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On July 8, 1905
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IF YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY ... Not all that long ago now President Barack Obama "announced that ... grants will be available for those wishing to do research in renewable energy ... such as wind [and] solar." The next day "German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG said ... it will acquire a 28 per cent stake in Archimede Solar Energy S.p.A. to expand its expertise in solar thermal power plants." Meanwhile, for mere mortals who just want to know more the OpenSolar blog in the San Francisco Bay Area has been expanding its resources for letting you "ask questions about solar technology and get personal answers from experienced solar professionals and installation owners." All this remains one big piece in the big new clean-energy future that lies ahead. You can check it out in depth at ABOUT OPEN SOLAR!

NAFTAGATE — DOES IT MATTER .. and does it all go back to Michael Wilson's private talk with CTV?   PDF  Print 
Written by Citizen X  
Sunday, 09 March 2008  

UPDATED MARCH 27. One reason politics has such a bad name is that it so often defies rational expectations. There may be voodoo economics and non-voodoo economics. But a part of politics is voodoo almost all the time. And this part is frequently exaggerated for better ratings, or to get on radar screens, or bloody the enemy, or whatever it is. Take, e.g., what Canadian and even US journalists have called "NAFTAgate." According to some reports "Barack Obama's senior economic policy adviser privately told Canadian officials to view the debate" over the North American Free Trade Agreement in the March 4 Ohio Democratic primary as "political positioning." These reports were used by rival Hillary Clinton to discredit Obama’s "doublespeak" in the Ohio campaign. Did this have any serious impact on the outcome of the US primary? And should anyone in Ottawa and/or the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC be fired if it did? Both questions have become hot topics in Canadian public debate. But neither makes much sense beyond voodoo politics. In a more rational world we would all just smile and move along. (Unless, conceivably, the latest reports now suggest, your name is Michael Wilson. And your current job is Canadian ambassador to the United States?)


1. "Naftagate" (or "Canadabama"?) — To be or not to be?

Especially in such places as Ohio, where the now longstanding decline of rustbelt manufacturing has led to many job losses, free trade agreements that make it easier to produce in foreign countries for the US market are not popular. In the recent Ohio Democratic primary both final contenders for the party’s presidential nomination strongly criticized this trend, and urged "that we've got to strengthen the core labour and environmental standards in agreements like NAFTA" (i.e. the North American Free Trade Agreement among Canada, Mexico, and the United States).

Some Democrats, however, were apparently also concerned not to unduly worry the brothers and sisters up north (where "Canadians always vote Democratic in American elections," and so forth?). Early media reports in late February even seemed to suggest that Barack Obama’s campaign had actually gone out of its way to get in touch with the Canadian ambassador to the USA, and reassure him that all this was just making political hay in the primary season. An Obama administration in Washington would certainly not be cancelling NAFTA. Mr. Obama did not want his domestic politicking to give the Canadian government the wrong idea about his real attitude towards an agreement that was ultimately good for both countries, etc, etc.

Subsequent investigation showed that the real story was considerably more nuanced and subtle than this. As the Canadian ambassador in Washington made clear, no one from any US campaign had been in touch with him. In fact, the Canadian consulate in Chicago had invited Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor who was also an economic advisor to the Obama campaign, to discuss current trends at a consular meeting. A 1300-word memo on Mr. Goolsbee’s remarks prepared by consular staff appears to have (understandably enough?) somewhat exaggerated his rather brief allusions to Mr. Obama’s NAFTA policy, from a Canadian point of view. As Mr. Obama later explained, Mr. Goolsbee "didn't say anything that I wouldn't have said publicly. Which is that we believe in trade but that we've got to strengthen the core labour and environmental standards in agreements like NAFTA."

As Mr. Obama later explained as well, Mr. Goolsbee’s meeting with the Canadian consulate in Chicago nonetheless "ended up being misreported. Senator Clinton took advantage of it and, you know, labelled it falsely, as if we had somehow flipped on NAFTA. You know, it was clever political tactics on her part, but it just wasn't true."

Moreover, as still later explained by Le Devoir in Montreal: "Le stratège en chef de la campagne de Hillary Clinton, Mark Penn, en a rajouté ... soutenant que la défaite d'Obama en Ohio pourrait avoir été causée par l'intervention du Canada et qu'il s'agit peut-être d'un tournant majeur dans la campagne américaine."

(Or as CBC news reported in Canada’s other official language: "The chief campaign strategist for Obama's Democratic rival ... has acknowledged that the memo was a big factor in Clinton's victory in the Ohio primary ... ‘It had a significant impact,’ Mark Penn said during a conference call with reporters ... ‘I think it is going to be a serious issue moving forward in this campaign. It raised serious questions about Obama.’")

2. How serious has it really been in the USA today?

Reports about Mark Penn notwithstanding, there is much to suggest that Canadian debate on the so-called "NAFTAgate" happening has (understandably again?) tended to exaggerate its real significance in the United States. (It is of course so rare that anyone in the great republic pays any attention at all to anything that happens in Canada, and so forth.)

At the same time, it is not just Mark Penn who has suggested that it did have some impact. A reader from Coralville, Iowa, e.g., wrote to Anne Kornblut’s blog in the Washington Post: "What are you learning about the so-called ‘NAFTAgate’ episode? I've been reading and hearing that this was, in fact, a distortion perpetrated and advanced by operatives within or supportive of the Clinton campaign to discredit Barack Obama just before the Ohio primary." Ms. Kornblut replied: "The Obama campaign certainly feels that the words of his advisor, Austan Goolsbee, were misinterpreted by the Canadian official that he visited with. That official then in turn wrote a memo back to his superiors in Canada saying that Obama's advisor told him the candidate is not as anti-trade as he'd sounded on the campaign trail; that memo was made public right before Ohio, and it did seem to help give Clinton some of the momentum that led to her victory there."

The aging US right-wing columnist Robert Novak has similarly noted that some "trouble began when Canadian CTV television reported Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee had visited Canada's consulate in Chicago to reassure officials there ... Old Democratic hands cringed when both Clinton and Obama in their Cleveland debate blithely advocated the dangerous renegotiation of NAFTA. They were really disturbed by what happened next. Obama denied the Goolsbee mission, then had to back down after a Canadian diplomat's memo confirmed the visit. A longtime Democratic political operative, neutral between Obama and Clinton, told me this was a serious misstep in what he had considered a flawless performance by a political neophyte ... Obama ... lent credence to longtime claims by the Clinton camp that the young challenger would melt under Republican heat."

At the same time again, a correspondent from San Francisco asked Paul Kane of the Washington Post: "Is anyone going to follow up on ... the Globe and Mail regarding the real story on the leak from the Prime Minister's office regarding the Democratic candidates and NAFTA? It appears that a staffer from the Clinton campaign was mentioned and curiously the whole flap got used against Obama. Come on guys, get with it! ... why does no one seem to understand why a conservative prime minister in Canada would want to mess with the election in the States? Duh." Mr. Kane merely replied: "I know many people out there love the intrigue behind the scenes of how a story ever got planted. But, I really don't think this issue over Obama's adviser's comments to a Canadian diplomat caused him to lose the Buckeye State by about 10% ... Obama got thumped in Ohio, plain and simple ... And that Globe and Mail piece was really complicated. Kinda like last week's LOST episode ... Really confusing."

3. What did David Wilkins actually say?

Some of the confusion surrounding NAFTAgate generally, in both Canada and the United States, is reflected in what are apparently two installments of comments on the issue from David Wilkins, the US ambassador to Canada.

In an interview with CBC News in Ottawa, Wilkins was "asked specifically whether there was interference" — whether the Chicago consulate’s "leaked memo" on Mr. Goolsbee’s remarks "amounted to Canadian interference in America's political process." And he replied: "I guess you could say it certainly shouldn't have happened; it was interference ... I think it's obviously a bump in the road but it's not something that's insurmountable, and we move on from it ... But again, I don't think it's something the Canadian government did in an official capacity and I think they've expressed their deep regret."

Subsequently, Mr. Wilkins felt obliged to clarify: "‘I do not see it as intentional interference on behalf of Canada,’ said Wilkins, who dismissed an earlier published report ... that may have implied otherwise. ‘I did not intend to imply that Canada interfered.’"

He carried on: "Wilkins denies saying Canada intentionally interfered in U.S. election ... Wilkins said that even though Canada's profile may have been elevated during this week's key primaries in Ohio and Texas, ‘the U.S. has moved on from this issue’ ... Wilkins said he accepted statements of deep regret issued by the Canadian Embassy in Washington and particularly appreciated Prime Minister Stephen Harper's comments in the Commons that condemned the leak ... ‘This issue, it was inappropriate and I think everyone regrets it happened . . . our relationship is much stronger and much bigger than this one instance and we move on.’"

4. Was Clinton involved too?

As NAFTAgate began to acquire real weight and heft in Canadian public debate, in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s defeats in the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4, the prospect that it was not just Mr. Obama’s camp who had tried to reassure Canadian officialdom about the relative sanctity of NFTA suddenly arose. (As very careful readers of our offerings here might recall, the same prospect is alluded to in the comments from Paul Kane’s San Francisco correspondent in the Washington Post blog noted in item 2 above.)

On March 6 no less august a presence in the global village than the Times of London was reporting that: "Just days after Hillary Clinton seized upon reports that the Obama camp privately told Canadian officials their hardline on the North American Free Trade Agreement was only for political show, a report has emerged suggesting Clinton herself might have been playing a similar game ... Both candidates worried officials in Canada with their protectionist rhetoric during the primary campaign in Ohio ... But the Canadian Globe and Mail reported today that it was in fact a remark about Clinton's campaign, not Obama's, that triggered the furore."

Had this been true, it would of course have been very remarkable indeed. The Clinton campaign was slanging the Obama campaign for sins it had committed itself. Talk about the pot calling the kettle etc, etc! The Clinton camp, however, unfortunately denied the story almost as soon as it appeared. "We flatly deny this report," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. "It didn’t happen."

By the afternoon of Friday, March 7 the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa was supporting Mr. Singer’s flat denial: "Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton never gave Canada any secret assurances about the future of NAFTA such as those allegedly offered by Barack Obama's campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office said ... After being asked whether Canadian officials asked for — or received — any briefings from a Clinton campaign representative outlining her plans on NAFTA, a spokeswoman for the prime minister offered a response ... ‘The answer is no, they did not,’ said Harper spokeswoman Sandra Buckler ... That response will come as a relief to the Clinton campaign, which has angrily denied that it has engaged in the kind of double-talking hypocrisy of which it accuses Obama."

5. But was Ian Brodie in PMO the first big leak anyway — and should he be fired?

Despite (and no doubt partly because of) much rhetoric about how NAFTAgate was ultimately the work of "a Republican farm team in Canada ... trying to kill another liberal" in North America, by the end of the week of March 3–7 Conservative minority Prime Minister Harper had vowed to investigate this "unacceptable act" in depth (and breadth). The notion that some kind of diplomatic security in Canada-US relations had been breached on Canada’s side, and some heads ought to roll in Ottawa as a result, was starting to gain credence in various quarters.

One obvious question was who had leaked the Canadian consulate in Chicago’s memo about the Goolsbee meeting? But this memo was apparently rather widely circulated inside the Canadian federal government (as such things often are, especially if they contain as much interesting intelligence as the Goolsbee meeting memo seemed to). Trying to find just who among many possible candidates passed the thing along to the press (the Associated Press in particular, apparently) is bound to be like looking for the proverbial needle, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, the Canadian media have now remembered that even before the leak of the memo, interest in NAFTAgate generally had begun with some remarks by Prime Minister Harper’s chief of staff Ian Brodie, a 40-year-old former political science professor at the University of Western Ontario. As the Times of London explained to interested international readers on March 6: "the Canadian Globe and Mail reported today that ... the basis for the story was an offhand comment made by Ian Brodie, chief of staff to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to CTV journalists during the media lock-up for the country's February 26 budget ...

"Apparently attempting to play down the impact of the [US Democratic primary] candidates' campaign promises [about NAFTA], Brodie told reporters that the threat was not a serious one, adding that someone from Clinton's campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA rhetoric was mostly political posturing ... It quoted an unnamed source as saying that several people overheard the remark. ... The source was quoted as saying that Mr. Brodie said that someone from Ms. Clinton's campaign called and was ‘telling the embassy to take it with a grain of salt.’"

As already noted above, the part about the Clinton campaign in this story had proved incorrect by the March 8–9 weekend. It still seems to be accepted by many, however, that the trail which finally leads to the leak of the Chicago consulate memo about its visit with Mr. Goolsbee from the Obama campaign somehow starts with the (in retrospect perhaps rather imprudent) remarks by Ian Brodie in Prime Minister Harper’s own office.

I.e., it is not too difficult to surmise that Mr. Brodie had glanced at a copy of the Goolsbee memo someone had passed along to the PMO in the midst of a busy day, and then subsequently remembered some of the details incorrectly. Who among us has not done similar things at some point? Then, when the issue started to bubble in the midst of the Ohio primary campaign down south, some other thoughtful person leaked the Goolsbee memo that Mr. Brodie had not quite recalled correctly to the Associated Press. And then everything started to hit the fan much more seriously. And now the question has become: should Ian Brodie be fired?

YES HE SHOULD BE FIRED! On the side that he should be are many Ottawa memories about how a former Jean Chrétien Liberal communications director, Françoise Ducros, was fired in 2002 when she "opined to reporters" (in confidence, she thought?) that US President George W. Bush was "a moron." (In fact, technically she resigned under pressure, as Chantal Hebert has reminded us on CBC TV.)

As even Don Martin of the Calgary Herald and other Conservative-friendly publications has noted, when "Francie Ducros ... was overheard saying ‘what a moron’ to describe US President George W. Bush," she "may have been prescient, as it turns out, but that one casually slipped phrase had Opposition leaders, including Harper, demanding her scalp as the price for triggering an international incident ...

"‘We witnessed the insult that was heard around the world,’ Harper yelped at the time ... except for Ducros' dismissal, it's eerily similar to today's scenario. And you could argue Brodie's alleged observation that Obama's opposition to elements of NAFTA was primary-election positioning and unlikely to become presidential policy, is much more dangerous than the backlash to Ducros."

(Or as Peter Donolo, another former Chrétien communications director has put it: "I can't see how this is sustainable in terms of Ian Brodie sticking around. This has caused an international incident ... This is serious stuff.")

NO HE SHOULDN’T BE FIRED! On the side that firing Mr. Brodie would be excessive and over-reacting are an assortment of more here-and-now arguments, starting with the plain enough fact that Barack Obama is at least not yet a President of the United States. It is arguably Ms. Clinton’s over-aggressive campaign (and perhaps John McCain’s too?), and not any Canadian government official, that has done most to dirty the diplomatic laundry. Mr. Brodie has at least not yet been definitively fingered as the person who actually "leaked" the Chicago consulate’s Goolsbee memo to the Associated Press. And who can really remember exactly what he said during the February 26 budget lock-up? (Including Mr. Brodie himself?)

Moreover, e.g., "Senator Hugh Segal, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney," has "defended Brodie, saying the senior aide was only stating a well-known fact that tough talk on NAFTA is rarely followed up because of the importance of the trade relationship. ‘I think it's an unfair targeting of a guy who is just trying to do his job,’ Segal said."

It is similarly not altogether clear that what has happened in "NAFTAgate" or "Canadabama" seriously qualifies as "an international incident" of truly great import. As the US ambassador has said, "even though Canada's profile may have been elevated during this week's key primaries in Ohio and Texas, ‘the US has moved on from this issue.’"

And then again, many of us would feel compelled to argue, professionally as it were, that none of this is finally important in either the USA or Canada today, beyond the never really serious universe of voodoo politics. Rationally, e.g., there are certainly many in Canada who would agree with Mr. Obama "that we've got to strengthen the core labour and environmental standards in agreements like NAFTA." And in any such process the US and Canada would quite logically be on one side, and Mexico (or beyond NAFTA countries like China or India, etc, etc) would be on the other side. As a practical matter, there is no serious policy difference here between the United States and Canada (at least as far as labour and environmental standards go). So why is anyone even bothering to debate the issue at all?

6. Coda: Is Barack Obama a closet Canadian republican (and/or does he even know what street Canada is on)?

Another American with a Chicago background, Al Capone, is still famous in some Canadian circles for his memorable remark from an earlier era: "I don’t even know what street Canada is on." If you dig deep enough into the Internets on "NAFTAgate" you may bump into a vaguely parallel remark by Barack Obama back last summer, when he first started test driving the kind of broad policy directions on NAFTA that got him into some almost certainly undeserved hot water during the campaign for the March 4, 2008 Ohio primary.

At any rate, on August 13, 2007 "veteran foreign and national correspondent"(and former press secretary for Laura Bush) Andrew Malcolm wrote about Barack Obama in his blog for the Los Angeles Times : At a "Chicago gathering before an Obama-friendly hometown crowd, the subject turned to trade in general and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular, which bothers union members fearing job losses. Obama said upon becoming president, ‘I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada, to try to amend NAFTA, because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now.’ Problem is, as some Harvard graduates might know, our next-door neighbor Canada doesn't have a president. For more than 140 years now it has had a parliamentary system ..."

Or, in Canada of course we don’t (yet) have a president. We have a prime minister. In the not too distant future we may very well acquire a president too, when we bid a last farewell to the British monarchy in this country — and replace it with a democratically reformed office of governor general as official head of state, renamed president, as in, e.g., such other present-day former self-governing British dominions as the Republic of India, or the Republic of Ireland.

It may be that when he referred to the president of Canada last summer Mr. Obama was just trying to hurry this future more democratic evolution of Canada along. (Though if so it would still be the prime minister he would want to talk to about trade policy.) More likely he was just making the same kind of slip of the tongue that prompted Ms. Clinton to stumble over the name of the new president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, in the most recent Clinton-Obama TV debate.

The ultimate point is just that among such very close friends and neighbours as the United States and Canada, such mistakes do happen from time to time. No one plans them, or means any particular harm by them. They just happen because the world is not perfect, and so forth, on and on. Very few if any of Mr. Obama’s fervent admirers in Canada today (among whom I should confess I would number myself) are really at all upset that he mistakenly alluded to the president of Canada last summer — or feel at all aggrieved by the event.

It seems likely enough too that Barack Obama is not really all that upset by Canada’s role in the so-called NAFTAgate in the depths of this very snowy northern North American winter (shared as much by Ohio as neighbouring Ontario across the lake it seems, e.g.). It was, on the other hand, very decent of Austan Goolsbee to politely respond to the Canadian consulate in Chicago’s invitation to speak to them about various current trends, including Mr. Obama’s views on NAFTA, which certainly are shared by many Canadians too, no doubt. And it is quite regrettable that Mr. Goolsbee landed in so much voodoo political hot water, because someone in Canada stupidly leaked a rather inept junior staff memo about exactly what he said to the Associated Press. It is reassuring about all of Mr. Obama, future Canada–US diplomatic relations, and the state of the universe generally these days to read that "Obama has said he will not fire his economic adviser, who reportedly gave the NAFTA assurance to a Canadian diplomat in the Chicago consulate." That may be the most sensible thing that has happened in this entire story.

UPDATE MARCH 12 — Canadian Ambassador to US Michael Wilson seems more involved than he at first let on? The Globe and Mail has reported that: "Michael Wilson should step down as Canada's ambassador to Washington while the leaks that damaged Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign are investigated, opposition parties said Tuesday [March 11], as scrutiny moved from one of Stephen Harper's top aides to one of his high-profile political appointees ...

"Mr. Wilson has now publicly acknowledged that he spoke to the CTV reporter who first reported the leaks before the story aired, but refused to discuss what was said ... The Liberals say it now appears that Mr. Wilson, who was finance minister under former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, took part in political leaks that damaged a Democratic contender — and he cannot continue as Canada's chief representative in the United States until his role has been investigated."

To quickly revisit earlier reports on this side of the story, according to a February 28 Associated Press article, "Canadian television network CTV cited anonymous sources who said a senior Obama adviser called Canadian ambassador Michael Wilson within the last month to warn him that Obama would criticize the agreement, but it was just the typical words uttered on the campaign trail." However, in a subsequent "statement, the Canadian Embassy disputed the television story: ‘The Canadian Embassy confirms that at no time has any member of a presidential campaign called the Canadian Ambassador or any official at the Embassy to discuss NAFTA. Last night, the Canadian television network CTV falsely reported that such calls had been made. That story is untrue. Neither before nor since the Ohio debate has any presidential campaign called Ambassador Wilson or the embassy to raise NAFTA’."

While this statement apparently remains true as far as it goes, there would now seem to be some additional aspects of the situation that the Embassy did not make clear. Ambassador Wilson, e.g., may have alluded in some way to intelligence in the Chicago consulate memo on Austan Goolsbee’s remarks — in response to questions from CTV reporter Tom Clark. (According to the latest Globe and Mail story: "Mr. Wilson has now publicly acknowledged that he spoke to Mr. Clark before the report aired, although he said what they discussed is private.")

It still seems to me that Professor Goolsbee’s visit to the Canadian consulate in Chicago (different from the embassy in Washington, of course) has led to much more confusion (and "voodoo politics") than would be strictly necessary in an altogether rational world (which we of course do not actually live in, being flawed human beings, etc, etc — you can blame it all on Eve, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition). But there can equally be no doubt that "NAFTAgate" is hanging on somewhat, even in the USA. A March 10 report by Domenico Montanaro on the MSNBC website, e.g., discusses how Senator Obama himself was still spinning on the raw facts in his campaign for the March 11 Mississippi primary (which he has now quite handily won). Mr. Montanaro has concluded that: "To date questions about the details of the Goolsbee meeting have yet to be answered, including why Goolsbee went, when and what he told the campaign of the meeting before senior members spoke to the press."

Meanwhile, back in the true north, a March 11 report in the Toronto Star, has also further clarified Ambassador Michael Wilson’s involvement in the whole affair — and the prospect that he may now be the ultimate fall guy in Canada, if such a thing proves altogether necessary, in terms of the local voodoo politics up here: "[Tom] Clark says he was merely seeking confirmation of his story from Wilson. CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson, in introducing Clark's piece the night after the Cleveland debate in which both candidates threatened to withdraw from the pact unless it was renegotiated, focused on Obama and played down the Clinton angle ... ‘A revelation tonight involving the increasingly tight fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S. and how the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, has become a moving target,’' Robertson said. ‘CTV News has learned that campaign officials for Barack Obama told Canada not to worry about criticism of NAFTA, it's only politics’ ... Should any link to Wilson and the CTV story ever be established, the former Conservative cabinet minister would have been guilty of gravely hurting himself here where he is expected to keep political discussions with U.S. legislators private."

UPDATE MARCH 27 — Top civil servant's review will be made public. The Globe and Mail reported today that: "The federal government's top civil servant has pledged to make public the results of an investigation into Canadian leaks that damaged the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Barack Obama.

"Prime Minister Stephen Harper handed responsibility for an internal inquiry to Kevin Lynch, the Clerk of the Privy Council, after it emerged that his chief of staff, Ian Brodie, sparked the so-called "NAFTA-gate" affair in a conversation with reporters from CTV News.

"Mr. Lynch pledged in a letter to Liberal MP Navdeep Bains that the results of the internal probe will be made public, and will include the 'verbal' leaks --- not only the later leak of a diplomatic memo.

"Mr. Bains said he is encouraged by the assurances, but added that Mr. Brodie and Michael Wilson, the ambassador to Washington, should still step aside until the probe is completed."

NOTE: The photo at the very start of this article is from "NAFTA Initialing Ceremony, October 1992. From left to right (standing) President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, President George H. W. Bush, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. (Seated) Jaime Serra Puche, Carla Hills, Michael Wilson." (The same Michael Wilson referred to above, who was then Brian Mulroney’s Minister of International Trade, having earlier also served as Minister of Finance, and is now Stephen Harper’s Canadian Ambassador to the United States. What goes around comes around, etc, etc.)


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