WASHINGTON — A pair of former American ambassadors to Canada have criticized what they call unhelpful and counter-productive remarks from U.S. President Donald Trump about the northern neighbour.
Barack Obama's last envoy to Ottawa said publicly wailing about grievances actually makes it harder to resolve all the inevitable, routine trade irritants that pop up in a C$841-billion annual bilateral relationship.
Bruce Heyman said the risk of taking public pot-shots is a tit-for-tat scenario: the other side feels a need to respond and then there's a counter-response and an escalation thereafter, so that countries are settling scores rather than solving problems.
"Words matter. Words matter diplomatically. Words matter with leaders. And I think the words that have been used have been unfortunate and have not been constructive,'' Bruce Heyman told a panel in Detroit, organized Tuesday by the Council of the Great Lakes Region.
''I think if we're going to try to get things done . . . I think we would probably be better off using a different tone and style."
Heyman worked on some of the same issues Trump is complaining about — softwood lumber and dairy. But unlike Trump, the former Obama administration raised its complaints discreetly, in private primarily, just alluding to them in public and seeking to keep the dialogue positive.
By way of comparison, on Tuesday alone, Trump raised his complaints about Canada, twice, without being asked, in public remarks and in a tweet where he threatened reprisals over ultra-filtered milk regulations.
''We will not stand for this,'' Trump wrote. ''Watch!''
A former Bill Clinton ambassador agreed.
In fact, James Blanchard put it more bluntly. ''It's goofy stuff, unbecoming of our relationship and frankly unbecoming of the leader of our country," said Blanchard, a Michigan governor before heading to Ottawa in the 1990s.
He said a lumber dispute makes it harder to renegotiate NAFTA.
His advice to Canada, when confronted by fiery presidential language, is to keep cool. "I don't even think the president knows what he wants to do here. He just likes to negotiate and bully a little bit. Canada just needs not to overreact.''
That was the same advice offered by several actors Tuesday. The former ambassadors, the Canada-U.S. Business Council lobby group and Brett Bruen, Obama's former White House public-diplomacy director, all said the Canadian government should meet the complaints with calm.
Heyman offered a series of more detailed policy recommendations on Canada-U.S. relations in a broader speech to the conference. He called Trump's meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau his best day as president and suggested following that up with:
—The U.S. learning from Canada's public-private infrastructure funding and work on joint border-construction projects.
—The countries investing in defence in the Arctic and cyber defence.
—Ivanka Trump pushing the administration to study Canada's maternal leave program.
—Maintaining funding for Great Lakes cleanup, which Trump has threatened to slash.
—Having the U.S. formally celebrate Canada's 150th Birthday.
Heyman said he kept working as ambassador after the election, calling members of Congress to bring Canada-U.S. customs preclearance up for a vote. In that busy, lame-duck session, he said it was hard to get them on the phone — so he started telling their offices it was a security issue and, suddenly, people responded immediately.
The preclearance bill passed.
Heyman said he offered to stay on as ambassador as the new administration searched for a replacement and also offered to brief the new team on Canada-U.S. issues: ''They haven't accepted that offer yet, but that offer still stands.''
The next U.S. ambassador has yet to be nominated.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government appears to be following the advice to keep cool. Instead of sniping back, it's been working on building alliances.
One example of an ally, on softwood lumber, is the National Association of Home Builders. It has complained about a $3,000 price hike in housing related to wood tariffs. It's probably no accident that some in government have begun referring to ''softwood lumber'' as ''home lumber.''
Federal ministers are now fanning out across the U.S., meeting people who benefit from Canadian trade.
The latest was Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who spoke at the same Detroit conference as the ex-ambassadors. He also spoke about his ongoing efforts with American colleagues to co-operate on regulations, in an effort to trim product costs.
Brison used a hockey analogy for that bilateral co-operation, one built upon the Detroit legend whose name will soon adorn a binational bridge, funded by Canada.
''A Gordie Howe hat trick is a goal, an assist and a fight. It's a bit like the Canada-U.S. trade relationship. . . . The fights only last about five minutes. So let's keep our sticks on the ice,'' Brison said in an interview.
''Let's put some pucks on the net in areas where there's absolute agreement.''
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press