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A former Canadian diplomat, Colin Robertson is Senior Advisor and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and hosts its regular Global Exchange podcast.  He is an Executive Fellow at the… Read more »

Getting noticed in Washington: the hard part of Canada’s job

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Excerpted from Policy Options Getting noticed in Washington: the hard part of Canada’s job November 2005

I’m often asked: “What do Americans think of us?”

The short answer is “they don’t”.

If we Canadians have an almost malevolent infatuation with our southern neighbours, Americans, for their part, have usually viewed us with benign neglect. Unless your district is close to the Canadian border, first-hand knowledge of us, especially if you’re a Republican legislator, might only be through a hunting or fishing expedition to Canada’s north. In that sense, the brand of ‘mountains, Mounties and maple syrup’ can work to our advantage. Especially if the alternative is a North American edition of how FOX news described the Europeans during the Iraq War –  ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’.

After nearly seven years as our ambassador during the Reagan administration, Allan Gotlieb eventually concluded that benign neglect, indifference or ignorance was not such a bad thing. I agree.  I keep both at home and at the office a copy of his short memoir, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Ambassador’. I’ve recently added Derek Burney’s welcome memoir Unquiet Diplomacy for its chapters dealing with the US.  They are the best practitioners’ guides for a Canadian diplomat wanting to do business in Washington, especially for what we do in the Embassy’s Washington Advocacy Secretariat.

They sit beside a third book, Chris Matthew’s Hardball, because when in Washington you play by Washington rules and that’s ‘hardball’. As my boss, Ambassador Frank McKenna, puts it, “When you go to a gunfight, don’t bring a knife.” As Tip O’Neill observed, ‘all politics is local’ so we daily pound the halls of Congress. We don’t have money or votes, the traditional tools of lobbyists, but we can talk jobs. We’ve created an electronic map, called GoCART that allows us to define Canadian business interests down to the district level. We can now go into an office and talk ‘local’ with the names of our companies and the jobs that they support.  It’s politicking 101.

It’s also about being seen. And in the same news cycle. Actively responding to the myths that continue to abound about the terrorists finding a home in Canada.  And reminding Americans that while we are different – although ‘fire and ice’ is probably extreme – we have more in common together than not.

Margaret Atwood once described the Canada-US border as a ‘one-way mirror’. But this is changing and especially for Republican men (ie. those in/with power) Canada has about it a question mark. Increasingly, we’re described as ‘European’ and that’s Europe without the UK. And no, it’s not a compliment. America is at war. 9-11 remains the most profound event in America since Pearl Harbour. Everything we do has to be put through the litmus of the threat Americans believe is just a mistake away. Said Republican Congressman Peter King, new chair of the Homeland Security Committee: “It’s like we live in two parallel existences. You know something could happen, and yet you don’t want to alarm people constantly, or get too specific in your recommendations.”

The threat is personal. The implications are cultural and economic. It’s a Sputnik moment: one of those periodic alarms about some foreign economic menace. It was the Soviets in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Germans and the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, and now it’s the Chinese and the Indians.   ‘Outsourcing’ is shorthand for the sense that maybe America can’t compete. There is a growing sense that ‘fairness’ and social mobility has been sacrificed on the alter of ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘freedom’. In the wake of Katrina, race and poverty have been re-discovered as the ‘American dilemma’.

President Bush’s statement ‘you’re either with us or not’ captures the mood. Disagreement is fine, but silly words wind up on FOX and feed the ‘Canuckistan’ lobby. On borders, while we continue to differentiate between our border and the border America shares with Mexico, the bureaucratic inclination is to always apply the model they know best. And that’s the southern border, one characterized by the southern ‘walls, wires and minutemen’.

Linked to this is the requirement to show a passport, or similar documentation not yet determined, at the border by 2008. It is already having a chilling effect on travel.  We have allies, especially amongst  border states who rely on Canadian tourism and trade.  We’re working with the northern border caucus as well as our own legislators to find something that will respect security but not hamper access.

One challenge is the politics of not being seen to ‘differentiate or discriminate’ against Mexico and the growing political weight of Latinos who, while less cohesive, now outnumber blacks and, at 40 million, well outnumber Canadians.

For Canada, we have to go beyond the headlines and begin to change the ‘atmospherics by creating a better climate’ especially on security. Otherwise, the risk is that the US will, as Ambassador McKenna puts it, “zipper up the tent and we’ll be left outside.” And lest we be complacent, my boss also reminds me that “too often, we sail against yesterday’s wind”.

After making more than 150 calls on Capitol Hill, here follow some observations after making the Canadian case to reopen the border to cattle, to prevent pollution from Devils Lake getting into the Red River, and around the ongoing softwood lumber dispute.

First: Make it local – the most effective way to fight a special interest in the US is to find a US ally.

American lobbyists can do three things really well (including some foreign governments can’t do)
–         First, get the message out to our primary supporters to weigh in on the Byrd duties
–         Second, do fundraisers for those we want to influence. As California Speaker Jesse Unruh famously observed, “money is the mother’s milk of politics”. We’re playing hardball and this is how it works down here.
–         Third, reach the grass ‘roots’ and grass ‘tips’ through their existing network.

In our continuing battles to remove the duty on lumber we have the support of a made-in-America coalition, the American Consumers for Affordable Homes. It consists of Homebuilders, Home Depot, even the folks who make mattresses.  While it took a judicial decision by the Ninth Circuit court, on appeal by the Administration, to reopen the border to our cattle trade, there is no doubt the confidence with which the Administration approached the appeal was bolstered by the active support of the U.S. National Cattlemen and Beef Association and the American Meat Institute. They became involved, not because they ‘like’ Canada but because of self interest. The slaughter houses and packing plants represented by AMI were losing jobs. Driving the NCBA was the inability to send their cattle north to ‘feedlot’ alley in Alberta.

Second: Legislators have interests not friends.

Canadians assume because they think that they have more in common with Democrats than Republicans that Democrats must be our friends.  Wrong.  In the battle to open the border, one of our best allies turned out to be conservative senator Wayne Allard of Colorado, a veterinarian, who argued publicly (including an op-ed in the conservative Washington Times) that science, not politics, should decide the border re-opening. As he put it, “Sound science is critical, because it separates fact from myth and ignores ‘mad cow’ hysterics”. His Democrat counterpart from Colorado sided with R-CALF. Indeed, most of our toughest adversaries on beef, as on lumber and Devils Lake, were Democrats. It’s not that they don’t like us; rather, as one staffer put it, “that’s politics”.

Unless we can make it local or find a local interest we’re pushing uphill. I’ve also learnt that when an issue reaches Washington, we face difficult odds. Nip problems locally using local interests. And so I tell premiers and legislators, federal and provincial, to actively cultivate their American counterparts, especially those directly across the border. Legislators count and it will always be incumbent on us to take the initiative and make even greater use of cross-border and regional connections.

Look at the big flashpoints of the past year: beef, lumber and Devils Lake. They originated in three small border states: Montana and the Dakotas. While each has only one member-at-large they each have a pair of senators, several of whom have seniority and count.  At Frank McKenna’s initiative we’ve begun a ‘charm offensive’ that will rely on our consulates in Denver and Minneapolis but will only succeed if the provinces take the lead with the local business community. For example, working with Alberta and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association e’ll be targeting meetings of local farm bureaus to talk about the interdependence of our agricultural trade.

Third: Advocacy is as much about getting attention as getting your message across. Get attention and your message follows.

And so, in the wake of Katrina, we argued strenuously that besides lending a helping hand being the right thing to do, the neighbourly thing to do, it was also crucially important to inform Americans of what we were doing.
Canadians were justly proud of how we responded to 9-11: letting the 233 aircraft land and giving a home to the 33,000 stranded passengers; the national outpouring of grief across Canada including the 100,000 who turned out on Parliament Hill. But very little of this penetrated the American consciousness because the medium through which it passes – television – didn’t cover it.

So we helped facilitate crews and coverage by FOX and CNN when our three warships HMCS Athabaskan,  Toronto and Ville de Quebec left Halifax Harbour with a thousand sailors to bring relief and supplies to the Gulf. Meanwhile at the Embassy, Ambassador McKenna hosted a fundraising breakfast, lunch and pub dinner. We did it in collaboration with a local DC radio station who advertised the event on the airwaves. We e-mailed and even handed out invitations at the local metro – one used by those who work on the Hill. A banner hangs from the Embassy proclaiming: ‘Victims of Katrina: You are in our thoughts and prayers. Vous êtes dans nos pensées et nos prières’. Not only did we raise money for the Red Cross, but we got attention and acknowledgement, including a call of gratitude from one senator who’d seen the banner as he’d driven down Pennsylvania Avenue.

We’re also pumping up our advocacy efforts beyond the Beltway. It means using our growing network of offices across the  United States: 23, up from 13 two years ago and to be 41 by 2007. My view is that our American interests are so important that we should have representation in each American state by the next American presidential cycle. And we should be doing diplomacy differently. Not necessarily with bricks and mortar but by someone who can work from their home. In Tucson, we partnered with the local chamber of commerce to situate our staff in their offices, to use their boardroom and profit from their contacts.

And using the Canadian Diaspora. Jeffrey Simpson wrote a book about the ‘star-spangled’ Canadians who live in the United States. I know how helpful the Canadians in California were to me in the four years I spent as Consul General: the Digital Moose Lounge of smart young Canadian engineers and computer technicians living in San Jose opened doors for me and we drew on them to provide an audience, for example, when Premier Klein and his ministers came to town. We developed the same relationship with Canadians Abroad in Los Angeles, many of whom work in the entertainment industry, and who gave us a core audience when, for example, we put the spotlight on successively: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia on Canada Day from 2000-2004.

Through another Frank McKenna initiative, we’re now systematically reaching out to the ‘star-spangled’ Canadians at www.connect2canada.com. We want to mobilize them nationwide and so create a Canada  lobby to be our eyes, ears and mouth. We launched connect2canada on Canada Day this year and it’s already paying dividends. This response that sums up a key purpose of the network:

“I attended a neighbourhood get together last evening. Naturally the issue of hurricane Katrina came up. One of the participants remarked that he had seen on TV a statement that Canada was not participating in a meaningful way in relief. Thank goodness I had your E mail which I later sent to my neighbours. Several later commented on the exceptional generosity of Canadians. You are making my effort to have my neighbours better understand Canada a lot easier.”

We’ve already enrolled 20,000 members who can access 24/7 our ‘Virtual Embassy’. Our goal is 100,000 within a year. We’re working with our universities, for example, to target their alumni living in the United States. You too can help. Encourage your friends, relations and Canada watchers in the United States to subscribe to  www.connect2canada.com

Fourth: Access is everything.

And access comes in every form: Canadians studying in the United States and Americans studying in Canada. We can do a lot more to promote the latter. We’re looking at how we can improve our recruitment activity and increase the numbers of Americans studying in Canada. When American students spend 3 or 4 years in Canada, they learn about our culture, history, and life.  They build a network of contacts that they can turn to in their professional careers when they return to the States.  And they will carry a special bond with  Canada the rest of their lives. I spent five years in Hong Kong when the British still ruled and our access to government and business was hugely improved because so many had attended Canadian schools. The same still holds true through much of Asia. We should also support the creation of centers of American studies and establish exchanges with the leadership of tomorrow.

Fifth: On Capitol Hill an issue is never over as long as any interest feels they are hard done by and can find a receptive congressional ear.

In 1789, Massachusetts timber merchants, in what is now Maine, persuaded the Washington administration in the first year of its first term to impose a 5% tariff on imports of New Brunswick timber. Since then, the US has imposed restrictions on Canadian lumber imports more than thirty times.

This takes me back to my first observation about the importance of local relationships and my conviction that legislator and province-state relationships are the hidden wiring of Canada-US relationship. The Canada-US Interparliamentary Group has a long history of meeting, identifying and trying to find solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Each province now trades more with America than with one another.  The institutions that have developed around the province-state relationships should be encouraged and cultivated.  When you are the smaller partner, institutions matter because they provide a regular forum for discussion and problem-solving. The Pacific Northwest Economic Region of legislators, for example, is a working model. Western governors and premiers meet annually as do eastern premiers and New England governors. The premier of Ontario has always had a relationship with the governor of Michigan as does the premier of Quebec with the governor of New York. At the legislative level the Pacific Northwest Economic region is perhaps the most comprehensive.

Institutions count: it’s how ‘small’ levels the playing field against ‘big’ but what we always have to remember is that there also has to be a recognition by the ‘small’ that ‘big’ sometimes will exercise the right to the trap door. It’s not fair, but neither is life.

If the institutions matter, even more important are the relationships that develop between the players. In the American system, American legislators progress through that system. This is partly because of term limits and changes to seniority provisions but, unlike Canada, Americans seem to expect their leadership to do their apprenticeship at the local level. Four of the last six presidents were governors. There are ten governors now sitting in the Senate.  Fifty of the 80 new members in the current Congress served in local levels of government. Bringing more American legislators to Canada should be an ongoing project. And as they often remark when I’m on the Hill, “make it fun”, show us Canada.

All of this activity and advocacy are means to an end – the advancement of Canadian interests…