Gary Doer in conversation

Canada's ambassador to the U.S. on border security, the oil sands, and what Barack Obama really thinks of Stephen Harper

On border security, the oil sands, and what Barack Obama really thinks of Stephen Harper

Photographs by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Gary Doer is the former NDP premier of Manitoba. He became Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. in October 2009. Earlier this month, he attended the Washington meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama that launched negotiations on “perimeter” security for the border.

Q: In Canada, there is a perception that border fixing has stalled. What do Americans think about the border? How do you change the kinds of perceptions that were reinforced by the recent U.S. government report that made headlines with its finding that only 32 miles of the border are under “operational control”? Many took that to mean it’s almost completely unsecured.

A: It didn’t make a lot of headlines around the U.S. The New York Times and most of the American media didn’t cover it as I recall. It made headlines in Canada. It was speaking to American infrastructure and investment on the U.S. side. We have been working on increasing efficiency at the border without sacrificing security.

Q: After his meeting with President Obama, Prime Minister Harper said that the border talks have nothing to do with sovereignty. But to the extent that the two countries want to standardize cargo screening, or decide what information we want to require of foreign visitors, how does a smaller, more trade-dependent country like Canada not give in each time there is a difference of opinion?

A: The Prime Minister and the President made it very clear that sovereignty is not on the table. When we were discussing border visions, we didn’t talk about a one-size-fits-all immigration policy, for example. We have different laws, different challenges and opportunities. I’ve been in meetings and the bottom line is the balance of security and the need for trade and jobs. Americans sell more goods to Canada than anywhere else. We are their best customer, more than the European Union. So when we talk to the Americans, we talk as their best customer. That is the tone of the discussion. It’s not a tone of one population size versus another. It’s a tone of best customer to another best customer. We don’t go into meetings lacking confidence about our advantages for U.S. workers, or ignoring the advantages of the U.S. market to Canadian workers.

Q: The U.S. is reviewing a bid by TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Canadian crude, mostly from Alberta, through the American Midwest into Texas. How concerned is the Obama administration about the environmental impacts of the oil sands? Are the oil sands seen as “ethical oil” or “dirty oil” now in Washington?

A: The discussions we’ve had on oil from Canada are very consistent with President Obama’s promise as a candidate that if elected he would wean the U.S. off of Middle Eastern oil in 10 years. That was two years ago. It’s also consistent with [what the] governor of Montana, a Democrat, said, “I do not send my National Guard to risk their lives in Fort McMurray or in Edmonton.” A lot of that came out in the Department of Energy report last week [concluding that oil sands production would displace imports from the Middle East]. That’s a very important report for Canada.
Our real challenge on the environmental side is to let people know when they are quoting numbers that are 10 years out of date. The oil sands now have less emissions per barrel than thermal oil from California. We all agree we have to continue to improve the sustainability of this resource—and the perception of the sustainability of the resource.

The other thing we’re adding to the discussion is jobs. There are 902 companies in the United States that are suppliers to the oil sands in Canada. We have also discussed the direct construction jobs—that’s why building trades unions are supporting the pipeline.

Yes, we have to continue to improve on the environment, yes, we are a much better alternative for the U.S. and, thirdly, we have to make the economic argument. We are working hard to get the message out in a direct, district-by-district basis. There is support for the Keystone XL project in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. There is disagreement in Nebraska. Unlike most projects, where people say “not in my backyard,” in this case, the workers, businesses, elected representatives in places where the pipeline is projected to go are supporting it.

Q: Would it help the case if Canada did more at the federal level to regulate the environmental side?

A: I’ve used the terminology that I’m dealing with frozen facts. Even prestigious publications are using numbers 10 years out of date. It’s like talking about computers and not mentioning the BlackBerry. We have improved, we have to continue to improve, and we have to be perceived to be improving.

Q: What does President Obama think of Canada?

A: The bottom line is that the President and his people trust the Prime Minister. He’s a straight shooter, he tells it like it is. I know from people in the White House—and I’ve heard from very senior people I know personally in the White House—that [before meetings with other foreign leaders] they get a read from the Prime Minister about how the meeting is going to shake down and how each participant is going to deal with an issue. When you are a new President you don’t know how a meeting is going to develop and how different people are going to participate on an issue of interest to the U.S. That has been something that has been valued in the U.S. When you have a powerful person going into their first meeting it’s useful to have someone you trust going into those meetings. They trust his nose on how issues will develop at the meetings.

Q: You said at a Maclean’s/CPAC forum in Washington that sometimes you have to educate Canadians about how they don’t have a “human right” to enter the U.S. What else do you want to educate Canadians about?

A: Sometimes you get questions about flying over the U.S., and [American] requests for certain things, and you have to point out it’s their sovereign airspace to manage. It’s not Canadian airspace. It’s also my job to point out the major trade issue that the U.S. has with Canada—it’s intellectual property. It’s my job, when asked these questions, to point out what the priorities are in the U.S. But if it’s not in the cards and not reasonable, you make that point as well. [U.S.] Ambassador [to Canada] David Jacobson and I have a good working relationship. Part of it is to work with all the issues in a way that is a two-way communication system. And to the Americans, I have to point out the obvious at every speaking engagement. We are your best customer. It’s us, not Saudi Arabia, that is your biggest and most reliable supplier of energy. And you get more visitors from Canada than any other country.

Q: What is it like to be the Canadian ambassador in Washington in 2011? We have this image fixed from the Allan and Sondra Gotlieb days that everything happens at Georgetown dinner parties. Do you go to dinner parties, or hockey games, or attend rallies like the Jon Stewart rally or the Tea Party rallies?

A: I haven’t. I was tied up with work on those occasions. I just attended a Martin Luther King event recently. So I attend some of these events that unite Canadians and Americans in terms of human rights. What goes on in Washington is similar to what goes on in Ottawa. People who are elected will go home on Thursday or Friday night to their districts. They are very involved and engaged not in Georgetown but in Peoria. I think that’s similar to what’s going on in Ottawa. People go back to their constituencies because that is who they report to. There are three or four events a year I go to—such as the Alfalfa Club dinner—where lawmakers and lobbyists and cabinet secretaries go. Yes, I go to hockey games and I enjoy attending events that are part of American culture. One major difference is that in Canada you’ve got to know your hockey teams and hockey players. In the U.S., you’ve also got to know the football teams, and in March, the basketball teams.

Q: You are a former NDP premier. What is like representing a Conservative government?

A: When I was a premier, I travelled to the U.S. with Bernard Lord, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest, and most recently with Ed Stelmach and Brad Wall, and I’ve always felt that I was part of the Canadian team. This is no different.

Q: What has struck you as interesting or surprising since you’ve been in Washington?

A: One thing that is surprising is when a bill is being discussed in Congress you can’t get a bar stool in Washington because there are 35,000 lawyers and lobbyists in town wining and dining—not that I was looking for a bar stool.
The think tanks in Washington are also interesting. In the U.S., they exchange prisoners after every election with all the [changeover] in staffing that goes on. In Canada, we have more of a permanent public service, but they do have public-service-in-waiting in the think tanks. It’s my advice to Canadian decision makers—whether in business or NGOs, or elected representatives or consumer groups—to take advantage of the think tanks. The people there are very bright, and tomorrow they might be an undersecretary. They are very important. Today they are giving you advice, tomorrow they may be making decisions. It’s very useful to soak up their knowledge and ideas and give them your own views of what Canada has to offer and what our priorities are on an ongoing basis.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.