Obama, Harper and the end of the affair

Paul Wells on the sorry state of Canada-U.S. relations

Fred Chartrand/CP

Fred Chartrand/CP

“My unshakeable belief is that the U.S.-Canada relationship is strong and thriving,” Bruce Heyman said the other night at the National Gallery of Canada on Sussex Drive. It was a big night, for Bruce Heyman is the new American ambassador to Canada, and he had not yet shared his thoughts on relations between our two countries. Turns out he likes to look on the bright side. He’ll need to.

Heyman is a cheerful Chicago investment banker who raised campaign funds for Barack Obama. He replaces David Jacobson, a cheerful Chicago lawyer who raised campaign funds for Barack Obama. As with much else in the Obama presidency, one senses a trend. He was not offering his first diagnosis of the bilateral relationship a moment too soon, because he was speaking 18 months before the 2016 Iowa presidential caucuses. Any later and he would have run into the next president’s ambassador. (These things take time. Obama had so many fundraisers to choose from. The Senate was in no rush to confirm the appointment.)

Now here Heyman is and, after a three-week tour of Canada, he was pleased to share his impressions. Basically, he said, everything’s great, as long as you don’t notice the two guys in charge.

He praised the border—5,000 miles!—and the integration of the two countries’ economies. “It’s not just that we make things together,” he said. “Now, we’re making more things together.” He was bullish on investment. If you live in one country and want to do business in the other, he suggested, “call the American embassy here in Ottawa,” something most businesses never do.

Interspersed with his odes to the eternal, Heyman mentioned problems that are merely starting to seem eternal. “We need an effective border that makes it easy for legal commerce and travellers to flow through efficiently, and makes it hard for those things that threaten us to pass through,” he said. That has been every prime minister’s priority since 2001. Progress has been modest.

Most of the crowd wanted to hear what Heyman had to say on energy and the environment, which is everyone’s polite term for the interminable wait for Obama to accept, or reject, the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta into Nebraska. The dispute has poisoned the relationship between Obama and Stephen Harper—except Heyman hates when I talk that way. “Do not mistake headlines for trendlines,” he said. Turn that frown upside down! “Do not take a few issues and draw any conclusions on the overall relationship.”

Especially because any conclusion you drew would be the obvious one. Reconciling carbon emissions and the energy markets of Canada and the U.S. “is not a task that we can take on individually,” Heyman said. “It can only be successfully challenged together.”

This reminded me of something Leona Aglukkaq had said earlier that day. Aglukkaq is Canada’s environment minister, I suppose, to the extent we have one, and she said, “The integration of our economies suggests our countries should be taking action together, not alone.”

The humour was subtle, but it worked: The U.S. ambassador and the Canadian minister were calling for cross-border co-operation on the day Obama’s administration announced tough new emissions standards for the U.S. coal industry, that country’s biggest polluter. There had, of course, been none of the cross-border co-operation both sides claim to want. In the early years of Obama’s presidency, members of the Harper government used to describe their “continental approach to energy and the environment,” until it became clear the rest of the continent wasn’t playing.

The history of executive-level partnership across that 5,000-mile border has been spotty, but there have been bright moments. Mulroney and Reagan. Clinton and Chrétien. Well, two bright moments. The collapse of the Harper-Obama relationship is so complete that at least one of them will have to go before co-operative leadership at the top returns.

There’s no point blaming the two leaders. They are alike in important ways, and unlike in others. Neither much feels like socializing by telephone. Both have long been preoccupied with domestic politics and, to the extent that’s begun to change for Harper, he finds comfort in places that make Obama uncomfortable: Israel and central and eastern Europe. Their similarities make them repel, as like poles of two magnets do.

Their differences are worse. Both leaders delivered major foreign-policy speeches last week. Obama’s, at West Point, N.Y., was billed in advance as a big deal. Harper’s, in Toronto, lauded the efforts of a private organization raising money for a Canadian monument to the victims of Communism. It would be hard to square the two visions on offer. Obama made a case for moderation and, above all, for calculation. “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.”

Harper was far more sweeping. “Canada defends and promotes the basic freedoms that are crucial to maintaining human society, and we oppose those everywhere who threaten those values.”

Obama: “Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

Harper: “There have been times when we’ve fallen short, heeded the calls of those who preferred to see Canada sidelined, to see Canada serve as a neutral bystander instead of a principled actor.”

No wonder they don’t talk.

The Heymans, meanwhile, are enjoying their stay in Canada. Don’t take a few issues and draw any conclusions.

Watch the conversation everyone’s talking about:
Canada’s former man in Washington, Frank McKenna, asking tough questions of Bruce Heyman, President Barack Obama’s man in Ottawa. On June 2, Canada 2020 invited McKenna, the Canadian ambassador during Paul Martin’s final year as prime minister, to sit down with Heyman, the Chicago businessman who took over as U.S. ambassador to Canada in March. Check out the video below. Heyman also made a speech, which you can read here.




Hear excerpts from a conversation between our political editor and the U.S. ambassador:



Obama, Harper and the end of the affair

  1. How could Harper and Obama get along? They have nothing in Common.

    One is a grandiose, incompetent socialist who’s main goal is to stand there and look good until someone else takes his job.


    the other is a Canadian.

    • hmmmm.. I thought one is a grandiose, incompetent fascist dictator who’s main goal was to buy more votes and deceive the Canadian people, while the other (an American) was a lame-duck trying to get through the November elections without losing the House.

    • Maybe you should check *your* history….and find out what a socialist is.

  2. If Harper thinks he has the MAJORITY of Canadians behind him on “secretive” deals like CETA he is mistaken. After years of scandal after scandal Harper is polled as the LEAST trustworthy Prime Minister in history (even worse than Mulroney)

    • Jeanne, evans.

      We have rarely had ANY government with a true majority.

      That being said, the “scandals” that the harper Goverenment has had, are all with regards to policy, or elections Canada, abortion, etc.

      Try again when the conservatives have a real scandal. You know..the types of real scandal we already KNOW the Liberals have been involved in…such as theft, corruption, links to the Italian mafia.

      then we’ll be interested in your theories. Until then….just keep your tinfoil tight.

      • Take those “rose-coloured” glasses off James, pleeeez.

        • Ok, Rick….

          How many “scandals” around the Conservatives deal with the blatant theft / graft of public funds?

          I can certainly provide the examples of Liberals doing it……but I’m sure you can as well. Difference of course, is that I think it is wrong to steal, or use your position to enrich yourself. But that’s just me.

      • Obviously the Harper assaults on our democracy are far more palatable to his supporters like you James, than misuse of tax dollars

        BTW did you miss the the fact that Tony Clement misappropriated $50 million from the border security budget, lied about it twice and spent the money on a fake lake, gazebo and flush toilets for bears in his riding? He also handled the contracts through his riding office, which is against the rules.

        • Leave Toady Clement out of this; he just does what he’s told.

          • Thanks for clearing that up. I heard that Toady thought Muskoka shared a border with Russia but all the while it was the Nuremberg defence.

        • budster, you and I actually agree that the money pisszed away at that conference was shameful…but while I think it was completely wasteful, it was also legal, transparent, and not meant to line anyone’s pockets. The sponsorship scandal on the other hand was completely different.

          I think wasting money is atrocious, but STEALING money because you can, is simply unforgiveable. The Conservatives HAVE wasted money, but they have never STOLEN money. Can you see the difference?

          • The Conservatives have never stolen money? Apparently a PM taking cash in brown envelops to promote a contract in not stealing. The CPC, under Stephen Harper’s leadership was charged, pled guilty to and were fined for election fraud over the In/Out money laundering scheme. Oh that’s right election fraud is not a crime in conservative circles.

            BTW If you or I did while working for a private firm. what Clement did we would be charged and.or fired. Harper promoted gazebo Tony instead.

          • Nice try Budster….but I was talking about Harper, the leader of the Conservative party…….

            You are talking about Brian Mulroney, former leader of the “Progressive Conservative” Party.

            Harper has nothing to do with Mulroney, but if you want to paint Harper as corrupt based upon something he had nothing to do with….fill your boots. You aren’t fooling anyone though.

            As for the in/out “scandal”…it was anything but. The ruling is just another example of the Conservative Party being held to a different standard than the Libs or NDP….both of which, did exactly the same thing…..but you knew that already didn’t you? And if you think that constitutes election fraud….then you need to look that up as well.

            As for “tony”……what he did was NOT illegal, so a private firm would have no grounds to fire him technically, but they should have fired him for bad judgement.

          • More excuses for the Harperites. Nice try James but a fail. Election fraud is illegal and Harper was the Conservative Party of Canada’s leader.

          • Don’t you get it, Budster? What matters is money, not democracy, transparency, accountability, etc.
            Wouldn’t you be happy to live in a totalitarian state as long as you could be assured that your overlords weren’t diverting anything into their own pockets(with the obvious exception of funneling millions of public dollars into junkets, advertising, flyers, billboards, billboard tracking, video productions, gazebos etc., to ensure their grip on power was retained)?

          • You’re the one who isn’t concerned about Harper’s assaults on our democracy or illegal acts that involve money, James. Obviously you could live anywhere and be content.

  3. It’s difficult because Harper’s foreign policy world view has remained entrenched and largely consistent to the American foreign policy world view of 25 years ago. To borrow a hockey phrase, the Americans are focused on where the puck is going, Canada is still chasing after where it was, always one or two steps behind.

    • Gary,

      Clearly, you have not be reading the positive comments on Harper’s foreign policy stance. For those who have a dislike for Isreal or its Hebrew inhabitants, then yes, harper’s policy may bug them. If you think cutting funding to terrorist groups like HAMAS or the Muslim Brotherhood is wrong, then yes, you may be opposed to harper foreign policy. If you think harper’s stance against Russian agreession is misguided, then yes, you may be opposed to his foreign policy. If you think it is wrong to commit billions in foreign aid so that impoverished women do not die during childbirth, or that their newborns have a better chance to survive into adulthood free from medical limitations, then yes….harper’s foreign policy may be lacking in your view.

      If however, you think OBAMA’s foreign policy is just hunky-dory, then that is your right as well. Of course, America’s prestige and influence has been falling in a linear line based upon OBama’s time in office.

      Canada is looked at in a positive light…….Obama’s america…is just embarrassing. but hey…they guy looks good on camera and reads a good speech.

      I guess our standards are just different.

  4. We lost 158 soldiers in the Afghanistan war to help bring the Taliban to justice.

    Obama thanks us by letting 5 of the worst of them go, acknowledging that they will be a threat to the US and its allies, to bring a deserter home?

    Harper should have ripped Obama a new one for that alone.

    • Canada went to war in Afghanistan to help destroy al qaeda and capture or kill bin Laden not to bring the Taliban to justice.

      The 5 Taliban leaders will remain in Qatar until the US leaves Afghanistan in 2015 and do not pose a threat. If they ever were a threat to the US, why were they never tried in the 12 years they’ve spent in Gitmo? Oh that’s right, the US has insufficient evidence to try the remaining detainees there even by a military commission.

      When was the soldier who was exchanged, tried for or found guilty of being a deserter?

      Try relying on facts instead of speculation and trite talking points for your posts.

      • Budster,

        Canada went to Afghanistan because Chretian needed an “out” to keep them out of Iraq. it was all politics……but I’m sure you knew that already.

        As for Afghanistan…it was, is, and shall remain an Islamic basket-case. We should not have trained the Afghan army how to fight, or provide them weapons. We should have trained the afghan WOMEN how to fight, and provided them with weapons.

        • What a load of bunk, James. The war in Afghanistan started in 2001. On October 2 of that year, Chretien announced that Canada would contribute to the international force there and Canadian troops began serving in January 2002. The Iraq war didn’t start until March 2003. Chretien refused to join in the Iraq war because the myth of WMD’s had been discredited by the UN weapons inspectors. Harper on the other hand and Stockwell wrote an op-ed in the NY Times apologizing to Americans for Canada not participating. It didn’t matter to them that there were no WMD’s, they stated that Canada should always support its US ally. Apparently putting Canadian troops in harms way is acceptable to Harper even for the “big” lie.

          • budster….

            You still try to change history. If you had been paying attention during that time, you would recall the same comments I made above by many of Canada’s media organizations. In fact, if you were watching CPAC live….as I was, you would have seen the Liberal Defence minister cringing when Chretien stated Canada wouldn’t be going into Iraq.

            It was theatre. Chretien was trying to garner support in Quebec, and from NDP supporters. If Chretien actually gave a da_mn about the troops, he wouldn’t have gutted the defence budget as he did.
            As for the WMD’s….the Americans were looking for an excuse to oust Sadam Hussein…..you and I agree about that.

            In fact, I think we should have left Sadam alone…..and let him sort out the pesky neighbours appropriately. Iran wouldn’t be such an issue today if that was the case.

          • BS James. You got caught trying to pull a fast one and now you’re trying another porkie. My dates for both wars are correct as was the sate for Chrestien’s announcement for Canada to join forces in Afghanistan. Apparently history has eluded you once again.

            Your assumption about what the look on the Defence Minister’s face meant is patently ridiculous. Remember Chretien’s “There is no proof…………” and he was right. I watched Hans Blix who led the weapons inspection team to Iraq, when he presented their findings that there were no WMD’s in Iraq to the UN and that’s why the Security Council refused to sanction the Bush/Blair illegal invasion. Here are two quotes from Blix on CNN, the night of shock and awe when Wolf Blizer asked him about WMD’s. “They won’t find any.” he said. Blizer then asked if Iraq had moved then out of the country. Blix answered “No, there aren’t any.” at which point CNN cut off the interview.

    • Obama’s “trade” was not fair at all.

      The Yanks gave up 5 committed, trained, and well financed terrorists, for one terrorist in training.

      par for the course for Barry.

      • The 5 Taliban leaders have not been charged, tried or convicted of anything nor has the soldier who was exchanged for them. Where do you get your this junk? Faux News?

        Ya gotta love John McCain mouthing off when he was one of the POW’s exchanged for VietCong at the end of VietNam war, considering he confessed to war crimes against the Vietnamese people while being held captive.

        • budster,

          You can concern youself about the “human rights” of these known, and self-professed jihadis……but I’m not burdened by your “progressive” outlook. I live in the real world. And in the real world, 4 of these 5 terrorists have already stated they are going back to the jihad.

          As for John McCain “confessing”…….the next time you see him on TV, look at his teeth. They are shattered and smashed. It was one of the torture techniques the Viet Cong used to get a confession.

          In fact Budster, if you were subjected to the same type of “interrogation” I’m sure you would have been confessing the exact same thing. For you to put any faith in such a confession, shows just how deluded you can be.

          Oi vey !!

  5. Harpo is a very confused, and misguided individual, in a Sear-sucker suit, (in the Grand scheme of worldly things), who is also, absolutely, a lost, and frightened puppet, on the International stage.
    Obama, is more of a centre-left-cheetah, which befiddles Harpo even more.

    Harpo FAILED Canada, so far, even on the ONE thing that He , and his (CON’s) lobbyists’, thought he was good at, Alberta OIL?
    PMO -> L-o-s-e-r.

    • Obama’s “cheetah like” characteristics are accurate in one sense.

      He is the lone president who could have moved with such speed to make the American nation look weak, confused, and lost in so few years.

      Harper is a statesman, Obama is a salesman.

  6. “it’s a no brainer”

    “won’t take NO for an answer”

    We now have a Foreign Minister, John Baird, former grand master of Question Period pointing and shouting, as the voice of Canadian diplomacy.

    What could go wrong?

  7. Harper’s like a yapping little dog with his tough talk and his saber rattling, but with nothing to back it up. When he wanted Syria bombed, did he offer to do it? Of course not. He wanted the US to involve itself an yet another Middle East war. Any sanctions he can place or has placed on Russia are meaningless and have no impact on the Canadian economy. We certainly are no threat to Russia militarily, Harper’s all talk and no action unless of course anyone thinks that 5 planes and a smattering of troops in Europe will make Putin quake in his boots.

    Obama is well aware that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war which Harper apologized to the Americans for Canada not joining, will cost the the US as estimated $3 trillion, A debt which the American people will have to make sacrifices to pay off. Another unwinnable war in the ME, is not in the interests of the US. As the only superpower, military actions or threats from the US have a very different meaning and would elicit a very different response from Russia. Obama is not so foolish as to add more tension to an already tense situation and risk a military confrontation with Russia. Nor are the Europeans so foolish as to destroy their economies by placing sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports to their countries. Would Harper do any differently if Canada’s economy was at stake?

    Harper’s uncompromising tirades and petty actions are for domestic consumption but are meaningless on the international stage. What Obama says and does are far significant as they can mean the difference between settling disputes through diplomacy and compromise or war. We should all be grateful that Obama has chosen caution over recklessness.

    • budster, let me fix that line for you. You wrote,

      “We should all be grateful that Obama has chosen caution over recklessness.”

      when in reality, it should have read, “We should all be grateful that Obama has chosen cowardice of recklessness.”

      don’t forget budster…..Obama, doesn’t actually LIKE America.

      • If you want a war with Russia that’s your business. Just remember if a it gets really hot, it will be fought over Canada which, in case you don’t know, lies between the two.

        Hey why don’t you tell your pal, Stephen to start a war with Russia then you can join him on the front lines. No? Then by your logic, Harper’s a coward who doesn’t even like his country.

  8. Funny thing about Harper that doesn’t often come up – the guy appears a loyal friend, but when push really comes to shove ( at least where politics matter) he’s a back stabber. Notably he did it to Preston, and Nigel of course, and less well remembered he did it to W. Canada was conspicuously not on the thank you list when George left office. Whatever else he was, to his credit one thing W valued was loyalty. Didn’t get it from Harper when it mattered.
    Obama may well be the antithesis of SH despite their similarly personal and political styles, but he is still the man! Don’t think it hasn’t been noted that Harper’s crowd was quietly banking on Romney being the new prez. And that they took quiet pleasure in obamas difficulties with congress. It may be childish( as much of political posturing seems to me, no matter who’s doing it) but what goes around is coming around lately for SH. No one likes a guy who has your back until it isn’t in his interest anymore. Enjoy Steve, you earned it!

    • Harper didn’t backstab Manning. When Harper disagreed with the direction Manning wanted to take the party, he didn’t run for reelection, and went back to Calgary. And left Manning to run the party into near oblivion.

      • Dig a little deeper. Harper actively undermined Manning; it’s still a sore point between the til this day. Don’t believe ask Wells, he’s written about @ macleans before now.

    • KCM2.

      Clearly, you don’t understand Harper; as you are a Liberal. I’ll help you out. Loyalty is a good thing, however, if your friends are breaking the rules, or doing something wrong and you are the Boss…..it is not only fair to take them to task….it is essential.

      I do agree that Obama and harper are opposites. Harper understands what israel is faced with, and thinks it important to point it out. Obama also understands what Israel is facing, but doesn’t really care as he is not that found of it in any event. (being all “progressive” and such)

      Obama is as much of a joke, as the Nobel Prize he was awarded.

      • That opening para is some of the best satire you’ve ever posted at macleans. Keep it up and they might give you a job editing SF’s stuff.

  9. Obama is not only failing on Keystone XL (the oil is moving by pipeline). The coal restrictions are less onerous than the ones imposed by Harper in Canada.

    But Obama is failing to get started on building the support roads and the customs station for the brand new Windsor-Detroit bridge that Canada is building and loaning money to the United States for their contribution.

    So our brand new Detroit-Windsor bridge is going to be a bridge to nowhere, because there will be no US customs stations or support roads built on the US side in time. So in addition to the big effU to Alberta on Keystone XL, there is the big effU from Obama to Ontario on the Detroit-Windsor bridge.

    And there is the big effU to all duel Canadian-US citizens on FATCA, where Obama has forced his way into obtaining information from Canadian financial institutions.

    Obama is no moderate internationally. He talks the moderate game, but his foreign policy is a rain of drone missiles on brown people. He has formented revolution in Libya and Syria and now the Ukraine, each of which is slowing spinning out of control. i.e. Libyan military hardware and rebels are ending up in Mali and Nigeria and Syria, where the anti-Assad forces are now mostly al Qaeda types.

    And well, instead of waiting for the next election to turf Yanokovich in Ukraine, he facilitated the overthrow, and gave Putin and excuse to reclaim Crimea, and well, one is going to have a simmering civil war on the borders of NATO, with mercenaries and proxies from both sides participating.

      • Pembina Institute. Really?

        Why not provide a study created by Marxists to show why capitalism is bad.


        • James, every time you post you lower the IQ of the blog. Just because you can’t or won’t read something doesn’t mean it must be Marxist.

    • Just because Harper wants Keystone built, doesn’t mean that not having made a decision about it makes Obama a failure. The Obama administration granted permits to the State of Michigan to build the bridge and the ramps to connect interstate 75 in April 2013. As Canada is a sovereign country, Harper could have refused to allow financial institutions to give information to the US.

      France was the driving force on intervention in Libya, not the US and just in case you missed it, the Arab spring was well underway in Tunisia and Egypt long before there were any stirrings in Libya and Syria, If anyone contributed to the uprisings in the Middle East, it was the Bush/Blair failed Iraq invasion which Stephen Harper supported.

  10. Let me just be clear on this. Canada intends to be not just an energy superpower, but also a clean energy superpower, because the reality of climate change is upon us. I’m not going to belabour that. Many others can do that better than I can do. Let me just say this. If a decline in the use of hydrocarbons is environmentally necessary, it’s important to understand that it is also going to be economically unavoidable in future decades. Indeed, the end of the era of low-cost hydrocarbons is at hand.

    Stephen Harper, May 2008

    • That’s so 2008. SH 2014 has long ago thrown that guy under the oil sands bus. Still, it is remarkable what this guy has regurgitated over the years as what he no doubt regards as the unavoidable cost of holding on to power.

      • Stephen Harper, according to Stephen Harper, cannot be held accountable for anything he said before the last election campaign.

        Garth Turner learned that right from Stephen and reported it on his blog in the NP. http://www.garth.ca/2009/04/29/me-vs-stephen-harper/

        • Ain’t that the truth. SH is Canada’s first truly post modern politician…there’s a statute of limitation on every word he utters that’s got more than 6 months worth of mold in it.

  11. Next time you write one of these little stories Wells…can you name even one US ally whose relations with the US are better than they were before Obama?


    Maybe *that* should be the point of these stories.

    • Germany, France…pretty much any of Western Europe. Even the Uk really. One guy liking W doesn’t really qualify as good relations does it, even if he was PM.
      Besides he did say they were alike, both obsessed by domestic politics.

  12. As usual, a well written and very witty column. Thank you, Mr Wells.
    I particularly liked the point about Harper priorities these days – a fund raiser for a “private organization raising money for a Canadian monument to the victims of Communism.”
    Harper’s needle is stuck in the cold war groove of the 1950s. In the mine the ores groove of the first half of the 20th century. In his outsider’s fear and loathing of federal institutions.
    Does Harper have any international friends other than Netanyahu?

    • Brent,

      Clearly you haven’t been paying much attention to what Putin has been up to lately.

      (Hint: Georgia, Ukraine…next…?)

      You should actually be greatful you have a PM who understands that Russia never really stopped being a potential threat. Of course, if you think Putin’s just ticked about losing a Hockey game….perhaps you should look to Justin Trudeau for advice.

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