By Roxana Tiron - 03/01/06 12:00 AM EST
The Canadian government is ramping up its lobbying on Capitol Hill to reverse a years-long cooling in lawmakers’ attitudes toward America’s northern neighbor.
Since September alone, Colin Robertson, head of the Canadian Embassy’s Washington advocacy secretariat, and his team have visited 80 congressional offices. Since the secretariat’s creation a year and a half ago, the team has knocked on 250 congressional doors.
What they are up against includes American indifference and an apparent Canadian anti-Americanism encapsulated recently by a Liberal member of Parliament, Carolyn Parrish, stomping on a George Bush doll on TV.
At a time when lobbying Congress is under scrutiny as rarely before, Ottawa is not holding back. Armed with maps, statistics and sophisticated computer programs, Robertson is trying to raise awareness about Canada and how intertwined the U.S and Canadian economies are.
“When you ask, ‘What does America think of Canada?’ well the short answer is, they don’t,” Robertson said. His goal is to make Canada one of the 10 most effective lobbying entities on the Hill.
“There are 33,000 lobbyists who work the Hill,” he said. “The congressmen and senators … look at us as just another lobbyist. That is in a sense what I want to achieve — that we are just seen as representing an important interest from America’s perspective.”
Robertson says lobbyists cannot be effective unless they knock on doors every day. For that to happen, the embassy has had to cozy up the lawmakers’ schedulers for access.
The embassy throws parties for the schedulers. “We give them a first-class reception. We do this now a couple of times a year,” Robertson said.
Raising Canada’s profile could be more critical than ever this year. Even though the secretariat’s flag word is “awareness,” in the end it boils down to interests.
“We should be the best because we have the greatest interest,” Robertson said. Half of Canada’s gross domestic product depends on trade with the United States, he said.
So the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which if enacted would require Canadians to have passports to come south, tops Canada’s hit list on the Hill.
The legislation’s backers see it as strengthening border security because it would mean that anyone, including U.S. citizens, would need passports to enter or re-enter the United States.
“Trade depends on getting across the border easily,” Robertson said. “We do not say do not do it, but if you do, make sure that it is applied in such a way that it is not going to damage our joint economy.”
Several lawmakers from border states are trying to change the initiative, which would take effect later this year. Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) and 40 other members of Congress are urging the State and Homeland Security departments to allow alternative travel documents at border crossings.
The Canadians worry that tourism will be hit because only 40 percent of Canadians and 30 percent of Americans hold passports, Robertson said.
Robertson contacts lawmakers and tries to show them how much trade their districts do with Canada. He also makes sure they appreciate the level of Canadian investment in their districts; he gives them a list of Canadian-owned companies.
“Canada is the single biggest investor in the United States. Most people do not know that,” Robertson said. “Last year we were at $40 billion and the whole European Union was at 42 billion.”
In Virginia’s 11th District, represented by Republican Tom Davis, 14 Canadian companies employ 394 people. In Virginia as a whole, 264 Canadian-owned companies employ 6,971 people.
“I do not have money, and I do not have votes,” Robertson said. But he can talk money, jobs and investments. “Then they pay attention to me because I am talking something that they understand,” he added.
Meanwhile, a group of House members have created the Friends of Canada Caucus, which is also planning to tackle the new travel rules. Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) has been the driving force because Myrtle Beach, in his district, is a top U.S. destination for Canadians. Reps. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine) are also founding members of the caucus.
While the travel initiative will keep Canada busy this year, another issue looming large is the long-running dispute over softwood lumber exports. Canada wants Washington to abide by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), remove tariffs from lumber imports and refund billions of dollars in what Canada says are illegally charged duties.
Canada’s lobbyists are also playing up the nation’s role as a major supplier of energy to the United States. “Not only are we the biggest supplier of electricity, uranium and natural gas but also oil. It is not the Saudis; it is Canada,” said Robertson.
“We want to show we are a key ally,” he added. The biggest oil supplies in the world are in Alberta and Saskatchewan, he said, adding, “Don’t go to the Middle East; come to the Middle West.”
The Middle East, in particular Iraq, has soured relations between the two countries. Canadian jabs at the Bush administration and the president himself got wide play in the U.S media. The political rift between the two nations is deep-seated.
Under then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Ottawa’s ambassador expressed hope in 2000 that Vice President Al Gore would defeat Bush. Ottawa also refused to support the war in Iraq and “botched” its reasons for doing so, said Douglas Goold, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in Toronto.
Now, before the Canadian lobbyists discuss any other issue with lawmakers, they make a pitch on security. That is the job for Lt. Col. Jamie Robertson (no relation), the embassy’s counsel for military media affairs. For that, the advocacy team has been targeting the House and Senate Armed Services committees in the past several weeks.
“There is a lack of awareness in terms of what Canada is doing,” Lt. Col. Robertson said. “What I do is give them an overview of exactly what Canada has done in the war on terrorism.” Canada has committed 2,200 troops in Afghanistan and is taking over the command of the provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar. Canada also donated $300 million to Iraqi reconstruction efforts.
In addition, Lt. Col. Robertson briefs lawmakers on what Canada says is a radical transformation of the military (Canada established four new commands) and increase in the defense budget.
The election of Conservative Stephen Harper as prime minister in January and the arrival in Washington of Michael Wilson, Canada’s temperate new ambassador, may help produce a measure of rapprochement, the embassy hopes.
The Harper administration is more “in keeping” with what the United States wants, Goold said.