How Gary Doer won over America while disputing that Obama lost Canada

WASHINGTON – It’s noon on a typically steamy August day in the U.S. capital, and Gary Doer strides into a Capitol Hill restaurant looking every inch the man who’s “living the dream” – an expression he often uses gleefully to describe his job as Canada’s ambassador.

Tanned from a break at his Lake of the Woods cottage and wearing a crisp white shirt, blue tie and blue pin-striped suit, Doer’s definition of “the dream” might be open to debate since he’s held the post during an especially tumultuous period of contemporary American politics.

But Doer, now heading into his fourth year on the job, says he feels privileged to be sitting in a front-row seat for the action, as well as actively participating by ensuring Canada gets some attention amid the din of domestic, partisan brawling that’s emanated from Capitol Hill over the past four years.

“It’s been a thrill being here,” Doer, 64, says sincerely, flashing his trademark high-voltage smile.

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Since the moment Doer stepped off the plane to begin his stint in October 2009, the former Manitoba premier has been cheerfully fending off U.S. protectionism and promoting Canadian interests, particularly Trans-Canada’s Keystone XL pipeline, to an administration some believe is unfriendly to Canada.

A recent article in the online edition of the Foreign Affairs periodical by Derek Burney and a Carleton University foreign policy expert caused a stir in diplomatic circles. The former Canadian envoy to the U.S. cited a litany of alleged snubs and wrongs towards Canada by U.S. President Barack Obama.

“You know, those words are subjective,” Doer says of Burney’s piece as he eschews the fancy fare at the swank Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant and tucks into a hamburger and fries instead, carefully removing the lettuce leaves from atop the beef patty to get down to culinary brass tacks.

Doer says he and his staff at the Canadian embassy are successfully working through an extensive “to-do list” for 2012 that includes everything from getting Canada into the Trans-Pacific Partnership to agreements on energy and the environment.

“Our to-do list is getting done. Is it a perfect relationship? No. I hear Americans complain about what we may or may not do, and I hear it the other way …. But subjective, good/bad, friendly/unfriendly, frowning/smiling, all that stuff – I don’t waste time on that.”

Far from being snubbed or ignored by the administration, Doer adds, quite the opposite has been true. The Canadian embassy has the ear of top administration officials on various issues while Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have a solid connection.

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“They have a very professional relationship, which is very important,” he said.

One Canada-U.S. expert credits Doer with helping to cultivate that relationship, even as Canadian officials were blindsided in January when Obama rejected Calgary-based TransCanada’s permit until after the presidential election and another State Department environmental analysis.

“That’s the minor miracle of Gary Doer,” says Chris Sands of the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

“He’s been able to convey the message that Canada understands the U.S., and the political challenges facing this administration, while also promoting Canadian interests. It’s all the more striking because he’s working for a conservative government that is not making any secret about its conservatism on the international stage.”

The Keystone decision – the only item on the to-do list currently stalled, Doer notes – could have created a major rift between Obama and Harper, Sands points out.

“You have to imagine that Harper was livid about Keystone, and what a minefield for Doer. I am sure Harper’s natural instinct would have been to blow up, and yet I think with Doer’s input, Harper navigated that whole issue without a breach in the relationship.”

From a Canadian business perspective, says a stakeholder, the personable, unflappable Doer couldn’t be a more effective representative.

“I’ve never heard a negative word from any of my U.S. colleagues about him,” says Birgit Matthiesen, the well-connected, D.C.-based lobbyist for the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters organization.

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“He’s not just charming, he understands the politics down here. He really knows the issues. He came into D.C. and pretty much understood the way things work and took advantage of his Rolodex quickly, and that’s a valued commodity in D.C. It’s not a city for lightweights.”

Doer has indeed become well-known in the U.S. capital for his ability to work a room, win over American strangers and handle the unexpected with aplomb. One U.S. businessman asked a reporter after watching Doer deliver a funny speech: “Why isn’t this guy your prime minister?”

“He gets out on the speaking circuit, he speaks to schools, he speaks to all sorts of groups, he goes out and talks to governors, he knows cabinet secretaries and people in Congress,” Sands says.

Sands recalls being in the audience at a Canada-U.S. conference when Doer was interrupted by environmentalists who derided Alberta’s oilsands amid the tense national debate about Keystone.

“He was utterly unflustered and made a joke about it, but was also very respectful as he defended the oilsands and pointed out that Canada was about a lot more than the oilsands, bringing up Canadian clean energy technologies. It was deft,” he says.

So what’s next for Doer? The ambassador insists he’s not going anywhere any time soon, but the election of a Republican president could prompt Harper to ponder whether he wants a conservative envoy, and not a former NDP premier, on the ground in the U.S. capital.

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“My statute of limitations is the to-do list – I’m not a lifer but I’m here for awhile. I’ve still got items on my to-do list,” Doer says as he finishes off his burger.

No matter who wins in November, Doer adds, there will be changes that will impact the Canada-U.S. relationship and will keep him on his toes following the election.

There would be a new secretary of state under Obama – Hillary Clinton says she no longer wants the job – and the State Department is essentially determining the fate of Keystone XL since it crosses an international border. Mitt Romney, meantime, has vowed to approve Keystone almost immediately if elected.

Sands predicts Doer would excel under a Romney presidency too.

“The great thing about the way Doer has conducted himself here is that he wouldn’t have to be replaced. He hasn’t burned any bridges with Republicans, and he could easily navigate a Republican administration,” he says.

Matthiesen agrees.

“I am not sure that the Ottawa-Washington relationship has been that easy lately, but he’s been the right person in the right place. He has really assisted the relationship, and could continue to do so with ease.”

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