Maclean’s Interview: U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson

The new U.S. ambassador to Canada on the oil sands, border tensions and the stereotype of the nice Canadian

David Jacobson is Barack Obama’s new ambassador to Canada. A Chicago-based corporate lawyer and Democratic activist, he was second-in-command of Obama’s record-setting campaign fundraising operation. His first trip to Canada was a family outing to Niagara Falls at age seven. Upon starting his new job in October, his priority was to see the country. He spoke with Luiza Ch. Savage about his Great Canadian Road Trip.

Q: You recently completed an eight-week coast-to-coast road trip across Canada in which you visited all 10 provinces, met all the premiers, attended the Grey Cup, checked out Whistler Olympic Park, and sampled poutine. What was the most memorable moment of the trip?
A: There were a bunch. The single most memorable thing I did, and this may sound corny, I went with [Saskatchewan Premier] Brad Wall to a dinner given for 12 reservists in Regina who were about to leave for Afghanistan. It was an incredibly moving experience. Here we were, people from two different countries with a common goal. The patriotism on both sides was moving.
I also delivered a letter from President Obama to [Toronto-area nun] Sister Constance Murphy to celebrate her 105th birthday. She is the oldest living American in Canada.

Q: Did you see anything exciting?
A: One thing I found really exciting—maybe I’m unusual—was when I went to Speaker Peter Milliken’s office on the Hill several weeks ago. One thing they showed me was the life-sized Karsh photograph of Winston Churchill. The thing that is amazing is the photograph is hung in exactly the same place where Churchill stood when the photograph was taken. The panelling in the photo matches up with the panelling on the wall. To be in the spot where it happened was absolutely incredible.
Another moment I thought was neat was when were driving in St. John’s, Nfld., and I was on a conference call with people at the embassy, and I announced that I had to hang up because I was at Signal Hill. It was just one of the most spectacular places I ever saw. It was an eerie, dreary day and we looked out from Signal Hill at Europe. Also, I had a train ride with [former Manitoba premier] Gary Doer and my wife, Julie, and his wife, Ginny, from Saskatoon to Winnipeg the night before he left to go be the ambassador to the U.S. It was gracious of them to join us, and it was an opportunity for us to get to know each other.
Another memorable moment—and this happened twice, in Quebec City and in New Brunswick—was when I went to legislature buildings and above them were American flags that were flying. I was touched by that. And when I got a chance to show my kids the house we are living and the office I work in and the fact that I am the ambassador from the U.S.—that was very special.

Q: What did you learn about Canada that you didn’t know before?
A: The first thing, and I know it’s a stereotype, is that this is a really big place. It is big, and it is diverse geographically and culturally. I knew it intellectually before I came here, but spending the last two months on the ground in cars and trains and boats and helicopters and airplanes, I really have gotten a much more emotional sense of the size and diversity of this country.
Another thing I’ve learned is that there are so many beautiful places in this country, and not just the ones I would immediately think of—Quebec City, Banff, Whistler, Niagara Falls—but other places had their own intrinsic beauty: the Prairies in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, some of the small towns I went to in B.C. and Alberta. I come from the Midwest where it looks like that, and it makes me feel very much at home.
Another thing I was really struck by was the number of places where I was told about the closeness of the relationship between Canada and the U.S. I don’t know whether they were saying what they thought I wanted to hear, but in every province I went to, people would take me aside and whisper in my ear, “There is no province in Canada that has as close a relationship with the United States.” It was almost a contest of who felt the closer. It was an emotional thing for me.

Q: Did you notice any differences between Canada and the U.S.?
A: There were a couple I didn’t expect. There seems to be a greater allegiance that Canadians have to their provinces than typically Americans do to their states. It may be because provinces are bigger, or because of the nature of the governments, or because the provinces own their resources, or because provincial Crown corporations provide certain services that in the U.S. are provided by private companies. I think Canadians define their identity to a larger degree by the province they live in than Americans do.
Another thing I had understood intellectually but not emotionally is the difference in the way we govern ourselves. One thing I knew a lot about before I came here is the American constitutional system and I had studied the famous checks and balances that have served us so well. Until I came here, though, I didn’t understand them in an emotional level in the same way. The moment where it became clear to me is one of the first tours I had at Parliament Hill here in Ottawa. There is a painting of King George III! And I saw similar paintings in legislatures around Canada. George III is the tyrant we revolted against in the American Revolution. I think that fact says a lot about the difference in our systems.
We have these checks and balances to protect against tyranny. It was meant to be a more inefficient system and it is a more inefficient system. And I think sometimes Canadians feel frustrated by the inefficiency of our system. But I’ve come to realize, every time I’d look at one of those paintings, that this is because we have very different histories. I now understand better the frustration that people outside of the United States feel because they did not go through our history. One of the great things about travel is you understand your own country in a better way.
The other thing that has been memorable in my travels are the people I have met. I have had the good fortune and the honour to meet so many interesting people—the Governor General, the Prime Minister, members of cabinet, every premier, but I’ve also met hundreds, maybe thousands of citizens on the street. Again, this is a stereotype Americans have, but it has a lot of truth behind it: Canadians are very nice people and it’s a stereotype they should be proud of.

Q: When you met with the premiers, what was the top issue they raised with you?
A: Oftentimes it was the closeness of the relationship between their provinces and the region [of the U.S.] they border. A number of times there were regional issues. In the Atlantic provinces, it was the deal between Hydro Quebec and New Brunswick Power—I heard every side of that story. But if there was one common thread it was the closeness and desire to make the relationship stronger than it is.

Q: You visited the oil sands in Alberta and the carbon sequestration pilot project in Weyburn, Sask. Among Democrats in the U.S. Congress, there is a lot of opposition to the oil sands on environmental grounds. After your personal visit, do you share those concerns?
A: I still have a lot to learn about that. What I did see is that some of the things I had heard about the vastness of the area being spoiled were perhaps a little overblown. On the other hand, it was clear there are serious environmental challenges. They have made serious progress but it is clear they have a way to go.

Q: Would the Obama administration prevent congressional Democrats from restricting or penalizing exports of oil sands production to the U.S.?
A: The U.S. and the world have a need for oil for quite some time to come. I wish it were not so. But I think it’s important that we work very hard to find safe and secure sources of oil. And there is no more safe and secure source than Canada in terms of importing oil into the U.S. As for how that should be codified in legislation in the U.S., there are a lot of ways to do it. Should oil sands be singled out or included in a general cap and trade system? There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. One of the things we saw in Copenhagen is that we are never going to work this out to the satisfaction of everyone, and there is going to have to be compromise. My guess is there is going to have to be compromise with respect to the oil sands, too.

Q: During your travels, did you cross the border? What are your thoughts on border management at this stage?
A: I crossed the border on several occasions. I spent one day near Niagara going back and forth all day long, talking with officials, discussing problems on both sides. I went to the opening of the new border crossing between Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, N.B.—the place with the great candy [Ganong Chocolates is based there]. I have learned a lot. The border is something I think I want to focus on more than I thought I wanted to when I first got here. I think there is an urban legend that surrounds the view of the border on both sides. I have come to believe it is a false choice between security and efficiency—they are not inconsistent. We’ve got to invest in infrastructure. A lot of it is old and inadequate to our needs. This is something I want to focus on.

Q: Did you hear much concern about Buy American provisions? It has been suggested that if Canada would only adopt stricter U.S.-style intellectual property rights laws, then we would be quickly rewarded with an exemption from Buy American rules. Do you agree?
A: I heard a lot about Buy American. I probably heard more about Buy American than any other single topic. At some meeting in Alberta, I said it was a pleasure to be at a meeting for two hours and not hear comments on Buy American—at which point the first question was about Buy American. I understand the concerns the Canadian people have. The President believes very strongly in free trade. There have been a lot of discussions and they have been constructive. That’s all I can say.
As for whether if only we could solve intellectual property rights, then Buy American would go away, I do not agree with that. They are two separate issues and stand on their own. We are very concerned about intellectual property laws in Canada. We don’t think they are in the best interest of Canadians or Americans, but that is a separate issue that we have not linked.

Q: Will President Obama attend the Vancouver Olympics?
A: That one I don’t know the answer to. I’m trying to figure out who will be in the U.S. delegation. I will be there for most or perhaps all of it.