stock, creed and persuasion.”

Canada, writes historian Des Morton, is peopled by adventurers and “history’s losers”–those who found themselves on the wrong side of conflict and power structures. The adventurers came in search of the riches of the Indies. The ‘losers’ came in search of sanctuary. Both sought opportunity and settled for fishing, trapping and logging. If they were lucky and made money, they could then leave the land that Voltaire described as “quelques arpents de neige”. Independent thinkers and iconoclasts…

My Scots and Irish ancestors migrated to Canada at this time. They fit into Des Morton’s paradigm. One great-grandfather was a ‘remittance man’, who’d been obliged to change his name. Shortly after arrival, he bunked off leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. I keep this story in mind whenever I hear the call to keep out ‘undesirables’ and their families.

What else gives us our ‘Canadianness’?

1. Our Sense of North and our Sense of Nature

Pierre Berton, no stranger to the North, captured the sentiment of our northern identity when he described a Canadian as “someone who could make love in a canoe”.

What captures much of our country powerfully is the single word “vast”. With so much of our space unoccupied–wild and free–the rest of the world is envious.

The North is our equivalent of the American “frontier”, and it continues to hold our imagination because of climate and the wild outdoors.  The struggle with climate, geography and our northern destiny has a new resonance with the promise of oil, gas, and diamonds, the threat of global warming, and the geopolitical politics in the Arctic related to the north-west passage.

2.  Our sense of ‘Good Government’

Confronted by a cold climate and a vast geography with our population mostly huddled within a few hundred miles of the American border, we both accept and expect government to play a lead role in creating national institutions to achieved the national dream

  • In transportation this meant investment (and scandal) in canals, railroads, road and airlines.
  • In communications this meant the CBC and CRTC.
  • Our red-serged RCMP, with a populist recognition from “Rose Marie” to “Due South” and now “Corner Gas”.
  • And Medicare, fathered by the person voted our “greatest” Canadian, Tommy Douglas.

Finding what Arthur Schlesinger has described as the ‘vital center’ has been the path to success in Canadian politics. The accomodation between Upper and Lower Canada–the compromises of Baldwin and Lafontaine, and later Macdonald and Cartier–extended beyond language to law, religion and education. From the beginning it was the only practical way to keep French Canada and English Canada together; thus bilingualism, a civil and Napoleonic code. We don’t always get it right, but we carry on, improvising until we find a way or become comfortable with the status quo.

Marshall McLuhen concluded that Canadians are masters of what Bertrand Russell called the twentieth century’s highest achievement: “the technique of suspended judgement”.

This probably explains why, when Peter Gzowski ran a competition a few years ago to determine the Canadian equivalent of “as American as apple pie” the winning entry was “as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances”. As Frank Scott observed of our prime minister with the longest tenure, Mackenzie King never did by “halves what he could do by quarters” and his governing philosophy was “It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in Government.”

The practise of ‘good governance’ has become a Canadian hobby with an acknowledged expertise that we now freely share through organizations like the Canadian-inspired Forum of Federations.

4.  Our Sense of Improvisation and our Sense of Humour

We may not be so forcefully “can-do” as the Americans but we are surprisingly inventive, and because we don’t have the resources and money we improvise, innovate and make things work with what we have on hand–be it zippers or pacemakers, the skidoo or the Blackberry.

As Gilles Vigneault impishly sings: “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”. To survive in this intemperate climate, manage our remarkable pluralism, and get along with the “Colossus” next door, we’ve had to develop a sense of humour that is gentle, self-deprecating, and subtle. Compare Rick Mercer, This Hour has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Têtes à Claque to Jay Leno, Letterman, or the new American favourites, Colbert and Stewart.

Humour is a Canadian constant, from Stephen Leacock to Lorne Michaels. And it travels well.  America’s favourite comedians are Canadians like John Candy, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Myers and Jim Carrey.

5. Our Sense of ‘Internationalism’

While it would be uncharacteristic for Canadians to admit it, we are quietly proud of being Canadian, especially when it comes to our “internationalism”. Pearson and the Nobel Peace Prize remain a core part of Canadian iconography. We were not just present, but active participants in the creation of the UN and NATO and host of other multilateral organizations including the Commonwealth and Francophonie. And with effect. The Colombo Plan was as important for post-war education in Asia as the Marshall Plan was for the reconstruction of Europe. Public opinion surveys consistently tell us that whatever our differences at home, what we do and have done beyond our borders as peacekeepers, peacemakers and multilateralists –  gives us pride and a common cause.

Pierre Berton, our greatest popular historian, argues that the battle of Vimy Ridge in April, 1917 marked Canada’s coming of age as a nation. School teachers tell me that the only common historical events studied across Canada—curriculum differs by province–are the First and Second World Wars.

We wear a poppy during the first weeks of November and most of us can recite a few lines from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Like so many other families, ours heeded the call to colours in 1914 and 1939. This past summer at Menin and Vimy Ridge my brother and I traced out the names of our great uncles, Harry and Neil, the sons of my remittance man grandfather. I keep on my desk giant bronze ‘pennies’ with the inscription “He died for Freedom and Honour”. They are two of the 100,000 who gave their lives for their country and now lie in far away fields that are forever Canadian.

Intermesticity and Canada-US Relations

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Excerpted from Canada Amongst Nations 2007 “ CDA_USA 2.0 and the application of intermesticity, hidden wiring and public diplomacy”

In January 2009, there will be a new administration in the White House and a new opportunity for Canada’s leadership to be ready with an agenda that reflects a well-considered Canadian strategy towards the United States. The 2008 presidential election is about change rather than continuity and national security (defined as the war on terror, if you are Republican, or Iraq, if you are a Democrat) means that foreign policy is getting significant attention. Candidates for both parties are voicing their support for the importance of friends and allies and this presents an opportunity. The time is right to comprehensively assess the American relationship and take it to a new level of sophistication – to CDA_USA  2.0 , in the lingo of our times. Some of this effort will necessarily involve Mexico and trilateralism, but because this is about the pursuit of Canadian interests in the United States the focus will be mostly bilateral.

January, 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. The FTA, and its successor, the NAFTA, have served Canadians well by creating a trade-led prosperity that has given a trading nation the confidence to become a nation of traders. But the changes wrought by 9-11 and the new emphasis on ‘security’ have halted the slow but steady gains of post-FTA and NAFTA incrementalism.

Ours is an ‘intermestic’ relationship. In the American context diplomacy, like politics, must be ‘local’ to succeed. We already do diplomacy differently in the United States with continued innovation in our approach to Congress and with the states. An American strategy will oblige coordinated plans for both the ‘home’ and ‘away’ games.  It will oblige recognition of the value of the ‘hidden wiring’ of relationships–especially those at the province-state level.

Creating and implementing a strategy that takes the relationship to the next level – 2.0 will be a challenge but we have many advantages, including the fact that Americans like Canadians. Too often, we fail to turn this to our advantage. We also forget that on almost any issue there will be more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians.

The real challenge to progress lies at home. The latent anti-Americanism that Jack Granatstein defines as our secular religion presents a political challenge that will require political will and national leadership [i] Anti-Americanism ultimately holds us back and contributes to what Andrew Cohen calls the ‘Unfinished Canadian’.[ii]

The ‘burden of primacy’ that America carries in global affairs means that the initiative for improving the Canada-US relationship has to come from the Canadian side. Setting out an agenda for change that takes us beyond the FTA and NAFTA will require collaborative political leadership between levels of government in Canada, and an ‘intermestic’ campaign waged with equal vigour on both sides of the border to remind Canadians why America matters to us, and to remind Americans why we matter to them. ‘Intermestic’ is the right term because our geographic propinquity and economic interdependence has created a relationship that defies the traditional. The arrangements we have developed to manage our co-tenancy of the upper half of North America, defy the classificiations of domestic or international. It is a partnership where the ‘hidden wiring’ of state-province and associated relationships play an increasingly important role.

We begin the process by deciding what it is we want from the United States, while “branding” Canada as a reliable ally and vital partner – demonstrating visibly the American jobs we sustain with our markets and the energy we supply to them to heat their homes and fuel their industry.

One on One with Peter Mansbridge: On Leaving Washington

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“What is the state of Canada’s relationship with our southern neighbour, and what do American politicians know about Canada? You might be surprised.

This week’s guest isn’t. He spent the last few years as one of this country’s top diplomats in the United States trying to improve Canada’s image there. What did he do, and how did he do it? Join us this week with our guest, Colin Robertson”

One on One with Peter Mansbridge On Leaving Washington May 12, 2007 (links open in a new window)

Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers

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From Macleans.ca Work with us Canada needs to groom the new crop of U.S. lawmakers LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | Nov 20, 2006

The Democrats’ hard-fought conquest of the U.S. House of Representatives offers Canada a mixed bag of potential blessings and threats on issues ranging from managing the land border to agricultural trade. But in practice, the likelihood of gridlock between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate(as Maclean’s went to press on election night, the Senate race was too close to call)and White House means the importance of Capitol Hill will be eclipsed by new faces elsewhere: in statehouses and several key governors’ mansions. Whether the newcomers will turn out to be friends will depend largely on whether Canada does the work of making them so.

In the House, the Democratic takeover brings a new batch of leaders with new personalities and priorities. For example, the House agriculture committee will have a new chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, which increases the possibility of Canada getting side-swiped by protectionist moves as the Democrats work on a new, far-reaching agricultural bill. The farm-raised Peterson has a record of voting against free trade agreements, and he could be susceptible to complaints about the Canadian Wheat Board, or government support for the pork, poultry or milk sectors, says Colin Robertson, who until recently was the head of the advocacy secretariat at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. “We will face the possibility of becoming either collateral damage or the target of a direct effort against us,” says Robertson, now the president of the Historica Foundation, which promotes Canadian history education.

Because many of those industries are based in Quebec, a dispute could put particular pressure on the Harper government, which needs to maintain its support in that province. Peterson will be one for Canadian diplomats to get to know — and they have a topic to break the ice: in 1998, he proposed a constitutional amendment to allow residents of Minnesota’s so-called northwest angle to vote on seceding from the U.S. and joining Manitoba.

The top-of-mind issue for Canadian diplomats will continue to be the border, in particular ensuring smooth implementation of a new requirement that everyone entering the U.S., including returning Americans, have valid passports. The rule takes effect on Jan. 8 for air travellers; for land and sea travel, it’s been postponed to June 2009. Fewer than 24 per cent of Americans hold passports, and Canada’s tourism industry is terrified that families won’t shell out hundreds of dollars for new documents. Businesses are worried about expensive delays at border crossings if proper procedures and infrastructure aren’t put in place with adequate staffing. As a result, Canadian diplomats will soon be fanning out across the Hill to make their case. “We will be making a special effort to get to know the new members of Congress and get them educated quickly about how much Canada matters to them and the importance of the border to prosperity in both countries,” says Canadian Embassy spokesman Bernard Etzinger.

The real potential for action will be outside the Beltway. “Far more important for Canada than congressional elections are elections in the states: Canada relies a lot on governors to advocate on shared concerns and on the border,” says Sands.

The resolution of the dispute over Devils Lake was largely due to a good relationship between Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who voiced concerns about North Dakota’s plan to discharge polluted waters into the Red River, says Robertson. “These governor relationships really matter because the states matter — that is increasingly where the problems come from. And if the governor is our friend, then we are closer to solving them.”

In Michigan, the Vancouver-born Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, managed to keep her seat. Her administration has been a leading proponent of improving the security of American drivers’ licences so they could be used as border-crossing ID. In Massachusetts, where Democrat Patrick Deval replaced Republican Mitt Romney, the change of governorship could breathe new life into a key Canadian relationship: the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers.”It’s one of the oldest hidden-wire relationships, but you’ve got to have the Massachusetts governor for it to work. Romney didn’t show any interest in it, so that relationship was languishing,” says Robertson.

Elsewhere, potential alliances have yet to be explored. “I don’t think there are any people we see as, ‘Oh this is not the right person for Canada’ — but we definitely have to get to know them and get to know them quickly,” says Etzinger. And new governors and state legislators across the country give Canadians new opportunities to build relationships not just to address pressing issues, but as an investment in the future: state-level politicians are often the farm team for the Senate, the White House and the cabinet.

Henry Champ writes A Good Man Leaves the Hill

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From Washington Blog by Henry Champ Tuesday, September 19, 2006 A Good Man Leaves the Hill

One thing the Canadian Embassy in Washington is especially proud of is its contacts with the White House, the State Department and Capitol Hill.

Every ambassador likes to think his team has the best ones. It’s clear some people are better at this game than others.

On Monday evening, Ambassador Michael Wilson hosted a farewell reception for Colin Robertson.

At the residence were key lobbyists, pollsters, Americans with interests in Canada or who have work that involves Canada, some writers and a few senior journalists.

All were friends of Robertson, who in two years had made an enormous impact in Washington.

A career diplomat, Robertson came to the embassy to head a new office called the Washington Advocacy Secretariat, the brainchild of former prime minister Paul Martin.

Martin was dissatisfied with Canada’s penetration of the corridors of power in Washington. In particular, he felt Canada was not paying enough attention to Capitol Hill.

On issues like softwood lumber, there were congressional forces opposed to Canada’s export policy, but there were also congressmen who wanted the cheaper wood for home-building. Robertson found those people and organized them to fight for Canada’s position.

Nobody was better at finding Canada’s friends than Robertson.

Lobbyists talk with envy at how Robertson milked the congressional ranks of those in border states, how he made certain those folks argued for the need to protect the commercial interests of both Canada and the United States.

He created a map of the United States that listed on each state how much money it did in annual trade with Canada and which industries or sectors benefited. He made certain that map was in the hands of anyone with the slightest influence. Most congressmen were floored to find out Canada was their state’s biggest customer.

When Stephen Harper won the election, one of the first appointments was Wilson as ambassador. Wilson arrived with a mandate to improve relations with Washington and to find a solution to the chronic softwood lumber dispute. He had Robertson’s work to serve as a base, so the spectacular accomplishments in a very short time are owed a lot to Robertson’s shoe leather.

But Manitoba-born Robertson is not your usual diplomat.

Gregarious, personable and possessing seemingly inexhaustible energy, Robertson blitzed Capitol Hill. One lobbyist said he not only knew the congressmen, he knew their schedulers. Another, attending his farewell dinner, guessed he had made more trips to the Hill than any other Canadian diplomat ever, that walking the hallways of the Capitol with Robertson was like following a rock star, he was known to so many.

However, not everyone at the embassy approved of Robertson’s outreach.

Canada watchers talked of the open envy.

The former Liberal government also wanted the new secretariat under Robertson to open up the embassy to the provinces and their premiers to help advance their regional issues in Washington. Martin felt the premiers had unique contacts with fellow governors and this would help Canada’s overall lobbying effort.

Wilson told the gathering that Robertson was so successful in upgrading the provincial footprint at the embassy that in every premier’s office Robertson was not only the best-known embassy official but also the go-to guy in Washington.

The provinces flourished under the new secretariat.

Murray Smith, Alberta’s representative in Washington, with Robertson’s help, became so well-known on Capitol Hill, that Wilson, testifying before a House sub-committee, was greeted by a congresswoman who opened up her line of questioning by asking, “How is my old friend Murray Smith?”

Wilson told CBC News he is sorry Robertson is leaving, and wanted him to stay. Because he will be picking Robertson’s replacement, he will expect that replacement to do the job exactly as Robertson did it.

So why is Robertson leaving?

It was certainly the buzz at the farewell dinner.

Robertson is a history buff. Some said his new job as president of Historica, the foundation whose mission is to help all Canadians know more about their history and accomplishments, was too good to turn down.

Others pointed a finger at the Prime Minister’s Office, saying it was nervous with a Martin appointee in its midst.

The majority say Robertson’s popularity, his style of work and the elevation of provincial concerns at the embassy all combined to do him in with his more traditional bureaucratic colleagues. The in-fighting got to be too much.

But everyone at the ambassador’s residence on Monday night agreed on one point, Robertson did a wonderful job in his two years, and that he was a great servant for Canada.

From Comments

Jeff Mains

Montreal

Well done Colin!
I briefly met Colin as he expedited a passport for my new born son in Hong Kong back when he was climbing the foreign service ladder. Very personable and willing to serve. What ever he does next he will no doubt shine.

Jeff
Montreal

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About Colin Robertson

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… Read more »