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

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From 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


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.


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About Colin Robertson

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 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

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…